By Neela Hassan
As COVID-19 forces closure of schools all around the world, UNESCO and Plan International warn that girls in developing countries will be hit the worst as the pandemic will increase school dropout among girls, which will entrench the education gap in many countries.
School closures in Afghanistan, ranking among the worst places for girls to get an education, will leave devastating impacts on the education sector. According to USAID Afghanistan, currently, an estimated 9 million children are enrolled in schools – only 3.5 million are girls. It’s the 3.5 million girls that are at risk of dropping school that will, even more, widen the gender education gap in the country.
Since the beginning of the lockdown in the country, the Ministry of Education has been promising to develop policies that will make studying from home available, but no practical steps have been taken yet. Apart from some repetitive classes on TV channels that only teach certain level science subjects, students that are in different grades and those without TV and electricity have been completely forgotten. There is a complete disconnect between students and teachers.
Even before the pandemic, school-going girls were kept home due to discriminatory attitudes towards women, poor economy, and insecurity. Harmful social norms resulted in a considerable gender education gap in the country. For most Afghan families, boy’s education still has priority than girls’ and allowing girls to school is considered as a favor on girl, not a basic human right. With the COVId-19 adding to the challenges of girls’ education, the number of drop-out rates caused by domestic violence and poor economy is more likely to raise.
Over 39 percent of Afghans live under the poverty line. When schools reopen, families with socioeconomic strains may prioritize sending boys to school rather than girls. Poor income in the household will also increase the risk of forced and early marriages. Studies from Sub-Saharan Africa after the Ebola epidemic suggests that local income shocks increased child marriage for girls because marriage payments are considered a source of consumption smoothing.
In Afghanistan, girls in secondary school age (12-15) are more at risk of dropping school due to the harmful gender norms in the country. Hence every sing day in the classroom is vital for a girl. It means one more day of learning necessary concepts and skills that will help her to have a healthier and happier life.
As the schools have been closed for indefinitely in most parts of the country, the government, policymakers, and NGOs in the education sector should look at the lessons from past crises in other developing countries to address the specific challenges of school-going girls in Afghanistan during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic support to vulnerable families and adopting distance learning practices are some of the ways that can insulate Afghan girls from risks of dropping out of school.
On the other hand, today the community sensitization efforts on the importance of girls’ education is needed more than any other time. Social change indeed takes time, but it also requires continuous and honest efforts from the government and people. Community elders and religious leaders have a critical role in changing people’s mindsets and bringing new values to society. A Mullah in the masque can convince people faster and easier than any education campaign and advocacy program.
Since digital solutions are not possible in most parts of the country, the government should focus more on the community-based and inclusive approaches. Grassroots movements are more likely to be accepted by communities. Including the public in the process of policy development and implementation will lead to improved and durable outcomes. in times when students are completely disconnected from school, sending students reading and writing tools can keep students motivated in areas where media cannot reach.
Above all, every Afghan has responsibility to towards the next generation who are the future of this country. Our daughters and granddaughters should not experience what our mothers and grandmothers did. And for that, we must do all that it takes to ensure that every single child can get an education.
The writer is an Afghan journalist and refugee based in Canada. She obtained an MA in communications and development studies in the U.S., and prior to going to Canada, she worked with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kabul, Afghanistan. She worked for Afghan media in Kabul as a writer and reporter between 2012-2015.