Published on Let's Talk Development

Empowering adolescent girls in the time of COVID-19

This page in:
Photo by: Stephan Gladieu/World Bank Photo by: Stephan Gladieu/World Bank

Adolescence is a pivotal time for girls, who often navigate the transition to secondary school or entry into the labor market concurrently with the onset of sexual activity and childbearing. Experiencing a shock, such as a large-scale health crisis, can amplify these challenges and narrow the spectrum of opportunities available to them in irreversible ways.

It is important to account for the particular vulnerabilities faced by adolescent girls in order to offer solutions to support and empower them throughout the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis. For instance, many girls were already out of school (39 percent in low income countries) before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In the context of COVID-19, there’s a real concern that school closures will lead even more girls to drop out, limiting human capital accumulation in the long run. The interruption in schooling is also likely to increase domestic responsibilities for girls and lead to a premature shift towards income generation. Moreover, being outside of the protective environment provided by schools may make girls more susceptible to early pregnancy and gender-based violence.

Rigorous evidence from across the globe can help support policymakers in designing programs to protect girls during the crisis and help them regain their footing in its aftermath. 

Supporting already out-of-school girls

“Safe spaces” or girls’ clubs combining life skills and livelihoods training are an increasingly popular model for empowering adolescent girls that’s been proven effective in a variety of contexts. Community-based programs in Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Bangladesh have not only increased girls’ self-employment and earnings, but also reduced pregnancies, boosted self-confidence, and eased anxiety. Center-based skills building interventions, such as those in India, Nepal and Liberia, also have the potential to help with post-COVID-19 economic recovery and offer an alternative to early family formation for adolescent girls.

Linking adolescent girls to mentors from their own community has also been shown to encourage girls to push forward in their education. Notably, a program in Liberia implemented during the Ebola epidemic helped girls transition from primary to secondary school and led to sustained impacts on educational achievement. 

Continuing education during a pandemic

Distance learning initiatives (e.g., radio and TV broadcasting, and internet platforms) have been put in place to facilitate children’s learning during school closures. However, access to and use of technology is often limited for girls living in poor households or remote areas. Instead, robust evidence from Kenya and Ghana suggests that the provision of e-readers with pre-filled content can have significant impacts on learning in both English and local languages. 

Accelerating girls’ return to school 

A systematic review of existing studies has shown that reducing the cost of schooling is the single most effective way to keep girls in schools. Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) have been proven, across contexts, to contribute to significant declines in early childbearing, also confirming that school acts as a protective factor against adolescent pregnancy. 

Emerging evidence from Malawi suggests that initially out-of-school girls may benefit the most from this type of intervention in the long run in terms of educational attainment and reductions in teen fertility.

Other interventions, such as lowering school fees, paying for school uniforms in Kenya, or providing school meals in Burkina Faso and Uganda, can also help increase girls’ attendance and reduce dropout rates. Costs are not just monetary, but also include effort and travel time to school. In areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan where few schools exist, creating new local schools proved an effective way to boost participation. While building schools is not a near-term solution in most contexts, reducing or subsidizing travel time to school is a promising avenue, particularly in areas where security is an issue.

Information interventions can make the benefits of education more salient and change behavior at a low cost, leading to positive impacts on student enrollment and attendance. In Chile, for example, providing information about accessing financial aid increased student attendance in the short-run and led more students to enroll in college-preparatory high schools. In India, changing perceptions of possible career opportunities for educated women by providing information on job opportunities led parents and students to invest more in their education.

A policy response that works for girls

Governments play a critical role in developing effective policy responses in the context of COVID-19 and lifting constraints to empowering adolescent girls. One important legal barrier to remove is ensuring that pregnant and married girls are allowed and encouraged to return to school when it reopens, given the importance of education not just for individuals, but as a tool against the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Ultimately, promoting adolescent girls’ empowerment is critical for both mitigating the effects of the current crisis and building resilience against future shocks. It can also set a generation of girls on a successful path to growing their human capital and participating in a meaningful way in the economy.

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000