Investing in girls’ education in the time of COVID-19

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A teenage girl wearing a protective cloth mask against transmissible COVID-19 diseases and she stay his home at Dhaka.
Image: Jahangir Alam Onuchcha/Shutterstock.com

As we approach International Day of the Girl on October 11th, we reflect not only on how harmful cultural practices prevent adolescent girls from continuing their education, but also on how this may be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s theme is “my voice, our equal future” focusing on programs with innovative solutions to empower adolescent girls. One initiative that embodies this theme is the Adolescent Girls Program, which is being implemented by Bangladesh Ministry of Education in collaboration with the World Bank. It promotes school retention and overall welfare, empowerment, and agency of girls in Chittagong and Sylhet, Bangladesh.

This theme also resonates with the vast majority of adolescents in Bangladesh who dream of bright futures. For example, in our program’s communities, 86% of adolescent girls hope to attend university and 95% of adolescent girls aspire to a professional career. However, these dreams are not easy to fulfill.  Adolescent girls face social and cultural constraints that keep secondary education out of reach. In Bangladesh, only 52% of enrolled girls complete secondary school compared to 65% of boys.

We explore how social norms in Bangladesh and COVID-19 may affect girls’ secondary school completion using cross-country sex-disaggregated data curated on the Gender Data Portal and results from a survey of 2,220 adolescent girls and boys (average age of 13) conducted by the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) program.

Child marriage, sexual violence keeps girls from completing secondary school

While 9 in 10 girls in our survey believe that marriage can wait until a girl has completed secondary school, this does not happen in practice. Bangladesh has some of the highest rates of both child marriages and female secondary school dropouts across South Asia and lower middle-income countries. 

Studies have shown that a portion of school dropouts can be attributed to child marriage and early pregnancies. Often as soon as girls are married, they are expected to bear children and let go of their personal goals and aspirations, forcing them to remain at home instead of continuing their education.

Another factor affecting school completion rates is sexual harassment. In our survey, about 1 in 10 girls reported sexual harassment in their daily life while almost none was reported by boys. The experience of sexual harassment is not only traumatizing, but often leads to public ridicule. Research shows that in some cases the girls are so afraid or ashamed that they no longer want to attend school, while in other cases, the parents themselves react to the harassment by pulling their daughters out of school, limiting their mobility, or marrying them off at a young age.

Social norms on girls’ education and professions continue to limit girls’ achievements

Nearly 7 in 10 adolescents themselves indicated in our survey that culture in Bangladesh makes it harder for girls to achieve than boys. Social norms favoring men’s education and women’s roles at home still persist, even among adolescents.

Almost a quarter of girls and 40% of boys believe that if a family can only afford to send one child, then the boy should be sent to school. 

Similarly, when asked if they agree that girls should only be sent to school if they are not needed at home, 1 in 5 girls and a third of boys agreed. 

Addressing these attitudes and norms at all levels (girl, boy, parent, community) to ultimately change behavior towards a more gender equal redistribution of responsibilities at home and in society will be essential in improving girls’ secondary school completion rates.

Adolescent Girls Program combats gender norms aiming to reduce school dropouts

The aim is to shift the beliefs of adolescent girls (and boys) so that education outcomes, and aspirations for employment, self-determination, and agency are seen as normal, even desirable. To this end, three ideas are being evaluated:

  1. Using peer-support groups (girls and boys clubs) that allow adolescents to discuss specific issues and challenges openly and form supportive relationships with peers.
  2. Implementing growth mindset training, which will help imbue girls (and boys) with the belief that abilities are malleable and can be cultivated through concerted effort (as opposed to a fixed mindset that abilities cannot be altered much and efforts as fruitless).
  3. Fostering girls empowerment through the 'girl rising' program, which uses the power of storytelling to champion girls’ education and to change attitudes and social norms so that entire communities—girls, boys, parents, teachers, leaders—stand up for girls and against gender discrimination.

These girl-empowerment interventions will be complemented with other inputs that address key constraints to girls’ school retention in Bangladesh. These include sexual harassment prevention training and redressal mechanisms at schools (along with referral health services), mental health support, sexual and reproductive health training etc.

COVID-19 threatens to undermine gains in girls’ education

Since the onset of COVID-19, there has been a significant disruption in education in Bangladesh. Just as the preparations for program roll out were being finalized in March, schools started closing and remain closed today.  During the early phase of the pandemic (May-June 2020) we re-surveyed the same group of adolescents by phone to see how COVID-19 has been impacting their studies.

Over half of girls reported that they are spending less time on education than before the lockdown with 94% reporting increased time on household chores or childcare. While this was expected based on prior crises, it is particularly concerning as many girls don’t return to school after the pandemic is over.

The path forward will not be easy, but we must ensure that progress on girls’ education is not wiped away by this pandemic. All girls deserve an equal future and we hope that by breaking down social barriers and encouraging girls to continue learning new skills, our program will help them achieve that. 

Authors

Sarah Baird

Associate Professor of Global Health and Economics, George Washington University

Sarah Bunker

Data Fellow, Gender Group, World Bank

Shwetlena Sabarwal

Senior Economist, Education Global Practice, World Bank

Jennifer Seager

Development Economist and Assistant Professor of Global Health and Economics, George Washington University

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