Updated: Aug 27
Recently, philanthropist Melinda Gates partnered with former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, in an effort to protect girls' health, safety and access to education. Drawing upon past crises such as the Ebola outbreak, as telling illustrations of the danger COVID poses specifically to girls, they argue that girls in low and middle-income countries are particularly at risk of being left behind. In the opinion piece, they acclaim, "We believe that government, philanthropic, and grassroots leaders around the world must prioritize adolescent girls in any pandemic response."
Gates and Obama write, "Even before Covid-19 struck, more than 98 million adolescent girls worldwide were not in school, according to UNESCO. Now, due to ripple effects from the pandemic, the Malala Fund predicts an additional 20 million girls of secondary school age could remain out of school -- not just this year, but possibly forever." Gates and Obama reference organizations that are fighting to ensure that every girl has the necessary resources to continue education from home. They outline, "Organizations like the Sacred Valley Project in Peru and Kakenya's Dream in Kenya have developed innovative solutions to this issue, such as delivering lanterns, printed materials and radios to help girls learn by broadcast. Physically Active Youth in Namibia has offered virtual classes and brought worksheets to girls without internet access to ensure that they too can continue to learn from home."
Not only do we need to ensure that girls possess the necessary resources to continue online learning, but we must also ensure that girls are at the forefront of our plans for school reopenings. As economies are severely impacted by the effects of this virus, and families' budgets are strained, girls' education tends to be seen as dispensable, and is thereby one of the quickest expenses to go. Gates and Obama argue that the onus falls on governments to ease the severity of these economic impacts. They write, "... after the Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone suspended tuition and testing fees for all students for two academic years. Governments should also look at solutions such as supporting cash transfer programs to reach marginalized girls and their families and enacting programs that reduce the unpaid work that adolescent girls do to take care of their families and homes."
At Women Going Beyond, we recognize the importance of educating girls, not only for their sake, but for the sake of societies. Gates and Obama proceed to highlight the host of benefits girls' education fosters: "History tells us that when we neglect the education and well-being of girls, we all suffer. Data shows it, too. Because when girls are given the chance to learn and thrive, poverty drops, economies grow, families get stronger and babies are born healthier. The world, by every measure, gets better."
As health services are pushed to the brink amidst these times, services for women and girls have fallen to the back-burner. Gates and Obama both stress the importance of upholding sexual and reproductive health services for girls. They write, "... adolescent sexual and reproductive health services -- as well as measures to respond to gender-based violence -- should be designated as 'essential' health services. Giving women and girls access to family planning information and services is a proven method for reducing rates of unintended pregnancy, increasing the likelihood that girls are able to continue their educations and return to the classroom once it's safe to do so."
At Women Going Beyond, we recently published an article on the importance of menstrual hygiene products as a basic means to bridge gender gaps in education and beyond. Both Gates and Obama reiterate the importance of such a basic resource, and its lasting effects on girls' ability to attend school, engage socially, and stay safe.
Safety and Empowerment
The final pillar that Gates and Obama flush out in their Op-ed is that of safety and empowerment for all girls. They write, "Finally, we need to recognize that schools offer girls much more than just an education. They can be safe spaces for girls to build connection, their identities, and their dreams for the future." Building safe spaces for women to come together has not only proven to foster community and solidarity, but has also reduced the likelihood of unwanted pregnancies and contributed to a vast majority of girls returning to school post-closures.
In closing, Gates and Obama note, "Raising strong, empowered girls requires strong, deliberate action in normal times -- all the more so during a global crisis. And while Covid-19 is forcing the world to do just about everything differently, it's also an undeniable opportunity to do things better." Whether it's supporting organizations outlined in Gates' and Obama's inspiring Op-ed, or making a contribution to an organization near and dear to your heart, we all need to do our part to ensure that girls not only have access to education and healthcare, but that they also feel safe and empowered to seek them.
Below, we’ve outlined a few tangible ways by which you can help to continue the progress of women and girls around the world:
Donate: As we turn to technology amongst other resources to encourage learning continuity amidst lockdown, we need to address the topic of access, as the existing breach threatens to further marginalize women and girls. Currently, Women Going Beyond is conducting a study in rural areas of Cambodia to determine if girls are empowered to continue schooling and if they have access to online learning platforms. We work with each young woman and girl to understand what their home life is like, what their career aspirations are, and if they are empowered to pursue such dreams. Please consider supporting our efforts here.
Act: If you are interested in supporting our mission to close the pervasive gender divide in Southeast Asia, please contact us, and we will enthusiastically find a fitting area for your volunteerism.
Educate: Commit to consistently educating yourself on the issues women and girls face around the world, surrounding education and beyond. Follow our blog, amongst other resources such as the Global Fund for Women, Plan International, UN Women, and the Malala Fund. Share such findings with others and encourage them to support our movement to make this world a better place for everyone. As Ruth Mumbi, the founder and national coordinator of Bunge La Wamama, which aims to amplify the struggle of marginalized communities, once said, “When You Empower a Woman, You Empower the Whole World.”