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Sub-Saharan Africa: Girls Fight a Pandemic of Injustice

Today’s International Day of the Girl Child focuses attention on the loss of educational opportunities resulting from the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for many girls in sub-Saharan Africa. Gender inequalities in education are particularly exacerbated by the significant increase in teenage pregnancies, which is often linked to a higher proportion of girls dropping out of school.

Education – a basic prerequisite for socioeconomic progress – has been severely affected by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Empty classrooms, resulting from crisis-induced school closures and lockdowns, threaten to exacerbate existing educational inequalities between boys and girls. This trend is particularly strong in the already unequal region of sub-Saharan Africa. Even before the pandemic, there were 9 million primary-school-age girls worldwide likely to never enter a school building, compared to 3 million boys. Since there is an above-average proportion of girls in the sub-Saharan African population by international standards, enabling them to enjoy educational opportunities is of particular importance for a better future – not only for them but also for their societies.

Teenage pregnancies pose a severe risk to girls’ educational opportunities. Already prior to the pandemic, sub-Saharan African countries had the highest adolescent birth rates in the world. While the rate has been declining since 2010, the unanticipated disruption in economic and social life caused by the pandemic threatens to undo this progress. As a result, increased teenage pregnancies are likely to exacerbate girls’ negative health impact through increased risk of maternal and infant mortality and affect girls’ economic empowerment and participation in educational opportunities.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of teenage pregnancies has increased significantly. For instance, six Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries – Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – have all recorded higher rates of early pregnancies. Similarly, in South Africa’s most populous province, Gauteng, the number of teenage pregnancies has increased by 60 percent since the beginning of the pandemic.

Economic Consequences of the Pandemic for Girls

The economic impact of the pandemic could have a negative effect on girls’ educational opportunities. Save the Children estimates that the economic recession could result in up to 9.7 million children dropping out of school altogether worldwide. In many sub-Saharan African countries, economic activity has declined significantly as a result of pandemic-related lockdowns, social distancing measures, and travel restrictions.

Economic slowdown threatens to increase household poverty. When poor households lack the resources to pay for schooling and associated costs, they often choose to invest exclusively in boys’ education. Girls, on the other hand, are expected to help with household chores and care for younger siblings and other family members. Therefore, the negative economic impact of the pandemic could increase school dropout rates among girls.

School Closures as a Result of the Pandemic

Globally, approximately 1.6 billion children are affected by COVID-19 pandemic-induced school closures. Of these, 16 percent are in sub-Saharan Africa alone. School closures are often associated with a loss of sexual health education and social protection for girls. They also appear to increase the risk of sexual violence and teen pregnancy. According to a study conducted in 2015 in South Africa, girls were nearly 50% less likely to become pregnant if they were enrolled in school than if they were not. For many girls, schools can be a safe space where teachers can identify signs of abuse and intervene when necessary. When girls are forced to stay at home, they are more likely to experience sexual violence from family, neighbors, and community members. In many countries, helplines have experienced an increased number of calls. In Kenya, for instance, a national helpline reported a more than 10-fold increase in calls, many of which were reports of child rape.

Previous crisis-related school closures have already shown an increased risk of girls becoming pregnant. During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, the number of adolescent pregnancies doubled after schools were closed for eight months. In some communities, the Ebola outbreak increased the number of teenage pregnancies by as much as 65 percent. School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic appear to have similar effects, at an exponentially larger scale.

Educational Access for Pregnant Teenagers

Many pregnant teenagers do not return to school. The Mo Ibrahim foundation estimates that approximately one million girls in sub-Saharan Africa may never return to school due to becoming pregnant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes it is because girls are too embarrassed to go back to school under these circumstances. However, there are also cases in which formal policies explicitly prohibit pregnant girls and young mothers from continuing their education.

Some countries maintain outright expulsion policies for pregnant girls. In Tanzania, for instance, exclusion from school on the grounds of pregnancy dates back to a law passed in the 1960s. This law was strengthened during the presidency of the late John Magufuli, who declared: As long as I am president […] no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school. The BTI country report for Tanzania confirms that dropout rates are very high (particularly for girls) due to economic hardship, early marriage, teenage pregnancy, and gender-based violence.

Other countries in sub-Saharan Africa have begun to change their existing rules to ensure that girls can stay in school during pregnancy or return to school afterward. Since 2019, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, and Uganda have eliminated discriminatory policies or passed new laws allowing pregnant girls to stay in school.

First, Sierra Leone reversed its laws in 2020 and enacted a more inclusive education policy for pregnant schoolgirls. Second, Uganda adopted a policy in December 2020 affirming pregnant students’ right to education. However, the policy places several conditions on enrollment, such as requiring girls to leave school when they are three months pregnant and mandating six months of maternity leave. These conditions mean that girls miss one year of schooling, which increases the barriers to re-entry. Third, Zimbabwe reformed its Education Act in 2019, allowing pregnant students to remain in school.

While a step in the right direction, these laws are often difficult to implement or involve multiple barriers. And an example from a secondary school in Zimbabwe, where in 202113 girls fell pregnant during the lockdown and only two of them returned to continue their education, shows that revised policies do not necessarily immediately induce change on the ground. Therefore, various obstacles for pregnant girls to return to school remain.

The Road Ahead

The International Day of the Girl Child reminds us of the pandemic of inequalities girls are fighting every day – in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. There is still much progress to be made in ensuring gender equality in education. Providing girls with an adequate education is not only important to ensure their basic human rights, but also critical to advancing development in sub-Saharan Africa. As a foundation, all countries should take measures to enable pregnant girls to stay in school, and governments and organizations should ensure that these measures are sufficiently implemented. In addition to the health and economic aspects of the pandemic response, the growing inequalities in girls’ education in particular need to be given greater attention on the international agenda.

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