Being forced to stay at home and not being able to study has a greater impact on girls, affecting their mental health, increasing their domestic responsibilities, and making them more likely than boys to drop out of school.
UNESCO estimates that about 10 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school following the crisis. At the height, there were over 1.5 billion affected learners and 194 country-wide school closures.
In many countries there is already a pronounced gendered difference in educational access and achievement. Disparities in re-enrolment are particularly true for poorer and marginalised families. Education may be unaffordable due to associated costs or loss of time that could be used for paid work. For girls it may be unattainable or cut short, due to early marriage, or restrictive policies for visibly pregnant adolescents.
Once adolescent girls drop out of school, it can be very difficult to return. The loss of even six months of education as a result of Covid-19 will have a huge impact on girls with limited access to education. In some countries they could lose 50 per cent of their total years of education.
Schools also offer important social protection mechanisms including school meal programs, health programs, drinking water sanitation and hygiene facilities. For example, in Egypt, 5.2 million who rely on school meals are now missing out due to Covid-19. Schools also play a significant role in reporting concerns about at-risk children. Overall, school closures have left children at higher risk of neglect, abuse, exploitation and gender-based violence.
Of those girls and young women who could not physically attend their place of education, the majority of those surveyed by Plan International were able to continue their education at home in some way, via online resources or by self-learning using books and other non-digital materials. The world’s poorest are less likely to have access to distance learning.
Many do not have the technology or safe and supportive learning environments with parents or guardians able to home-school. In Africa, more than two-thirds of countries have introduced distance education, but mostly that is only available in one or two main languages, which also excludes a large number of learners.
Even among those able to study from home, it was missing school or university that the girls and young women surveyed reported as having the biggest negative impact on their lives. The importance of schools in girls’ lives extends beyond study or qualifications.