8 July 2020 - Global

Girls and Young Women in the Era of COVID-19: An Urgent call for Action

Like every other child in Zimbabwe, Shamiso’s life has been disrupted by the pandemic. She is not going to school and not able to play with her friends in the neighbourhood.

Like every other child in Zimbabwe, Shamiso’s life has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. She is not going to school and not able to play with her friends in the neighbourhood.

Millions of girls want to fulfill their dreams and support their families, communities, and society.

Adolescence is a critical period in the life of girls and young women across the world, when multiple, overlapping transitions define their life trajectories. Mid adolescence, typically between 15-17 years of age, is an even more delicate stage [1]. During this time, girls are at risk of dropping out of school as they take on responsibilities that mark the transition from adolescents to adulthood such as becoming economically active and forming families.

For girls like Sara* (pictured below) childhood is often abruptly interrupted. Their responsibilities clash with their long term goals of economic and reproductive empowerment [2] as they are forced to drop out of school, engage in unsafe economic activities, or become wives and mothers far too soon.Effective policies and services during adolescence have the potential to generate a ‘triple dividend’ - improving adolescents’ lives now, into adulthood, and for the next generation of children [3].

Sara*, 14, holds a football at Save the Children’s Child Friendly Space, Syria.

"In the future, I want to help my family and rebuild our home," says Sara, 14. Sara is pictured holding a football at Save the Children's Child Friendly Space, Syria.

The scale of the COVID19 pandemic crisis exacerbates these challenges for millions of adolescent girls and young women across the world.

Adolescence is "...when decisions are made around education, work, marriage and fertility that have a critical impact on long-term outcomes". It is a key window of opportunity to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

The economic fallout from the pandemic risks pushing 106 million more children into poverty. 25 million jobs may be lost. These trends disproportionally affect girls and young women, as they are more likely to be in insecure jobs, often in the informal sector, disproportionally represented in high-risk sectors and often among the first to lose their jobs and the last to re-enter the labour market.

Many young women factory workers in Bangladesh, for example, have lost their jobs as a result of reduced orders globally, and have no social protection - such as unemployment benefits, to substitute for the lost income. Many girls and young women are also affected by the ‘shadow pandemic’ of gender-based violence. Adolescent girls in refugee camps face the highest risk with limited access to health, education, protection, and economic opportunities.

Girls and young women find themselves pressured to contribute economically to their households including through child, early and forced marriage, sexual exploitation, and high-risk jobs in essential sectors. They balance these pressures with completing their education and building vital social networks, while doing more unpaid care work (due to children or siblings being out of school). Many of those in schools and training centres that closed due to lockdown may never return to class.

Once the lockdowns are lifted, young women are likely to recover less quickly, being last to return to their jobs due to biases in favour of older and male counterparts. Those under 18 years often have no access to unemployment benefit payments or cash flow loans to buffer their businesses, despite many already being wives and mothers and managing vital income generation activities for their household economies. These disruptions to their life trajectories will have long-lasting effects for them and future generations of children.

So what is required to build a world in which all adolescent girls experience a healthy, safe, and successful transition to adulthood in the face of the COVID-19 crisis?

We have a collective responsibility to support adolescent girls and young women by:

1. Recognizing and valuing their contribution to household economies while protecting them from the negative impacts of crisis like COVID-19

All duty bearers, from governments to civil society, have a duty to support adolescent girls like Sara and to recognize and value their crucial role in the family, so they can also nurture their own economic, social, and personal wellbeing. Child sensitive social protection measures need to protect adolescent girls’ own welfare, education, and training by limiting the sacrifice to their own life priorities and rights.

Girls and young women should be at the centre of the design of social protection schemes either as household dependents, as key contributors, or as heads of their own household. Policies should ensure that girls and young women access adolescent sexual and reproductive health services as well as protection from all forms of gender-based violence.

2. Supporting their economic resilience through evidence-based multipronged approaches

In designing ‘Building Back Better’ strategies, duty bearers must support adolescent girls and young women to build their own economic resilience through a safe return to school or training and avoiding teen pregnancy and early child marriage. The acquisition of transferable life and market-relevant technical skills and access to decent economic opportunities must be promoted through girl-centred, multipronged approaches. Unpaid caring roles within families must be better shared with other members. 

Enterprise support measures need to be tailored to the specific needs of young women entrepreneurs’ in dealing with supply chain and cash flow difficulties. The rights and needs of adolescent girl and young women workers must be central to plans for reopening sectors and restructuring them.

3. Promoting and enabling their voice, agency and above all, gender equality

In accordance with the Convention of the Rights of The Child, duty-bearers must ensure that the voices of adolescent girls and young women are heard, respected, and acted upon. Girls must be engaged in decisions and actions that affect themselves and their communities in all contexts. Duty bearers must support girl-led groups and young feminist activists with networking, mentoring, and access to decision-makers, self-care strategies, and support to self-organise.

Finally, fighting for gender equality needs to be at the centre of all these actions as "gender norms will at best moderate— or completely block” any positive impacts of policies and programmes designed to enhance women’s agency [4] and ultimately pursue a more caring and just economy and society.

All over the world, Save the Children is rapidly adapting existing work whilst preparing for outbreaks of coronavirus in countries with limited capacity to respond. We've also launched the #SaveOurEducation campaign to tackle the global education emergency. 

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*Names changed to protect identity

Notes to editors:

[1] Age definitions of adolescents and youth should be contextualised as a transition time of life stretching from puberty to the acceptance of the responsibilities of employment, marriage, family, and community engagement. Common definitions are early adolescence (12 to 14 years), middle (15 to 17 years), and late (18 to 20 years).

[2] Sarah Gammage, Shareen Joshi & Yana van der Meulen Rodgers (2020) The Intersections of Women’s Economic and Reproductive Empowerment, Feminist Economics, 26:1, 1-22, DOI: 10.1080/13545701.2019.1674451

[3] Child Poverty and Adolescent Transitions (2017), Global Coalition to End Child Poverty and the Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Well-Being; http://adolescentsourfuture.com/

[4] See also https://www.gage.odi.org/

This article was first published on the End Child Poverty Global Coalition website here.

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