Plan International recently released their Halting Lives report, which examines the impact of COVID-19 on girls and young women. As they stated in the release, “it is becoming clear that the outbreak of this virus has implications that reach far beyond the direct impact on people’s physical health. What started as a health emergency is causing fundamental shifts in society as governments struggle to try and contain the crisis.”

While we’ll talk about how COVID-19 presents the opportunity to form a brave new world on our October 11th episode of GirlSpeak, the Halting Lives report gives us pause. In a time when we can radically reshape our world, we must first figure out our starting point. What was the world like before COVID-19, and what is it like now? How have girls been affected not only by the virus itself, but by the seismic societal shifts now underway? How do the intersecting pandemics of COVID-19 and racial justice coalesce and challenge us to action?

Plan International’s report is a starting point, as it surveyed over 7,000 girls across 14 countries. The report also features interviews with young women who reflect on the pandemic’s impact. What is clear from their stories, and the data, is that COVID-19 has affected every aspect of girls’ daily lives – safety, wellbeing, education, economic security, health, nutrition, and access to technology.

Here are some of the data and stories that stood out to us:

  • The impact of COVID-19 does not fall equally. Though every person is susceptible to the pandemic, its impacts are varied based on existing social, economic, and political factors. Some communities – especially those of refugees or minority groups – are more susceptible to the pandemic due to health conditions (such as overcrowding or poor sanitation), while others are at risk of secondary affects such as increased poverty due to unemployment or prolonged illness, which then compounds other issues such as child marriage, domestic abuse, and access to education and technology. COVID-19 is exacerbating pre-existing conditions – not just within our bodies, but also in our societies.
  • We will not know the full impacts of the pandemic until it is safe to conduct research. Like many other aspects of life, research has moved primarily online – meaning that those who can participate in studies are those already empowered with access to technology and, most importantly, the Internet. As Plan International stated, their research was limited because data collection had to be conducted remotely, meaning that only girls and young women “who have sufficient access to devices that have internet or phone connection could participate as respondents).” While this is a barrier and certainly something to bear in mind, the research on those with access is already startling. We can barely imagine what impacts those who lack technology – and, we assume, other methods of empowerment – are going through.
  • At the height of lockdowns, over 1.5 billion children were out of school. In the majority of countries, these closures remain in place until next year, with 1.1 billion continuing to be without access to education. Many do not have secondary options like distance learning, due to a lack of Internet access or personal computers/tablets. For example, only TWO PERCENT of households in Ethiopia have a television. A television, a technology that has been around for nearly a century now.
    • As a result, UNESCO estimates that 10 million more secondary school-aged girls will go without an education than would have if the pandemic didn’t happen. 10 million. We can’t even imagine that big of a number, let alone what it means for the girls.
  • There is a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence,” with France reporting a 30% increase and Spain reporting a 61% increase gender-based violence emergency services. And that is just the violence being reported. Such violence also leads to girls running away from home to escape. In Peru alone, 606 girls and 309 women were reporting missing between the started of the COVID-19 lockdown (on March 16) and June 30, 2020.
  • Only about half of girls surveyed have access to contraception or menstrual health services.
  • Anxiety is increasing, especially among girls in lower-income countries. Nearly 88% of respondents had experienced high or moderate levels of anxiety.
  • The effects of spending more time online, especially on social media, are startling. 59% of girls reported negative impacts, such as spending too much time on social media, seeing too much “fake news”, and feeling greater stress and anxiety because of it.

Yet, as we’ll explore on October 11 on GirlSpeak, there is hope. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

So how can we make a brave new world for girls? How can we take everything they are experiencing and feeling and channel that into collective action? What can we do – both in this moment and in the next – to foster greater awareness of and investment in girls and their rights?

Plan International reported that only 29% of girls think the pandemic will provide us with the opportunity to create a better world. How can we change their minds? Better still, how can we make a better world become reality?

Definitely food for thought.

–Tiffany Rhoades, Program Developer

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