COVID-19 Webinar #3: Addressing the gender dimensions of COVID-related school closures

‘We are living a period of high uncertainty during which we know that COVID-19 related school closures will exacerbate gender inequalities,’ said Ms Suzanne Grant-Lewis, Director of UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), opening the webinar. ‘This is a universal issue. All countries must take actions to address these inequalities.’

On 3 April, UNESCO convened its third webinar as part of the COVID-19 education response drawing over 150 government officials, practitioners and experts from numerous countries around the world. The webinar examined the gender dimensions of COVID-related school closures, and exchanged knowledge on how countries can ensure gender-responsive, evidence-based actions during and after this educational disruption.

COVID-related school closures across 188 countries have the potential to exacerbate existing gender inequalities in education or create new ones unless measures are taken to address the gender dimensions. As of today, 1.57 billion or 91% of enrolled learners are out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, out of which 743 million girls. This adds on to the girls who were already more likely to remain excluded from an education.

What are the gendered impacts of COVID-19 school closures?

In the wake of school closures, we know that girls and women may be more exposed to the virus as health care workers and caregivers. At home, they may be overburdened by unpaid work, unable to continue their learning at a distance and facing growing domestic violence. These risks jeopardize their return to education.

Tinuola Oladebo, Nigerian youth activist from the non-governmental organization OneAfricanChild, noted that this crisis is underlining existing challenges, particularly the gender digital divide. ‘Young activists, advocates and informal educators in Nigeria are collaborating and co-creating responses to ensure that girls continue to access education at home,’ she said.

There is also a risk of boys’ disengagement from education. In Nepal for example, ‘the economic hardships caused by outbreaks may lead boys to turn to income-generating activities, leaving school behind’ explained Dr Tulashi Prasad Thapaliya, Director General of the Centre for Education and Human Resource Development at Nepal’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

Evidence confirms that both gender and education are neglected in health outbreak responses. ‘We must learn from Ebola, Zika and other outbreaks to understand the education dimension and how we address gender equality in these contexts,’ said Justine Sass, Chief of the Section of Education for Inclusion and Gender Equality at UNESCO.

School, a lifeline for girls

Chernor Bah, keynote speaker and co-founder of Purposeful, recounted the story of Dorcas, an adolescent girl aged 17 who lived through the Ebola crisis in 2014. Her mother, a community health volunteer, was infected by Ebola. As the eldest, Dorcas took on the responsibility to provide for her two younger siblings at home. However, with the community on lockdown and her school closed, she felt isolated and helpless.

For girls, school is so much more than a place of learning. Dorcas’ school was her social safety net. A place where she could socialize, share experience and access vital services such as food through school feeding programmes.

‘As we think about gender dimensions, our instinct is that we need to shut down schools,’ said Chernor. ‘Our experience from the Ebola crisis says that if we do not think about girls now, we will suffer serious consequences. For girls, every day counts.’

What are some of the measures to take?

‘Without focused action, we will lose the momentum we already gained in advancing education and gender equality, and risk going backwards,’ said Maki Hayashikawa, Chief of the Section for Inclusive Quality Education at UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.

Speakers offered insights into measures to be taken to ensure every learner has the opportunity to continue their education path during and after the crisis. They were joined by participants who chimed in during the online discussion moderated by Nora Fyles from the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI).

A concern shared by all was that swift responses often do not integrate gender implications. ‘To date, much of the education analysis on COVID-19 has been gender blind,’ stressed Yona Nestel from Plan International. ‘For example, the move to distance learning, such as digital solutions, but also low-tech approaches like radio, are not considering the lived realities and inequalities facing girls.’

Measures put forward during the webinar included the equitable representation of women and men in decision-making and planning; the engagement of parents and communities, especially in support of girls’ education; holistic and adapted approaches considering the gender digital divide, privileging accessible solutions and women’s ownership; and the promotion of partnerships to address cross-cutting health, social and education issues that impact on continuity of learning.

Dr Thapaliya highlighted the need for additional learning financing for girls and the role of local governments in designing appropriate support programmes that improve learning. He also explained Nepal’s plans to track students within a week of schools reopening to ensure they are reintegrated into the system.

‘Engage youth in the development of responses to manage the impact of the crisis. This is critical to ensure relevancy and sustainability,’ stressed Tinuola. Youth voices must be included to shape decisions made about their education.

Many noted the importance of community sensitization as part of distance learning programmes. ‘The key in times of crisis is to strengthen networks in communities so they can become advocates for the needs and rights of children,’ said Somaye Sarvarzade from Education Cannot Wait in Afghanistan. Her colleague, Aida Orgocka, highlighted that sex-disaggregated data should be collected and carefully examined as it often indicates that women are less affected when in reality, they are the most marginalized.

As Chernor said, ‘it is time to double down on girls…it’s time to think about how we reach girls in innovative ways beyond giving them information.’

UNESCO launched a Global Education Coalition to facilitate inclusive learning opportunities for girls and boys, and youth during this period of sudden and unprecedented educational disruption. The webinar series is part of UNESCO’s COVID-19 Education Response to enable peer learning and sharing of experiences among all countries.