Nearly 1 billion children have been affected by the schooling disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis. The areas served by the SHE Project in rural Zimbabwe have not been spared either. The statistics show that children who were already at risk of being excluded from quality education have been affected the most due to unequal access to remote learning technology. Poor infrastructure and a lack of funding are contributing to his problem resulting in learning loss.
Although COVID-19 is disrupting education, there is growing evidence that education is the global South’s most powerful force for sustainable progress. The correlation between women’s education level and school enrolment for their children speaks to the need to prioritise the education of both boys and girls. In 2020, the Malala Fund reported that 20 million more girls are likely to drop out of secondary school due to the long-term effects of COVID-19. The pandemic has heightened girls’ exposure to abuse and the risk of dropping out, or rather being pushed out of the education system.
The common pathway leading to girls’ dropout in rural Sub-Saharan Africa begins with lack of basic needs which sometimes push girls into economic exploitation, sexually exploitive relationships with men who promised them money or goods, ultimately ending in unintended pregnancies, early marriages and in worst cases, HIV infections. There is need to address the challenges faced by vulnerable girls holistically so as to ensure that they safely stay in school and complete all levels of education. In the context of COVID-19, disappointment with school closures which are often abrupt and prolonged, fears and anxieties, a deep sense of insecurity in themselves about not returning to school and, lack of scholastic confidence should they return and are also challenges to consider.
While the universal primary and secondary education are now enshrined in SDGs many communities particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa are still far away from this goal. To achieve SDG 4, there is need to go beyond access to girls’ education and endeavour to ensure girls continue learning despite COVID-19, develop as learners until they successfully transition to employment or further education. To this end, young girls require support outside of education system which requires increased financing for the systems and structures that support girls’ education.
Finally, shifting social norms to better support young rural girls during this COVID-19 crisis can happen only if framed in a way that highlights the benefits for everyone. If boys and men are made to lose, any progress will be short-lived. We cannot afford to waste a single girl’s potential. We need all our people, Africa needs all its girls.