Keeping Girls Safe and Learning through COVID-19 and Beyond
It’s hard to overstate the depth of care that teachers hold for their students. Their passion has been exemplified by their responses to COVID-19, as they support overwhelmed parents to keep children safe and learning at home, recreate lessons digitally, and find solutions to teach, track and engage the millions of children who have no internet connectivity.
Educators are also — as they are so often called to do — supporting children facing non-academic threats to their learning and safety. This includes hunger due to lack of school meals, confinement in unsafe spaces under lockdown, and mental health challenges caused or exacerbated by isolation and uncertainty. For girls and women, closed schools can create even more challenges that educators are racing to mitigate, including physical and sexual violence, increased caregiving and household responsibilities, loss of access to sanitary products and reproductive health materials (contraceptives, advice, counseling), and increased pregnancy rates.
Some of these challenges may prevent girls from coming back to school once they reopen. Girls who entered marriages or became pregnant during the shutdown may not return at all. As families’ financial situations remain dire, girls who entered the workforce will face pressure to remain there.
Given the stakes, educators must keep the gendered impact of this crisis in mind when seeking to support all children. The good news is that most of the suggested ways to do this benefit all learners and their families.
Listen to girls
It’s more important than ever to hear what girls are saying about their day-to-day realities and needs. Developing an open line of communication now will pay off as schools prepare to reopen and girls with a direct connection to a caring educator find it easier to come back.
At the same time, it’s crucial to tread responsibly. We know from past epidemics that school closings will amplify girls’ exposure to domestic violence and sexual abuse, alongside loss of access to reproductive services. These are sensitive subjects at the best of times. Girls may not have private spaces at home to speak openly about them; they might be sharing a phone with multiple members of the household, or may not have access to phones or other means of communication. If educators face obstacles connecting with girls, reaching out to their parents or older siblings may be necessary. If connecting with a girl’s family member may put her at risk, it may be possible for these conversations to take place between a girl and a trusted friend or female mentor.
Things to try:
- Figure out how to keep in touch with girls you suspect might be facing increased hardships while they are confined to their homes. Understand what child protection resources are still available in case you become aware of violence, neglect, or other abuse. Start thinking now about how to ensure that these girls are able to return to school once they reopen.
- Educate yourself about resources that promote comprehensive sexuality education and be prepared to talk honestly with girls (and boys) about power, relationships, and sexuality. During times of confinement and economic desperation, pregnancy rates rise and girls may find themselves facing pressure to enter early marriages or unwanted relationships. Be prepared to offer guidance about how they can protect themselves, and have links to local reproductive health and abuse organizations or hotlines ready to share. In the US, UK, Canada, and Ireland, you can refer girls to the Crisis Text Line for access to a counselor.
Help girls navigate gendered expectations at home
With multiple generations sharing a roof under stay-at-home orders, many families will rely on traditional gender roles in which girls and women take on the burden of housework and caregiving. As such, it’s critical to support all children to promote gender equity at home to the extent that they can reasonably and safely do so. This is important even for the youngest learners; children start internalizing gender roles as early as age three.
Things to try:
- Keep an eye out for gender bias creeping into virtual lessons or discussions. While this is easier to do in person, we can’t afford to ignore bias while schools are closed. This could include reviewing lessons in advance to ensure that they don’t include gender-biased examples or rhetoric, monitoring whether girls are showing up to virtual lessons (or engaging in WhatsApp chats) at the same rates as boys, and making sure that girls are able to participate in discussions and receive equitable time to speak and contribute.
- Remember that boys need to be supported to challenge gender norms too. They can be valuable allies to their sisters, mothers, and friends during times of crisis. When engaging boys, talk to them about their experiences at home and how those might differ from what girls in the home are going through. Support them to behave and advocate in a way that promotes gender equity.
Involve families and communities
Girls do not live in isolation from their families and communities, and promoting gender-equitable beliefs requires building relationships with communities and networks over the long haul. When seeking to support girls, think broadly about who needs to be involved (and in some instances, give permission).
Things to try:
- Try to understand what level of economic hardship families are experiencing during this time. Those who are heavily impacted will be making tough choices about resources, and efforts to support girls will be influenced by the level of hardship their families are facing. Get familiar with local economic relief programs and be prepared to link families to basic needs services.
- Without school, girls miss out on enriching and supportive after-school clubs, mentorship programs, and other activities. These pursuits provide opportunities for self-expression, self-advocacy, and exposure to socio-emotional and life skills that improve girls’ ability to respond to challenges and trials. Seek ways to connect girls to each other, to older girls and young women, and to other avenues that might enable them to continue learning and growing outside of formal academics. This can also help girls understand their role in fighting the virus, both as potential transmitters and as valued community members who are empowered to share accurate information.
- Some girls will lose access to menstrual hygiene products that they used to receive at school. Find out if organizations that normally provide resources at schools are distributing in community centers or other places where girls can safely access them.
Educators are the best resource any country has for understanding the daily impact of this pandemic on children. Our hope is that these resources and suggestions can help meet children’s needs and support the phenomenal teachers around the world who are going above and beyond in this unprecedented situation.
To learn more about the ways educators around the Teach For All network are meeting children’s needs during this crisis, visit our #DontStopLearning page. To access our overview of strategies to support girls during the pandemic, click here.
Samantha Williams is the Global Director for Girls’ Education at Teach For All. Previously, she worked as Chief of Staff to the CEO, and before that spent five years in Johannesburg leading Teach For All’s external relations, growth strategy, and network partner support in Africa.