By Chrissy Hart, Senior Advisor, Together for Girls
By Chrissy Hart, Senior Advisor, Together for Girls
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in massive ongoing disruptions for children, globally. Education plays a critical role in peace and development and now, more than ever, communities need schools to be safe, caring spaces for transformative social norms change.
But in rebuilding from the pandemic we have a unique opportunity to create better schools and transform education systems, ensuring that every student is safe from the virus and from violence.
To learn more and in commemoration of World Education Day (January 24), we spoke with Yona Nestel and Olanike Timipa-Uge. Yona Nestel is the Plan International Inclusive Quality Education Hub Lead and Policy & Advocacy Lead. Yona is global public education and gender equality advocate and expert who believes in the power of education to challenge and dismantle systems of oppression. Through her work at Plan International and as a board member of the Global Partnership for Education representing northern civil society, Yona helps turn rhetoric on the transformative power of education into action and impact.
Olanike is a youth activist with the UNGEI Transform Education initiative, a feminist coalition of youth-led networks and young activists with a shared mission to accelerate progress for gender equality in education. Olanike is the Executive Director of the Teenage Network in Abuja, Nigeria. The organization works to provide access to quality education and health for young people, including programs facilitating the return of out-of-school teenage mothers to schools, complementing classroom lessons with life skills for teenagers and incorporating Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in school curriculum.
Read on as Yona and Olanike share their insights, and join the conversation on social: #EducationShiftsPower
YONA: The challenges have been complex and multifaceted. First and foremost COVID-19’s impact on girls’ education, including prolonged school closures in many parts of the world and disruptions in learning, have exacerbated existing inequalities.
Girls living in poverty and living in remote locations, girls with disabilities and girls doubly impacted by COVID and conflict became even more marginalized and excluded from accessing educational opportunities.
In many of the communities Plan works families did not have the means or capacity to support girls with remote learning, particularly if it involved digital connectivity or inaccessible technology. Couple this with the impacts of the pandemic on household income and we saw a marked rise in Child, Early and Forced Unions & Marriages (CEFUM), early an unintended pregnancy, and an increase in exploitatiative and harmful practices.
In Indonesia, a country that had made significant progress in elimnating CEFUM over the last decade, 18 provinces reported that the rate of child marriage increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing both school closures and ecomonic hardship as key factors to the rise.
For girls who have had access to digital connectivity we saw increased reports of online harassment, abuse and exploitation and many reported feeling mental distress from an unsafe online environment, social isolation and lack of access to resources and support.
We are concerned that many girls will not return to school once they are open and that hard-fought progress we’ve made in girls’ education and gender equality more broadly will be eroded.
OLANIKE: The onset of the pandemic shifted the priorities of Teenage Network. Initially, we provided comprehensive sexuality education and life skill learning for adolescent girls in the classroom. At present we now focus on reintegrating adolescent mothers into school and changing harmful socio-cultural norms that promote violence against adolescent girls in communities.
The six-month Covid-19 school lockdown in Nigeria created a major setback for our work. A direct result of the lockdown saw a significant number of parents refusing to send their daughters to school. Girls were forced into labor, predisposing them to sexual violence, which resulted in unwanted pregnancy for several girls or child marriage which was done in exchange for money.
Teenage Network is facilitating the return of girls who dropped out of school during the Covid-19 pandemic as a result of pregnancy. We have secured the commitment of the Federal Capital Territory Secondary Education Board to readmit adolescent mothers. We leveraged the traditional media and paid one-on-one advocacy visits to parents of out-of-school adolescent mothers to mobilize support for the return of the girls to school. Our first batch of adolescent mothers is scheduled to resume this month. To aid smooth reintegration, Teenage Network is supporting adolescent mothers with free remedial courses and learning materials. We are also building the capacity of school counselors to support the healing process of the girls and to prevent stigmatization within the schools.
In addition, Teenage Network is working with two rural communities in Nigeria to change harmful socio-cultural norms and practices that exacerbate violence against adolescent girls. Teenage Network is working with the council of Elders, Women group, Men group and building the capacity of adolescent girls to challenge harmful socio-cultural norms and practices. One of the harmful practices identified in these communities is breast ironing, done to “reduce girls’ vulnerability to gender-based violence”. We are changing the narrative by empowering community members to hold perpetrators accountable rather than inflicting pain on survivors.
YONA: We’ve seen great adaptations and pivots in many of our education programs to support girls impacted by COVID-19. Many of the adaptations have come from our experience working in crisis context and our long-standing expertise in education in emergencies.
In Sierra Leone, for example, a country that was gravely impacted by the Ebola crisis, we built on our low-tech radio learning program and ensured community mobilization as well as radio lessons promoted gender equality and girls’ rights.
Similarly in Ghana, we worked together with the Ministry of Education to ensure remote learning could take place via television lessons that consciously addressed gender bias and stereotypes and promoted gender equality.
In Colombia, we used WhatsApp to deliver lessons and provide tutoring support for girls living in remote locations and in Burkina Faso and Mali we will utilize accelerated learning modalities to ensure girls are able to catch up on missed learning and more easily return to formal schooling.
It’s important that delivery of education is adaptable and multi-modal, meaning it can easily move between traditional classrooms to accessible remote learning options for girls – all the while promoting gender equality and challenging harmful gender norms and stereotypes.
OLANIKE: Currently, the biggest needs of adolescent girls in the Covid-19 pandemic are accessing learning resources and sexual and reproductive health services. A significant number of adolescent girls in Nigeria were unable to receive an education during the COVID-19 school lockdown because they lacked access to digital learning devices. Although there were affordable radio school programs, adolescent girls were unable to engage in it effectively, because they were forced to work.. 80% of the adolescent girls, we worked with at Teenage Network were engaged in some form of child labor from Monday to Friday, weekly.
In addition, the pandemic intensified period poverty among adolescent girls. Family income was reduced during the pandemic, forcing parents to purchase food rather than sanitary towels for girls. Many girls seek alternative and unhygienic methods of managing menstruation. Adolescent girls became more vulnerable to violence without frequent access to gender-based violence services due to the. restrictions.
Although Teenage Network provided sanitary kits for adolescent girls in rural communities in Nigeria and organized school in my community programs during this period, we believe that the needs of girls were not effectively addressed during the pandemic. The government and international organizations must prioritize and provide suitable financing to adequately cater to the needs of girls.
OLANIKE: Our priority ask from policymakers is to bridge the learning gap created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Through returning girls who dropped out of school, ensuring digital equality and strengthening school systems to prevent violence and to provide needed intervention for survivors.
Millions of girls have had to drop out of school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a major setback for the Sustainable Development Goals. Therefore, any COVID-19 recovery plan that does not address the educational and safety needs of girls is not holistic and acceptable. As social change leaders, we must actively engage and hold policymakers accountable.
YONA: First and foremost is to listen to girls! Include girls and young women whose education and safety has been impacted by COVID-19 in policy dialogue and decision making. Too many decisions about girls’ lives get made by men who don’t fully understand what girls need to thrive.
Also hugely important is financing. I’m very concerned about current funding trends and austerity measures taken by governments in their COVID-19 recovery plans, which seem to cut education and other social services first. Cuts to public social services hurt girls and women the most and we cannot have a just recovery without proper investment.
Lastly, would be to ensure we not only transform education delivery in order to make quality learning more accessible for all during times of disruption (COVID-19 won’t be the first or last global crisis – think climate crisis!), but to also take this critical opportunity to transform and decolonize our curriculum, pedagogies and textbooks.
Education has a huge potential to transform patriarchal beliefs and harmful gender norms that perpetuate violence and harmful practices. Gender Transformative Education can and should be the new norm as we build back equal.
Thank you to Olanike and Yona! We are grateful for your insightful perspectives and all of your hard work to transform education systems.
Together for Girls has conducted secondary analyses of the Violence Against Children & Youth Surveys. The goal of this work has been to understand the prevalence, consequences, and gender-specific experiences of violence in and around schools.
In COVID-19 and the Opportunity to Build Safer Learning Environments, we present our research, recommendations and resources for understanding school violence, its gendered characteristics, and tools and solutions for creating safer school environments.
Join the conversation this World Education Day: #EducationShiftsPower