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A young girl does school work at home during the COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda.
© Zahara Abdul/UNICEF
Girls & Women

COVID-19 Puts Girls at Risk of Unplanned Pregnancies, Violence, and Missing Out on School: Report


Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN's Global Goal 5 aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. During a crisis, it is especially difficult for women to access health care, protect themselves against gender-based violence, and stay in school. You can join us and take action on gender inequality here.

With schools shut down around the world to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, girls are missing out on learning opportunities and are more likely to experience violence and abuse at home, unplanned pregnancies, child marriage, and economic hardship, according to a recent report.

Released by the organization Plan International on April 30, “Living Under Lockdown” takes a close look at how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact girls around the world, and examines past crises to understand the current risks. 

The report reviewed four previous studies of crises, such as the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Health systems tend to divert all efforts toward addressing the crisis at hand, limiting access to sexual and reproductive health care. Under lockdown, schools are no longer another place where girls can receive access to sexual and reproductive health information and resources.

At the end of March, around 743 million girls were out of school and many girls may never return to class, the report said.

Teen pregnancies are likely to increase in the wake of the pandemic because adolescent girls are more likely to be sexually exploited in crisis-affected areas. During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, there was a 65% increase in early pregnancies due to girls being out of school.

“My fear with this virus [COVID-19] is that women will really suffer,” Janet, a 14-year-old from Liberia, told Plan International. “We will suffer over food. Men will abuse us. Because if I don’t have food and a boy has food, if I ask him for help, he will ask me for sex before he gives me some.” 

To ease economic burdens during a crisis, families might force their daughters into child marriage, limiting their health, well-being, and potential down the line. Girls are also more likely to take on caregiving responsibilities in the home, putting them more at risk of catching COVID-19 and cutting their education short.

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While countries are turning to remote learning to ensure students don’t fall behind, girls don’t always have equal access to these tools.

Globally, just 39% of rural girls attend secondary school compared to 45% of rural boys. The divide is especially apparent amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

“It is not that parents are heartless, but they are having to make a terrible choice,” Tessie Martin, Plan International USA's president and CEO, told Global Citizen via email. “Often when the choice is between a boy staying in school and a girl staying in school, the boy tends to be the one picked to continue. This is the cost of these embedded gender norms, and the lack of agency and voice that girls face in too many communities.”

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Boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls in low and middle-income countries and are 1.8 times more likely to own a smartphone that can access the internet, which means they have more access to remote learning tools.

“It’s not just that girls don’t have access to remote learning,” Martin said. “It is that they do not have as much access to learning, period.

“The big challenge that has remained in many countries is that girls drop out of school at much higher rates than boys,” Martin added. “And after all this effort to get girls to go to school, suddenly schools are closed.”

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School closures are not only causing girls to miss out academically; they also prevent girls from having access to benefits like support from other students and teachers, or the chance to network.

Plan International is running the social media platform Girls Out Loud to give girls a safe space to discuss the issues they might be having. Girls reported to the organization that they felt “bored, frustrated, alarmed, and frightened and they need clear information on the pandemic and support to deal with how it’s impacting them and their families.” 

The organization is calling on governments and local authorities to make education affordable and accessible for all, continue access to sexual and reproductive information and services, protect families from hunger, tackle gender-based violence, and provide support for refugees, girls, and women.