The full consequences of COVID-19 are unknown, but there are several critical factors which will accentuate its impact on girls’ education.
The consequences of COVID-19 are countless. Many of them we do not know about yet, and will only become apparent in the coming years. Nevertheless, it is clear that the pandemic has already had a dramatic impact on schooling and that students will experience it differently based on their gender. There are several critical factors which will accentuate the impact of COVID-19 on girls’ education around the world, and recovery initiatives will need to consider these gendered experiences if they are to succeed.
In the current health crisis, education is being undertaken through laptops, tablets, and smartphones outside of the classroom. However, few are discussing how these changes will exacerbate the gender digital divide. This divide, which long proceeded the spread of coronavirus, is where women and girls have less access to technology and the internet than men and boys. For instance, a recent study by the International Telecommunications Union found that the share of women worldwide using the internet is 12% lower than the share of men using the internet, and this rises to 25% in Africa. The same problem is seen with mobile phone ownership. In South Asia, for instance, women are 23% less likely than men to have their own mobile, according to the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA).
With this in mind, what happens when you impose remote studying to students across the world? It is a real possibility that many girls may never recover the time and education that they would have gained if they were able to physically go to school. Indeed, our relationship with technology will never be the same as it was before the pandemic. The way we work, shop, exercise, travel, and entertain ourselves has been revolutionised, and the majority of these changes will remain in place long after we have overcome the challenge of COVID-19. Alongside the advantages of this transformation, the hard truth is that our economies and societies will leave behind those without access to digital technologies and the skills to use them, and many of these will be women and girls.
Beyond the digital skills gap, women and girls face an additional barrier impeding their access to education. Prior to the present pandemic, research from UN Women found that women across the globe were already doing three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men. In forcing people into their homes, coronavirus has increased this gender skew, with women taking on the bulk of the housework and care responsibilities (often combining this with their newly-remote job). Data collected by IpsosMORI in May suggests that women around the world are more likely than men to find that their care responsibilities have increased during the pandemic.
UNICEF has shown that this inequality starts from an early age, with girls between the ages of five and 14 spending 40% more time on unpaid household chores than boys of the same age. Combined, that represents 160m hours per day of time which could be spent elsewhere, including studying. What does this mean for girls who were previously going to school, and are now required to pursue their education from home? It likely translates into them having less time to focus on their schooling than previously, because their support is required on domestic tasks and care duties instead.
Furthermore, these girls might be prevented from going back to school once the pandemic is over, particularly if they need to take on new domestic tasks and care responsibilities as a result of illness or death in the family caused by COVID-19. The Malala Fund estimates that an additional 20m secondary school aged girls could be permanently out of school once this pandemic has passed. Again, this would effectively result in a generation of girls being prevented from reaching their full potential in school, with the plethora of consequences this has on the social and economic opportunities available to them later in life.
Our recovery from COVID-19 will take decades, but it is important that we think about these issues now and take the necessary steps to ensure that women and girls around the world are not disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s impact on school closures. So much effort has gone into getting girls into school to begin with that we simply cannot afford such a monumental setback.
Maëlys Bablon is a research analyst working on gender equality.