‘Building back equal’ for girls’ education: COVID-19 threatens to reverse hard-earned gains in girls’ education in East Asia and the Pacific
Crises disproportionately affect girls and young women - COVID-19 is no exception. The gains made over the past decades to ensure that all girls have access to quality education are under threat, and so are the prospects for families to lift themselves out of poverty and achieve economic security.
On International Day of the Girl Child celebrated on 11 October, under the theme “My voice, our equal future”, we recall that inclusive and quality education for all girls and young women is a fundamental human right that will determine their lifelong outcomes, and justice and equity in society.
The challenges are real
At the height of school closures in the region, distance learning programmes were not always accessible to girls. Many countries sought to ensure that despite school closures, #LearningNeverStops, putting in place distance education through low-tech and no-tech platforms.
At least every seventh girl globally – 222 million in total – has been unable to access remote learning when schools are closed. One of the reasons is the existing digital divide. Many learners in East Asia and the Pacific live in areas with limited internet coverage. Other families are unable to afford internet at home, or do not have digital devices or enough devices for every child. Where there are few devices at home - parents may tend to favour boys over girls.
In addition to 15 million girls already out of school in the region before the pandemic, more than 1.2 million girls (from pre-primary to upper secondary) may drop out or not have access to school next year. These girls may need to support their families, have increased household and childcare responsibilities, experience early and forced marriage and/or unintended pregnancy, or fear of resurgence of the virus. Those who did not have access to distance education during confinement are particularly at risk of dropping out.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the learning crisis in the region and will continue to do so. Before the pandemic, a sizeable share of girls in-school were not on course to meet minimum proficiency in basic reading and math. Every fifth girl in the region was unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10 and even more were missing out on competencies and transferable skills including digital literacy required for today’s world. 
The pandemic also caused increases in gender-based violence, early marriage and teenage pregnancy, which negatively affects girls’ ability to access education and learn. In Viet Nam, the Peace House, a shelter for women and girl victims of domestic violence and abuse, has received double the usual number of clients since COVID-19 related measures were introduced.
For those girls with online access during school closures, the risk of online sexual exploitation has increased. A lack of face-to-face contact with friends and romantic partners may lead to heightened risk-taking such as sending sexualized images, while increased and unstructured time online may expose children to potentially harmful and violent content as well as greater risk of cyberbullying. Data from the Philippines Department of Justice, for example, revealed a four-fold increase in reports of online sexual exploitation and abuse during the country’s enhanced community quarantine period compared to the previous year.
COVID-19 also increased psychosocial stress and mental health issues of girls, affecting their ability to learn. The prolonged lockdown, uncertainty, economic stress on families, and the loss of the school support system and routines can result in psychosocial stress and mental health issues.
The longer the pandemic lasts, the more girls are at risk of never returning to school.
This unprecedented education crisis, however, presents the opportunity to reimagine education that drives progress towards a world where we build back equal for girls’ education.
In East Asia and the Pacific, partners of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative are supporting governments across the region to ensure gender-equitable approaches to continuity of learning, safe school reopening and inclusion and re-enrollment of all children as learning moves back to the classroom.
UNICEF and UNESCO are advising partners in education to:
Keep girls at the centre: given the increased risk girls face in dropping out of school, we need to ensure that their specific needs are considered in all continuation of learning and school reopening plans.
Ensure equal access to distance learning programmes: ensure that all children and especially girls have equal access to learning continuity, support government counterparts to implement different modes of distance learning, including online, television, radio and take-home learning kits. As girls with disabilities are at particular risk of being left behind, targeted action needs to be taken to ensure they can access distance learning programmes that respond to their specific learning needs and eventual return to school.
Assess and address the needs of girls to return to school: girls are facing multiple barriers to returning to school upon school reopening, government partners should implement programmes to ensure that all girls are able to return to school with a particular focus on the most marginalized.
Prioritize girls’ safety and protection: girls face risks especially during prolonged school closures and home confinement. There should be comprehensive programmes on school reopening integrating health, protection and mental health and psychosocial support.
Keep advocating with governments, communities and families to keep girls ‘in the picture’ in education recovery and resilience: immediate priorities for continuing education and wellbeing of girls and young women also need to be complemented by longer-term policy and strategies as set forth in, “Building back equal: Girls back to school guide”. The guide - developed as part of a global campaign by the Global Education Coalition to support girls’ return to school – enables education policy makers and practitioners to accelerate gender-responsive education systems and targeted actions to ensure girls’ continuity of learning and return to school when these reopen..
Strong advocacy and partnerships with governments and communities are essential, not just to overcome the COVID-19 challenge, but to make progress towards gender equality in and through education. In the current pandemic, “building back equal” requires urgent action focused on millions of girls and young women at risk of never returning to school, while keeping in sight the deep inequalities in education that existed prior to the pandemic. In the long term, there is an opportunity, if we all act together, to address structural inequalities to build stronger, more equitable and resilient societies.
 UNICEF 2020. COVID-19: Are children able to continue learning during school closures? A global analysis of the potential reach of remote learning policies
 (23.8 million from pre-primary to tertiary). UNESCO. 2020. UNESCO COVID-19 education response: how many students are at risk of not returning to school? Advocacy paper
 UNICEF (2020): Rapid Assessment on the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on children and families in Viet Nam
Written by Jenelle Babb, UNESCO and Maida Pasic, UNICEF
The article was first published in UNICEF East Asia & Pacific.