IDG2020: Celebrating the role of adolescent girls in the fight against COVID19

20 November 2020 by Ellen Chigwanda, Advocacy Advisor – Education (CARE USA)

On 19 December 2011, the UN General Assembly declared 11 October as the International Day of the Girl (IDG) to promote girls’ rights as well as recognise the challenges they face. In celebration of IDG2020, the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) and CARE hosted a webinar on the gendered impacts of COVID-19, with a special focus on girls. GEC projects shared their experiences and lessons of adapting education interventions during the pandemic, especially in fragile contexts.  

Importantly, the webinar explored girls’ experiences during the pandemic. What additional challenges have marginalised girls faced? How have they reacted to these challenges? Have they been able to demonstrate their agency and leadership in the fight against COVID-19 in their communities? Have the challenges affected their learning opportunities? What are the priorities for ‘building back better’ - and what role can the girls themselves play in that?

Additional challenges
Like any other crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of vulnerability for girls due to the breakdown of health, education, sanitation and security services. In Zimbabwe, the Improving Gender Attitudes and Education Outcomes (IGATE-T) project has found that there has been a severe impact on some girls. This includes greater isolation and a lack of peer support and contact with role models and mentors. The protection from abuse and early marriage offered at school has been lost, along with vital reporting mechanisms. Distance learning solutions are not available to remote communities as marginalised girls are unlikely to have access to a mobile phone or other technology.  

The role of girls in the Covid-19 response
The IDG 2020 theme – “my voice, our equal future” – emphasises girls’ contributions to the future they want. At the inception of the GEC, a comprehensive baseline found that girls with “low female aspiration and lack of female autonomy in decision making” was the third most significant barrier to their educational access and learning. Thus, many of the GEC projects were designed to include the development of non-cognitive skills – such as self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy – using a variety of activities including specialised girls’ spaces. In addition to igniting positive changes in girls’ sense of self, aspiration and motivation to attend school, the development of non-cognitive skills has also been connected to girls taking up new or prominent roles in their communities. 

The Somali Girls’ Education Promotion Project (SOMGEP-T) found that the leadership skills which were developed pre-COVID-19 have helped girls to develop the individual and collective resilience needed to deal with some of the negative effects of the pandemic. Girls have been an integral part of the COVID-19 response in their communities – initiating activities aimed at disseminating COVID-19 related messages, providing emotional support to their peers and encouraging other girls to study at home. In Sierra Leone, the Girls’ Access to Education (GATE II) project is training young women to become primary school teachers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the project engaged qualified, young female teachers to support literacy and numeracy study group activities for vulnerable children with disabilities, as well as to support distance learning via telephone with children in primary and junior secondary school. They also addressed fears of returning to school and provided ‘bite size’ learning activities for those not yet back in school.

Impact on learning opportunities and transitions
In order to help older girls, aged 17 to 23, into further education, vocational training and employment during COVID-19, the Educating Nigerian Girls in New Enterprises (ENGINE II) project promoted continued learning through SMS, WhatsApp clusters, radio and peer learning. Girls were also supported with government-issued certificates after completing their basic and post-basic education because this is a requirement for them to move to higher grades as schools and informal centres re-open. Girls involved in businesses were given resilience and business adaptation training and business grants to expand and diversify their businesses. For instance, girls in tailoring made face masks. 

In Zimbabwe, the IGATE-T project has built networks of volunteers and teachers, developing and dispatching learning materials and activities using low-data options on mobile phones, ensuring that activities would not require technology at the point of learning. In order to keep girls safe, the project focused on high-risk groups and geographical areas – building networks on safety and the prevention of gender-based violence. 

In Afghanistan, the Steps towards Afghan Girls’ Educational Success (STAGES-T) project ensured the continuity of learning through a combination of printed materials and telephone lessons delivered by teachers. A Rapid Gender Analysis found that the majority of girls were able to access and utilise these remote learning opportunities and also received support from School Management Committee members who helped with participation, and dealt with issues of violence, early marriage, work load and depression.

Building back better 
Across the globe, there is a concerted effort to “build back better”. In order to address the specific needs of girls impacted by COVID-19, the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has adapted its education programming in 18 countries through a £10 million funding mechanism to support refugee and displaced children, as well as providing new funding to the UNFPA as well as UNICEF (through the Education Cannot Wait Fund). 

FCDO’s priorities for building back better include getting girls into schools, when they are safe to re-open, ensuring that girls have a safe environment to learn whether at home or at school, ensuring that girls can catch up on the learning they have lost during the lockdown and research into approaches that have worked (or not). In order to achieve this, FCDO continues to invest in partnerships such as the EdTech Hub and the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE).

The Inter Agency Network on Education in Emergencies (INEE) is taking action to adapt to the reality of COVID-19 in order to support its members, partners and communities to help governments, schools, teachers, caregivers and the learners themselves to mitigate the impacts of this global crisis. In order to build back better for the most marginalised girls, INEE calls on the Education in Emergencies (EiE) community of practice to be creative in ways that have not been explored before. 

Organisations working in the education sector are designing and implementing interventions aimed at ensuring girls continue to learn. However, data on the impact of COVID-19 interventions is currently scarce. 

CARE has published a new report: Adolescent Girls’ Education and COVID-19: What Is Happening in the Field? The report identifies the challenges posed by COVID-19 in relation to education for the most marginalised girls. It also highlights what is working to support adolescent girls under COVID-19. Results from the CARE studies show that prior development gains have increased the resilience of individual girls and communities, reducing the negative impacts of COVID-19 on adolescent girls. More importantly, the results show:

  • It is possible and essential to make use of existing structures such as school management committees to respond to girls’ needs quickly in the face of a crisis such COVID-19. 
  • Despite the dramatic increase in obstacles, girls were able to learn remotely.
  • The development of girls’ leadership skills is having a major, positive impact on mitigating mental health issues and girls themselves are using their skills to help their communities.  
  • Most of CARE’s adaptations were simple and low cost. Low or non-technology approaches which prioritised girl-led action were accessible to marginalised communities which made them effective and sustainable in fragile contexts.