COVID-19 risks undoing decades of progress on girls’ education. Students and youth activists across Africa are refusing to accept the damage this would inflict, and are taking action at the local and national levels.
GIRLS' EDUCATION IN CRISIS
The impact of COVID-19 continues to devastate the world’s poorest, most vulnerable communities. The pandemic, and the unequal, immoral global response to it, has deepened inequality, increased extreme poverty and undermined the basic human rights of millions.
Even before COVID-19, marginalised girls were disproportionately at risk of exploitation, abuse and being excluded from education, with over 130 million girls already out of school.
At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, closures of educational institutions affected over 90% of the global student population across 200 countries. That’s 1.5 billion learners, including more than 760 million girls, for whom being out of school puts them at particular risk of domestic labour, child marriage, early pregnancy and gender-based violence - all of which decrease their likelihood of contuinuing their education.
STUDENT AND YOUTH ACTIVISTS TAKE ACTION
Refusing to accept this injustice, the All-Africa Students’ Union and the 100 Million campaign joined forces in support of UNESCO’s #LearningNeverStops initiative to make sure girls go back to school and fulfill their potential.
Student and youth activists from 29 countries signed up to lead the Girls Back to School campaign in their country. Recognising the failure of global leaders to deliver Justice for Every Child during the pandemic, youth activists understood that to prevent millions of girls dropping out of school, action was needed at the community level. All country coordinators therefore came together in October 2020 for an in-depth training on understanding gender discrimination in their country, community organising and building local power.
Since then, youth activists have been relentless in their work to ensure girls return to school, often working in challenging contexts, in the middle of a global pandemic, tackling deeply entrenched stigma and exclusion. Their inspiring efforts, which you can read highlights of below, have had a huge impact and demonstrated once again the power of young people working together to achieve change.
Mary Ojwang (images left), a powerful advocate for girls' education from Kenya and Director of WOWSA, has personal experience of the difficulties of continuing her education alongside teenage pregnancy. At the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools began to close and lockdowns imposed, she knew immediately the risk this posed for girls for whom school is safer than home. With abuse and exploitation hidden behind closed doors, the likelihood of girls falling pregnant and dropping out of school as a result increased. Refusing to accept this injustice, in October 2020 Mary launched the Girls Back to School campaign in Busia county, sharing her own story and informing the girls of their rights, including the right to an education in their local dialect. The launch was covered by major news channels, especially in the Western part of Kenya, with Mary’s own personal story covered by the major outlet The Nation.
Alongside further community sensitisation events, such as in Muranga county with 350 girls from different schools, Mary and her team also knew that to achieve sustainable change they needed to contact the decision-makers responsible for preventing girls dropping out of school. Working with the Ministry of Health, they highlighted the specific needs of vulnerable girls during COVID-19, for example, pressuring them to place greater attention on the informal settlements in the Mukuru and Mhengo regions of Nairobi. As a result of their advocacy, the Ministry of Health agreed to work with the Sub-County officials to provide free health support to young girls in the region, a critical success during a pandemic in which the health needs of young girls risked being sidelined.
As schools began to reopen after 9 months of closure, the Girls Back to School activists became very concerned about the lack of support shown towards pregnant girls and teenage mothers to return to school. They are now working hard to raise awareness of the fact that it is not enough to simply allow pregnant girls and teenage mothers back into the classroom, but that extra provisions must be made to allow them to fully access their education alongside their caregiving responsibilities.
In Uganda, led by the fearless Lynda Nakaibale (image left), Nankunda Hope, and Prisca Amongin of Raising Teenagers Uganda, the initial efforts of the Girls Back to School campaign focused on the district of Kamuli. Recognising the devastating link between child marriage and girls dropping out of school, they began by building broad partnerships to challenge these interconnected injustices. These partnerships not only included district officials, but also teachers, probation officers, social workers and the police as well religious, local and cultural community leaders. However, according to Lynda, the most powerful partnerships they formed were with parents and girls themselves, who have not only had their own commitment to education strengthened, but have been critical in disseminating the message amongst their peers too. With the support of the Girls Back to School activists, girls at risk of dropping out have been sharing their experiences and using their voices to speak out on the inequalities they’ve witnessed in the education system and demand improved service delivery. For example, 30 girls wrote letters directly to their decision-maker, and others have recorded their testimony to be shared online. As a direct result, the Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, after hearing the stories of girls whose education has been affected by lack of sanitary pads, immediately provided over 6000 sanitary pads to girls in Kamuli district.
Not stopping there, the youth activists in Uganda have also extended the Girls Back to School Campaign to Isingiro district and the Nakivaale Refugee Settlement, working with local partners to ensure refugee girls, some of the most vulnerable children in the world, and those with albinism are enrolled in school.
Similar to Mary’s experience in Kenya, the Ugandan Girls Back to School activists also identified teenage pregnancy as a major factor in girls dropping out of school. They highlighted the need to go beyond simply allowing pregnant girls or young mothers to enroll in school, but to provide proper, ongoing support once they do. For example, Lynda shared how dedicated nursing rooms, catch up classes or trained counsellors are rarely available. Although the Government of Uganda has agreed to allow pregnant girls or young mothers to return to school and sit their exams (as a result of the tireless advocacy from civil society including Raising Teenagers Uganda), Lynda and her team know that progessive policy and law means very little if it is not implemented at the community level, and that youth activists play a vital role in this accountability. They therefore regularly check in directly with the girls and their teachers to ensure they are not just present, but fully accepted and actually learning, including successfully supporting pregnant students in Kamuli district to sit their final exams.
Over the course of the Girls Back to School campaign in Uganda so far, they have conducted school outreach activities in 6 schools, reaching over 900 girls, visited 25 families of girls that are victims of child marriages, set up 4 male support groups to actively engage boys and men in fighting the injustice of child marriage with their peers and conducted many one-on-one home visits in the communities to disseminate information on the importance of girls’ education. Right now they are producing a documentary to be used as an advocacy tool, which amplifies the voices of girls, and their experience of how COVID-19 affected their education and offers clear recommendations to their duty bearers.
Girls Back to School campaign activities have also been spearheaded by youth activists in a variety of other countries on the continent, such as Cameroon, Burundi, Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Guinea and Rwanda.
For example, youth activists in Cameroon (image left) led by Liano Takubo of the Council of African Youths, began contacting country officials very early on to ensure that the government was prioritising girls education in amongst the competing crisis of a pandemic and the devastating conflict in the country. Alongside this they visited many schools personally, talking to students directly about their rights and how to access support for gender-based violence and teenage pregnancy. Similar activities were also undertaken by Girls Back to School activists in Ghana, who met with parent associations in the Bukom Community that have recorded high levels of drop-outs to understand the reasons girls were not returning to school.
In Burundi, student union activists led the Girls Back to School campaign and successfully convinced the Provincial Committee of Education in the East Provinces of the country to launch an investigation into girls education in the region, with the aim of identifying how the government, civil society and community members themselves can support girls to go back to school.
With COVID-19 restrictions easing in some countries, community organising efforts are ramping up to make sure no girl is left behind as the world reopens. Similarly, where COVID-19 numbers are increasing and further school closures look likely, activists are advocating for lessons to be learnt from previous lockdowns to keep girls safe and learning at home.
The Girls Back to School campaign demonstrates the change possible when national and regional youth-led organisations such as Student Unions, dedicate time, resources and support to building power at the grassroots level in solidarity with their peers facing extreme marginalisation and exclusion.