Education is a human right well-known to Canadians, but still remains a distant dream for children, especially girls, in low- and middle-income countries. While many of us are aware of the biomedical implications of COVID-19 on our global society, we may neglect the broader indirect social and economic impacts of this pandemic.
The preventative measures taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in an increased percentage of out-of-school children in low- and middle-income countries, as they are devoid of the resources necessary to transition to online learning.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in 2020, about 11 million girls were at risk of not returning to school because of COVID-19. Even prior to the pandemic, stark inequalities in access to education existed, as 130 million girls were not attending school.
Girls are two and a half times more likely to be out of school in the midst of a crisis compared to boys. Addressing the gendered impacts of the pandemic, particularly with regards to education, is imperative to achieving a more equitable society. Inaccessibility to education has dire effects on the livelihoods and quality of life for girls. School closures have put girls in low- and middle-income countries in extremely vulnerable positions, making them more susceptible to exploitation, sexual abuse, child marriage, child pregnancy, inaccessibility to healthcare, and extreme poverty.
The detrimental impacts of inaccessibility to education can be better understood through the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone from 2014 to 2016, which put similar strains on the social infrastructure of countries as the current pandemic has. School closures that were implemented in Sierra Leone as a result of the Ebola crisis had pernicious effects on the health and well-being of girls. According to Plan International, when schools closed, only 30 per cent of children were engaging in home learning.
Evidence shows that girls are much less likely to learn from home, given their burden of household responsibilities. Teen pregnancy rates doubled as a result of school closures in Sierra Leone, which greatly harmed the overall health and well-being of girls. Once a girl becomes pregnant, she is extremely unlikely to return to school due to social stigma within communities. Such closures were also seen as a driving factor behind the increased rates of gender-based violence and exploitation.
From a macro perspective, failure to educate girls has cost countries up to $1 billion USD, ultimately weakening their economies. Neglecting educational inequalities and its gendered impacts deepens cyclical poverty and prevents girls from leading productive lives.
Canada has the opportunity to be a global leader in the fight to support girls’ education, and thereby make great strides towards gender equality by increasing their investment in the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). The GPE is a global fund that works multilaterally with state governments, nonprofit organizations, the for-profit sector, and civil society to develop equitable, inclusive, and strengthened education systems in low-income countries, with gender equality being a key tenet of their mission.
Since 2002, Canada’s investment in the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) has helped 160 million children receive education. Eighty-two million more girls have been attending school as a result of the GPE’s work in its partner countries.
The GPE is holding a conference on July 28 to 29, 2021 to replenish its funds. They hope to raise $5 billion USD for the 2021 to 2025 period. If the GPE reaches its replenishment goal, 48 million girls will be in school and early marriage will be prevented for two million girls.
Canada has already voiced its commitment to acting in adherence to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG Four calls for inclusive and equitable education for all. Therefore, Canada has the responsibility to further invest in the GPE, to address the setbacks that COVID-19 has caused towards attaining gender equality.