Several studies have been conducted on the impact of the COVID-19 induced school closures across the world. Most of them have drawn similar conclusions. Closure of schools will lead to lower levels of schooling and learning, reduced earnings in the future, and an increased drop-out rate. For women and girls, the socio-economic risks posed by the pandemic are manifold. It is likely that they are at higher risk in the realm of education too. As a result, the long-term effects of the pandemic on the girl child and on women will be significant. UNESCO has projected that 11 million girls may never return to school following the pandemic.
The education and welfare of girls have been deeply challenged by the pandemic. This is especially true for girls from low-income households and those in rural areas and underdeveloped countries. Economic distress can put girls at greater risk of exploitation, child labour, and gender-based violence. The lockdowns imposed due to coronavirus may harm girls’ autonomy. The attitudes and practices that regard girls as ‘lesser’ than men may become front and centre again.
Dropout rates for girls may increase
A study by the Malala Fund has found that more than 20 million girls (from pre-primary to upper secondary) are at risk of dropping out and may never return to school. This is a sharp increase in the number of girls who would not be able to return to school after the pandemic settles down.
Many girls may be pushed into child labour during the lockdown period while schools are closed. Once caught in the web, it is very difficult for them to get out.
Lack of access
Millions of girls are not able to access essential health care facilities due to the pandemic-induced closures.
Due to travel restrictions, many girls are not able to access reproductive health services. Some countries have the practice of ‘after school girl clubs’ which are safe spaces for girls to share their troubles. All of these are inaccessible to girls now.
Threat of sexual abuse
UNESCO’s COVID-19 Global Education Coalition has reported that teenage pregnancy across sub-Saharan Africa could increase by as much as 65 per cent as a result of school closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sexual and reproductive rights of girls are highly compromised in a lockdown situation. This is because girls are unable to seek safety from their abusers outside their homes. This could lead to increase in adolescent pregnancy rates in many societies. There was also an increase in rape cases, leading to unwanted pregnancies. Such survivors are more likely to drop out of school.
Child marriage on the rise
Latest numbers suggest that child marriage has quadrupled in Maharashtra’s largest district since the pandemic hit. Many families are struggling to make ends meet, and getting their daughter married off means one less mouth to feed. Some parents are also concerned about the future of their daughters if the parents die.
Moreover, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, it is now possible to have a wedding with lesser expenses because of the limited number of guests. For low-income families, this is almost an opportunity to get their daughters married off without having a large gathering and spending a lot of money.
More responsibility for girls
If there are any ill or elderly family members, or any young siblings, it is expected that the girls of the family will take care of them while schools remain closed. As a result, this may lead to dropping out of school, early marriage, and other things that could have long-term impacts on the girl child.
Additionally, girls and young women from families facing severe economic distress are more likely to take on work that puts them at high risk.
Are there any positive effects of the pandemic on the girl child?
Despite all of these factors, there may still be hope. Parents who were earlier concerned about the safety of their daughters travelling to school may find the online mode of learning more preferable. This way, their daughters can learn in the safety of their homes.
However, this is again contingent on a number of factors. Some of these are the availability of a smartphone, tablet, or device at home; Internet access; parents’ ability to help their child with online learning; and readiness of teachers to adapt to digital methods of teaching.