Opinion: How do we tackle the pandemic's impact on girls? It starts with education

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Better-educated women are the key to driving development and lifting communities out of poverty. Photo by: Katerina Holmes from Pexels

Today, I looked at my two daughters, and I felt exhausted. This past year, like many parents around the world, I’ve been trying my best — helping them to navigate online schooling, maintain friendships during lockdowns, and manage their emotions, despite uncertainty. But I know I can’t do enough. I’m a mom first, but these days I’m a teacher, a cook, and a therapist in our new lockdown reality.

Mothers across the planet can sympathize. Our roles have grown even more demanding as our homes become our schools, our health care centers, and our offices. As our world shrinks to a few small rooms, I ask myself, “Will my girls still have the expansive opportunities I’ve dreamed for them as they grow up?”

Much has been written about the uneven impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, women and girls continue to lose income, jobs, and family members while facing increasing challenges at home. Alarmingly, gender-based violence is on the rise. If this pandemic is anything like past health crises, girls are at disproportionate risk of not returning to schools when they reopen. At the current rate, over 11 million girls may never go back to the classroom after the pandemic.

As schools turn virtual or close altogether, more care work has fallen on women, forcing them to make the difficult choice between their families and their careers. In advanced economies, women are leaving the workforce in record numbers. In the United States, women’s labor force participation rate hit its lowest point in 33 years.

Let’s give tomorrow’s women better choices than the ones we have faced this past year.

In developing economies, where many women work in the informal sector or are self-employed, months of lost income and job uncertainty present grave threats to livelihoods. Approximately 80% of informal sector incomes in Africa were lost in the first month of COVID-19 alone.

Women are losing opportunities to explore their talents, lead their communities, and drive innovation around the globe, with an estimated 47 million women and girls being pushed into extreme poverty as economic and educational opportunities shrink.

How can we make a difference and address the fundamental reasons such inequalities persist? And how can we tackle the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on women and girls?

It starts with girls’ education: Better-educated women are the key to driving development and lifting communities out of poverty. The leading research demonstrates that investing in girls’ education has a huge benefit on economies, national security, health sectors, and life outcomes. But today, when times get hard, girls are the first to be taken out of school. It is time to reevaluate education equity as the driver for social equity and to address the root causes of women and girls being left behind.

Now, as we honor International Women’s Day, our mandate is clear: The international community must educate our girls. If we do not meet this challenge together, we risk exacerbating deep structural inequities.

Of course, aid and philanthropic organizations have been investing in girls’ education for decades, so is this really anything new? To change outcomes, what is really needed is to fund education more effectively and to hold those in power accountable for impact.

Evidence shows that investing only in successful results, rather than just educational inputs such as books and school buildings, can make a huge difference in girls’ learning. With this approach, Educate Girls has already enrolled more than 750,000 girls in India since its creation several years ago.

Many girls won't go back to school when lockdown is over

Experts worry the pandemic could roll back decades of progress on gender equality and girls' education.

It’s no longer good enough to say, “We built this school,” or, “We ran this training course.” The Education Outcomes Fund is another example of a wider movement to change how we help children learn. In uncertain times, it is the ability of schools and educators to quickly shift their approaches based on local contexts and to innovate depending on what works that ensures we can provide the best possible education for all children.

This approach to improving education will alter the asymmetrical impact of global challenges. It will help stabilize nations and communities, put more girls into universities, and realize the latent talents of many millions of daughters around the world.

I look again at my own daughters, who are hard at work on their computers — brows furrowed, headphones on, determined despite the challenges they continue to face. Like many, they have struggled to keep up with their online courses and have faced mental health challenges this year. It is not easy for them.

The pandemic has brought all of us suffering. It is how we move forward that will determine our children’s futures. Let us empower our girls with education — giving them the tools they need to change the systems keeping them from success. Let’s give tomorrow’s women better choices than the ones we have faced this past year.

The path to change is strewn with obstacles, but we will rise to the challenge.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Dr. Amel Karboul

    Dr. Amel Karboul is CEO at the Education Outcomes Fund and commissioner of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity.