Education Endures: Protecting the Futures of the World’s Most Vulnerable Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Learning has been disrupted for most of the world’s children. But for millions of children in low-income communities, COVID-19 school closures will not be an interruption, but an end: an end to reading, an end to learning, and an end to the dream of making positive change in their own lives and communities.
Please see Education Endure fact sheet for more details on how your ongoing support is invaluable as we adapt as an organization to ensure the children we serve are not cut off from education permanently as a result of this crisis.
Nepal’s high dropout rate for female students had prompted campaigns to keep girls in school. But as the country’s lockdown enters its third month, the challenge now seems to be to keep them at home.
With a rise in reports of child marriages and trafficking of girls, there are fears that Nepal’s efforts to increase female literacy by preventing them from dropping out of school may suffer a setback if the lockdown continues.
A 16-year old of a village in Bardia disappeared from her home on 8 April, two weeks after Nepal’s nationwide lockdown went into effect. She had just completed her Grade 9 exams.
Her parents found out she was having an affair with an Indian classmate who was staying in their neighbourhood with his maternal uncle, had eloped and sneaked over the border. The parents filed a missing person report at the local police, but they ignored the complaint saying she was probably staying with friends.
The parents then contacted the District Police Office and Maiti Nepal office in Gularia, but the police was overstretched enforcing the lockdown, and said there was not much they could do even though the girl called from an Indian mobile. She called to say she was fine and to ask her parents to drop the police investigation.
“She was one of the 600 teenagers who were part of our girl education program for low-income communities with high dropout rates in school and vulnerable to abuse,” says Sakuntala Chaudhari of the literacy advocacy group, Room to Read.
Another Grade 9 student from Gularia that Room To Read was monitoring eloped with a boy from the next village. Her parents decided not to file a case because their community considered elopement a part of its tradition.
It turned out that the extended family was in financial trouble because of the lockdown, the young woman was an extra mouth to feed and when she eloped it was a relief to the family. However, she will now probably not continue with her education.
“During the lockdown there are food shortages, money is running out for many families, and daughters have the least priority,” explains Salina Tamang of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program.
Out of the 4,321 girls the program supports in the districts of Banke, Bardia, Tanahu, and Nuwakot, with distance learning through radio, 500 girls have been out of touch during since the lockdown. These were from families which were already deemed to be at high-risk of dropping out of school. But the good news is that a majority of the girls are in contact and continuing home studies through radio.
Room to Read has identified at least seven cases of child marriage since the lockdown started among the students it supports in Bardia and Banke districts alone. Many of the girls are in areas with poor phone connection, or the girls did not have their own phones to report regularly or talk about potential abusive situations.
A 16-year-old from Kohalpur in Banke stopped responding to calls from Room To Read, and it turned out she had run away with a boy in her class. Her mother tried to get her back, but could not travel because of the lockdown. She has not reported the case to the police because of worries that her daughter might commit suicide.
The Malala Fund estimates that 10 million more secondary school girls worldwide could be out of school once the crisis has passed. The lockdown has affected education worldwide, but in countries like Nepal it threatens to undo years of work to improve female literacy and reduce the dropout rate among girl students.
UNESCO estimates that nearly 90% of the students enrolled in education globally are currently out of school because of COVID-19 closures. This represents 1.54 billion enrolled children and youth, including nearly 743 million girls.
Back in western Nepal, five other girls between the ages of 14-17 in Banke and Bardia districts have run away from home to get married since the lockdown began, mostly with classmates or local boys. These are just cases in two districts after the lockdown, and only came to light because the girls were being closely monitored. There is a fear child marriages and trafficking will increase during the COVID-19 school closure.
One of them, a 17-year-old from Kohalpur, got married after her mother scolded her for having an affair. Another 16-year-old in Bardia decided to run away from home after harsh behaviour by her aunt at home during the lockdown.
Police are reluctant to register trafficking, child marriage and domestic abuse cases during the lockdown, and this has exposed the traditional lack of priority given to the safety women and girls in society, which the present crisis has magnified.
SAN FRANCISCO — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter our lives, a startling truth has been realized that, sadly, mirrors trends of all global crises. Women and girls, particularly those in vulnerable communities, are disproportionately impacted.
Women are often on the front lines, caring for their communities. Women comprise 70% of the healthcare and social sector workforce in 104 countries, analyzed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Women are also expected to care for sick family members and neighbors, particularly in communities where gender stereotypes prevail. Even when it comes to work, nearly 60% of women are in the informal or gig economy where jobs are far less secure. In these jobs, women earn less, save less, and ultimately, are at greater risk of falling into poverty.
For me, the impact on education is most worrisome. I can’t stop thinking about the futures of the tens and thousands of girls and young women Room to Read supports through our Girls’ Education Program. They will struggle even with our support, let alone those who are dealing with school closures. The acute costs that girls and young women will pay in their future potential are far-reaching and even irreversible.
While time out of the classroom for students in many parts of the world may mean distance learning or separation from friends, for many other children, the implications are severe. For low-income communities around the world, coronavirus could mean the permanent end of a child’s education. We sadly know the risks too well.
The countries we work in already face uphill battles against high levels of school dropout for girls. That is why we are concerned that schools are closed in every country where our Girls’ Education Program currently operates. We are dealing with the realization that this will be the last time we see some of the girls enrolled in the program and that likely many of their peers will never return to school.
Girls in low-income communities face significant pressures to marry and have children too young, and can become victims of domestic violence, trafficking or rape. These risks increase without the haven of a supportive environment at school. Many will also face demands to abandon their education in order to support their families financially or through home care during this pandemic. This is an urgent and deeply concerning time for girls. We must implement interventions to flatten what will surely be a concerning curve in human potential lost.
Sapana is a 21-year-old woman in Nepal, who graduated from Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program and went on to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. She is now helping her community during this pandemic by bravely and selflessly caring for patients. Sapana is living proof of what happens when you educate a girl.
Without our investments in education, in these communities, we would not have the first generation of educated young women, the first generation of healthcare workers! In Sapana’s words: “My parents insisted that I leave my job as a nurse because they were afraid of the pandemic. After a long discussion with them, I was able to finally calm them out of the panic. I love my work and this is why I studied so hard…so that I can be of help to others”.
We know how to help. Our source of hope in these dark times comes from a familiar source – strong women mentors. Girls who are supported by Room to Read typically meet regularly with a female mentor assigned to be their advocate and guide while navigating obstacles to their education and charting their own paths. With communities physically separated from one another, our mentors can no longer conduct their home visits and check in on the well-being of the girls. However, the need to keep in regular contact with these girls is more urgent than ever, so mentors have sought out solutions to continue their important work.
Our teams on the ground are identifying girls most at risk, so we can support them more intensively. Our mentors, known as “social mobilizers” are calling the girls and their families on the phone and conducting video chats and conferences whenever possible, to ensure these young women are safe and remain tenacious in their pursuit of an education.
In Cambodia, Ranny is a social mobilizer working in the Kampong Cham region. She currently has 140 girls under her watch in her district despite the lockdown. Her motivation is an inspirational message to us all: “The reason for our work is to empower girls and reach about gender equality. As long as children are educated, society will become better.” Ranny and her team are innovating to communicate with the girls through social media channels, from WhatsApp to Facebook messenger. If a girl does not own a phone, the mentor helps her identify one to use from a parent, relative or neighbor.
We cannot let the doors of opportunity close forever on the future female scientists, healthcare workers, and leaders of our world. Let’s make sure they see the inside of a classroom again and are able to pave the way for a safer, healthier and more prosperous future for us all.
Dr. Geetha Murali is the CEO of Room to Read, a non-profit organization creating a world free from illiteracy and gender inequality.