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Sierra Leone. Photo: GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer.
Sierra Leone. Photo: GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer.

“Joined up Action Needed: Gender and Schooling in the Time of COVID 19”, by Elaine Unterhalter.

written by: Elaine Unterhalter published 2020-04-01 updated 2020-04-01

More than 1.5 billion children worldwide are out of school due to COVID 19 and we don't know for how long. As yet there is no gender disaggregation of these figures. This shock comes at a time when, slowly, the number of children enrolling and completing school was beginning to rise. Over the last five years, governments and the education community have been getting a sense of the range of ways in which gender inequalities outside schooling could be reproduced inside, and the ways that inequalities of race, class, ethnicity, gender or location overlap in many settings. Many of us have been making plans for the intensive work needed to address these intersecting inequalities.

The pandemic may halt some of this important progress in its tracks. It is critical that we learn from some of the research and practice insights of previous epidemics and pandemics, and that we draw on our collective understanding and commitment to good quality, free public education.  The ways in which good quality education joins up with health, sanitation, social welfare provision, decent work and our visions for sustainability and equality are of crucial importance in confronting the current disaster.

As part of this process we need to acknowledge some particular concerns with building and supporting gender and connected equalities in schools and other learning environments. This is particularly important because gender inequality in our societies is multifaceted and connects with other forms of inequality.

Every day, we hear of the scale of the crisis and its many local ramifications in different countries. In this blog I want to highlight the gender dynamics associated with schooling, which have been documented in other disasters, for example previous epidemics (HIV, Ebola) and natural disasters associated with floods, earthquakes, and droughts.  The gendered impacts of COVID 19 are likely to be extensive and multi-layered. Studies of other epidemics and disasters document how sudden events leave families devastated by deaths and illness. The consequences, noted both at the time of the disaster or after, are emotional and economic . Both are frequently enacted through relationships associated with work in the home. In many families, girls carry huge responsibilities of care, which are different to those of their brothers. The care given by girls can seriously impact on their education. 

In many countries, women make up the majority of teachers and this is particularly the case in early years and primary stages. Women teachers in communities in lockdown will face intensified double burdens, because of demands on their time as they engage in distance teaching or loss of income if they were paid on informal contracts. For those who have school age children or other care responsibilities, this adds extra layers of stress, lack of time and additional work.

Here are three things from my reading about previous epidemics and disasters which we must not forget in this one:

a) Community /family initiatives can flourish, and these may provide opportunities to expand opportunities for girls' education, gender and other equalities. We have an unparalleled opportunity to connect with each other, given the ways in which we are all vulnerable.  But these local initiatives are unlikely to support concerns with equalities without strong steers from a government or other bodies with a substantial notion of public good supporting these initiatives. This support can come through information materials (radio, TV, digital), through learning programmes and assessment arrangements. But the structure of education systems is of central importance. We were not great at inclusion before COVID 19, but we must learn from our past mistakes. Accounts of children returning to school after the Fukushima disaster or the devastation of AIDS in particular communities highlight distressing experiences of exclusion. We must try to work now in our education interventions during this disaster to ward off exclusionary dynamics.

b) The HIV epidemic alerted us to SRGBV (school related gender based violence), which has since become a major area of  investigation, policy and practice, all of which needs to continue as many commentators  anticipate that violence against women may be one consequence of the fear and economic decline associated with COVID 19. In the wake of the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa, there was a high level of teenage pregnancies noted. In Sierra Leone, after the end of the Ebola crisis, the government imposed a ban on pregnant girls attending school. However, as the government gained a better understanding of the gender-based barriers to girls’ full enjoyment of the right to education, a programme was implemented – in close cooperation with the government - by a donor organisation to admit pregnant girls to school. On March 30th, after five years of sustained advocacy by civil society organisations, culminating in a legal challenge that the government lost, the ban on pregnant girls attending school in Sierra Leone was lifted. We must build on and sustain government and many forms of civil society partnerships and initiatives that focus specifically on gender in education, as well as increasing knowledge and understanding of gender equality issues in education among policy makers at all levels.

c) When livelihoods are under pressure, as may well happen because of the economic shocks that will accompany COVID 19, girls get taken out of school. Girls’ labour is seen as key to support the time poverty women in households face. Girls’ labour may be crucial to family livelihoods. Work on the droughts associated with the climate crisis in east Africa have noted more girls out of school and married younger in order to secure household income.  The Constitutions of many countries, and their sign up to frameworks like the SDGs mean there is a commitment to give all children at least ten years of good quality schooling. As the pandemic wreaks havoc with economies, this commitment must not be abandoned, and particular attention must be given to supporting girls in school. This means building joined up education, health and economic policy and thinking about connecting all the phases of an education system.

We have many studies that make us aware of the inequalities in our societies and education systems that we want to address and change. Only by joining up and connecting in the face of this disaster can we try to confront it constructively. We need to try to orient to a different path, from the piecemeal work we have been doing securing equal rights to good quality education for all. We have envisaged this well enough in policy, and we somehow now have to try to make the stuff of real action.