Women, especially girls, play a critical role in the social fabric of the world. Educating girls is one of the most powerful and proven vehicles to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
(SDGs). It has a positive impact on at least nine of the 17 SDGs, be it in health care, immunisation, child marriage, HIV, income generation or inequality, because an educated girl is twice as likely to educate her children.
Girls’ education is the key to breaking the inter-generational cycle of illiteracy and poverty. Globally, girls’ education is the biggest lever that can lead to a reduction in carbon emissions.
An educated woman has the skills, information and self-confidence that she needs to be a better parent, worker and citizen. Research shows that an educated woman is likely to marry later and have fewer children, impacting world population. An educated woman can help a country with its socio-economic growth, and reduce the incidence of domestic and sexual violence as well. As she stands up against gender inequality, she becomes key to changing patriarchal mind-sets.
However, despite the many positive implications of girls’ education, millions of girls around the world are being denied their right to education, simply because they are girls. Their chances of getting a quality education are smaller if they come from a poor family, living in a rural area. Girls are just disregarded. The root cause of girls not being in school are the two Ps of poverty and patriarchy, because of which they are exploited, discriminated against or just pushed into disparate gender roles.
Impact of Covid-19
With the worldwide outbreak of Covid-19 crippling global education systems, existing gender inequalities are getting further intensified. As cases of coronavirus
continue to grow, the effort to limit its spread has kept over 290 million students out of school globally.
In the absence of education, and connection with friends and teachers, disadvantaged children — especially girls from the most marginalised communities — will be the hardest hit; especially in nations where patriarchy, illiteracy and poverty are combining to trigger regressive mind-sets. Over 111 million girls affected by school closures are living in the world’s least developed countries, where getting an education is already a struggle.
As the Covid-19 situation aggravates, girls will face the worst economic and social marginalisation. Disrupting global education systems is literally threatening the right to education of the most vulnerable girls.
Girls in rural India
In India, the spread of the virus has already hurt marginalised communities disproportionately. As the household work burden increases for all families, girls are regressing to their earlier routines — taking up cooking, cleaning and other household chores, while caring for their younger siblings and elders; working on farms, grazing cattle and engaging in activities that can help their families survive through these tough times. With limited last-mile health facilities in rural India, those who are affected but yet not critical are being cared for at home, putting the girl child at greater risk of becoming infected.
As families lose livelihoods, face scarcity of food and other basic needs, the health and education of girls, their learning requirements and well-being are getting sidelined. Based on their gender, girls get to eat last. With no access to mid-day meals in schools, as families struggle to buy rations, girls’ nutritional needs will be unmet, impacting their physiological development. Increasing pressure to care for their families will have a direct impact on their emotional growth. As patriarchal families return to their earlier gender norms of girls working within households, they will prevent them from going back to school, affecting their learning levels in the long term.
With families staying at home amid economic hardship, the incidence of domestic violence, drunken behaviour and child abuse are rising. If this persists, the risks of child marriage, physical and sexual exploitation of girls, trafficking, and unhygienic and unhealthy lifestyles will continue to surge. Stuck in this situation, girls will continue to lose confidence and lose the motivation to return to mainstream education, making them ever more vulnerable.
The way forward
While a coordinated policy effort by way of communication, quarantine and treatment is a must to contain the adverse impact of this pandemic, there is an urgent need to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable communities, especially girls, are taken into consideration. For that to happen, all countries of the world need a strong gender lens on how to build a holistic response to Covid-19 that includes relief measures from both economic and societal angles. Without intentionality, girls will regress to patriarchal mind-sets, far away from education. They will be the first to be forgotten and will be pushed further into hunger and violence as the pandemic grips the world.
The writer is founder and executive director, Educate Girls, a non-profit organisation