The Past, Present, and Future: Transforming Girls’ Education Amidst COVID-19

Source: ONE Campaign

A 13 year old girl walked home from a makeshift tent that she called her school. Upon entering home, she was beaten for her attempts to attend school and was married against her will two months later. On the other corner of the world, a 17 year old girl came home after a full day at her elite private school. As she entered home, she received a phone call congratulating her for having been accepted into her dream university.

These are the stories of two girls in different parts of the world, with vastly different life trajectories. Unfortunately, the former scene is all too common, and will only be exacerbated with COVID-19.

What was the situation before COVID-19?

132 million girls are not in school. 12 million girls are married before the age of 18 each year, every 10 minutes an adolescent girl dies as a result of violence — and that was before a global pandemic led to forced school closures, loss of incomes, and increased gender-based violence. Prior to the current pandemic, some of the most pressing factors barring girls from receiving equal access to and quality of education in developing countries were strong cultural norms, limited familial resources, and threats to safety. These adverse effects are most stinging to those communities which were already among the most vulnerable and most marginalized.

I began my work in the education sector because I truly believe that education is critical in creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues today. As I immersed myself in the field, I learned the ripple effect that girls’ education specifically has for various developmental indicators. For example, I spoke with a girl at a low-income government school in Mumbai who told me that her parents, not having been educated past the 5th grade wanted more for her — to study, and pursue her dreams. I asked her what might have been the case had her parents not supported her education. She brought up numerous examples of other girls in her community similar in age who were married and/or had children, all under the age of 20. Through experience and research, I’ve learned that every year that a girl stays in school has significant impacts for delaying marriage, better access to healthcare, and reduced likelihood of being subject to gender-based violence.

What is the current situation, and how does all this relate to me?

While tremendous progress has been made, girls continue to lag behind their male-counterparts in enrollment, completion, and quality of schooling. Challenging the status quo and striving to eliminate institutional gender inequality has tremendous potential for girls’ education. However, despite progress, the world is still not on track to meet SDGs 4 — Quality Education nor SDG 5 — Gender Equality. By 2030, it is estimated that over 200 million children will still be out of school with our current rate of progress. Even more bleak, according to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 100 years to achieve global gender parity, let alone achieving it by 2030. COVID-19 has not only interrupted, and in many cases exacerbated, these trends, but has also disproportionately impacted women and girls on the frontlines and in the most vulnerable regions.

So what does this all have to do with me? While growing up in the United States, with strong roots to my Indian heritage, my life has been, in some sense, “bubble wrapped.” I was fortunate to grow up in a community in which I could pursue my ambitions, in which education was a given, and in which I had a strong network and support of family and friends.

Recent events, however, have begun to poke holes in this bubble. Events such as the killing of George Floyd and the losses (lives, incomes, opportunities, etc…) as a result of COVID-19 have made me rethink my own privileges and shift my mindset to see the bigger picture. I’ve begun not only to see beyond this bubble, but also to put myself in a position to directly confront systemic and deep-rooted inequities. I’ve read articles and joined webinars that hold dialogues around such inequities, such as institutional racism or reversal made on gains in girls’ education. I’ve had uncomfortable conversations regarding the state of our world, such as whether the pros outweigh the cons in reopening schools amidst the pandemic. I’ve found new ways to respectfully challenge stereotypes and harmful beliefs, such as why women are the ones taking on the burden of unpaid domestic work, compromising their own participation in the workforce.

Through the convergence of current events that highlight injustices, I have stepped back and realized the pervasiveness of inequality not just in gender, but also in regard to race, class, sexual-orientation, and in so many other ways. Here too, I believe education — when delivered effectively and with quality resources and qualified teachers — has the potential to challenge the status quo and shift power dynamics.

My experiences reinforces my belief in the importance of investing in education, particularly that of girls’, and my commitment to challenging what a ‘new normal’ means.

Which leads me to:

Where do we go from here?

I strongly believe that we must use COVID-19 as a wake-up call.. The convergence of gender inequality and education with recent events in the midst of a pandemic lead us to a position in which we must actively reshape what the future looks like. Here are some ways I think we can do just that:

1. Gender Responsive Policies and Recovery Plans: Now is the time to follow through on long-held calls for gender-disaggregated data, policies that are responsive to the needs of girls and women, and plans that are developed and implemented with a gender-equal lens. For example, this may mean assuring men and women and paid equally for equal work. In the words of Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN Habitat, “a society planned for women is a society planned for all.” With these notions in place, there is significant potential for girls education — to bring to par what has been reversed, and accelerate action on SDGs 4 and 5.

2. Ensure Participation of Women and Girls: At the heart of recovering from the global pandemic must be gender-equal participation. The needs, lived realities, and existing challenges that girls and women face are no better known than by women themselves. This means that girls and women not only are at the table (in positions of leadership such as on executive boards and in parliamentary seats) but also have opportunities to meaningfully contribute (for example, girls living in communities in which access to sexual and reproductive health services were disrupted have a say in which policies and resources should be invested in). Top-down and bottom-up approaches (from both private and public sectors) must converge to put at the forefront issues such as the gender disparity in access to, and quality of, education.

3. Empower the Local: Just as women and girls know their needs best, so too do local communities. COVID-19 has forced numerous international organizations to rely on their local teams for service delivery. While this may have been forced now, I argue that it must become the normal in the future. For example, this might mean establishing more community-based education centers or buying from local businesses. By empowering the local, communities can build back more resilient and self-reliant.

Recognizing pre-existing gender and educational inequities, allowing recent events to poke holes in my “bubble”, and utilizing COVID-19 as a vehicle to build a stronger, more just, world is at the heart of what I hope to do. Investing in girls’ education has the power to advance the poorest and most marginalized communities in the world and to challenge the many injustices — on the basis of gender, race, class — that our world faces today.

Written by: Alisha Parikh

Eager to make an impact in this world, Alisha is a passionate, fun-loving educator and activist for gender equity. Born and raised in the U.S., with strong roots to her Indian heritage, she lives in a multilingual, bicultural world. Her experience of teaching and working in low-income communities and research on girls’ education has motivated her to spark global change.

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