Girls’ Education is Another Casualty of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Girls’ education, particularly in developing countries, is being hindered by the coronavirus pandemic. Drawing on lessons from the Ebola outbreak, the Malala Fund (Girl’s education and COVID-19) estimates that approximately 20 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school after the end of the pandemic, only exacerbating the serious educational inequality between girls and boys.

When compared to boys, unequal access to education holds back millions of girls and women across the world. According to UNESCO estimates, 132 million girls are out of school. While the “gender gap” in education has narrowed over the past decade, girls are still at a disadvantage, particularly in accessing high school education.

This gender gap is generally wider at higher levels of schooling. According to some estimates, women in South Asia, for example, have only half as many years of education as men, and female enrollment rates at the high-school level are two-thirds that of males. And women still constitute two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population.

Overall access to basic education has risen markedly over the past decade in many developing countries. In spite of that, poor children are still less likely to attend school or be enrolled in school and more likely to repeat grades than those who come from wealthier families. To be a girl from a poor family is thus a double disadvantage.

In addition, gender bias – such as lack of attention from teachers – exacerbates this difference. Elimination of gender bias in education is particularly important when the level of education of parents is linked to their children’s educational attainment. In this regard, several studies have shown that educating mothers is more important than educating fathers to increase the chances of their children’s success.

There is widespread agreement that primary school education should become universal, but differences in educational attendance and attainment, often determined by economic status, indicate that those living in poverty are less likely to receive education than those better off economically.

There are several reasons to explain this gap. It is more difficult for children living in poverty to have easy access to schools because schools tend to be concentrated in cities and areas where only better-off families live. Physical availability of schools and easy access to them are critical factors in girls’ education in most developing countries.

Disparities in attaining a good level education have been attributed to ineffective school systems. Although overall expenditures on education have increased over the past few decades, unless these resources are specifically targeted to those most vulnerable, they will increase disparities rather than decrease them.

The choices governments make to allocate resources is critical. Governments tend to spend less on public primary and high school education – the type of schooling that tends to benefit those in poverty – during economic crises. Wars, civil conflicts, economic disruptions and epidemics affect school attendance. All these problems tend to have a greater effect on individuals and families living in poverty.

In addition, a great deal of evidence shows that women’s schooling enables their children to attain education, and improves their health, nutrition and survival. Immunization rates among children of educated mothers, for example, have been consistently higher than those of uneducated mothers.

Educated girls can develop more efficiently essential life skills, including self-confidence, the ability to participate effectively in society, and the capacity to better protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and sexual exploitation. In addition, several studies have shown that educated women have fewer children and better economic prospects.

A time of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic offers the opportunity to modify educational policies so as to address the needs of the most vulnerable. Special attention must be paid to girls experiencing poverty. Increased expenditures on education for the underserved sections of society yields better returns in productivity, income and economic growth. In contrast, inequality in the distribution of education has impeded economic growth and per capita income in many countries.

Girls’ education empowers them and is considered the best investment in a country’s development. Educating girls increases earning, savings, and financial autonomy. Taking measures to alleviate poverty remains an urgent global priority. And one of the best ways to reduce poverty and improve health is to increase the educational level of girls worldwide.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”