Education in a crisis: Don’t lose sight of gender and inclusion

09 June 2020 by Rachel Booth, Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Manager, Girls’ Education Challenge

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, it is clear that there are significant gender-related issues emerging. Listening to colleagues on May's INEE webinar on Gender and Education during Covid-19, who are all working on girls’ education programmes globally, it was clear that we had a common message. It is essential that we maintain our gender analysis of how this pandemic is unfolding and education content that responds to the girls’ needs and priorities.

Nora Fyles from UNGEI opened the webinar with some startling figures around the impact of Covid-19 to illustrate why the global education community is alarmed at the situation for girls. There is an emerging global spike in gender-based violence (GBV) and a higher risk of child marriage and early pregnancy. A report from Malala Fund is estimating that 10 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school after the Covid-19 pandemic. UNGEI also shared that at a UNESCO convened online meeting of 71 ministers of education to discuss reopening of schools, and whilst many referenced safeguarding and vulnerable groups, the challenges facing adolescent girls were markedly absent. Significant gains have been made globally to embed gender-sensitive country education plans, but this gender lens needs to remain in place as ministries are considering resuming education systems after this pandemic

Distance learning solutions also need to understand the gender dynamic in terms of access and control at household level when considering suitable platforms. Perceptions of risk to safety or reputation make some parents reluctant to allow girls access to devices such as laptops and mobile phones. 

I was invited to share aspects of the GEC response to the pandemic. We have seen several projects conducting rapid gender analyses to understand the impact of this crisis and how they might be able to maintain their support. ActionAid Kenya have been analysing the situation with a gender and inclusion lens, considering the risks for different groups of girls and how this current situation affects them in different ways. Plan Zimbabwe have been conducting a ‘technology mapping’ exercise, exploring coverage, types of technology available and where there might be gaps. Mercy Corps Nepal are conducting regular phone interviews with various stakeholders to ensure girls’ voices are included in planning decisions. Based on their gender and inclusion analysis, Relief International are recognising how important it is to maintain the life skills content of their work. They are exploring options to deliver this content through WhatsApp and other social media platforms to ensure that information about connections to sexual and reproductive health and referral services are still being shared with girls.

Plan International Columbia, UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Care Somalia and the Malala Fund are all retaining their focus on girls in their response to the current situation. UNWRA, who are working in Gaza, have included psychosocial support hotlines and messaging that are age and gender appropriate to students. The Plan International Columbia team is ensuring they are supporting teachers to prepare and respond to cases of GBV during quarantine. Care Somalia are also working hard to stay tuned into the psychosocial aspects of girls' current experiences and high incidents of anxiety and depression through a support network of mentors, peer-to-peer connections and community education committees. Malala Fund India have been taking an advocacy role in the current situation, highlighting clear messages to raise awareness of girls’ experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic in India.

In the context of emergencies, it can be very easy to rush into decisions about ‘what to do?’ and focus on adapting current education initiatives, without recognising how much has changed for the girls with whom we are working. School closures and lockdown will have a disproportionate impact on girls. Household chores are likely to have increased, girls will be expected to look after sick relatives and siblings, and household incomes will be stretched as lockdown affects livelihoods. All of these issues will limit how much space and time a girl will have to consider her education. 

Refreshing our gender and social inclusion (GESI) analysis gives us a much clearer picture of how this crisis has radically changed the situation for the girls, which then allows us to make much more informed gender-sensitive design decisions, illustrated by the panellists on the webinar.

Lessons learned from Ebola crisis indicate how important it is to maintain our focus on the varied circumstances of marginalised girls and maintain communication and support through these crises to ensure that they are likely to return to education afterwards. The new INEE summary graphic on ‘key points to consider’ provides a really helpful illustration of the importance of the gender lens and girls voices as we plan, adapt and support. 

The key messages coming out of the discussion is that now is not the time to squeeze out our good practice around girls’ programming on maintaining our gender and inclusion analysis and participatory design principles, nor is it the time to strip our education offer back to the basics. We need to remember why we were working with marginalised girls and ensure we are gathering girls’ voices to support girls in the ways they need. Even before the crisis hit, these were some of the most marginalised girls in the world who were taking control of their futures through education programmes. It is our hope that we will see as many of them as possible return to education and enhance their life chances and choices.