As I write this article, the news of 100 pregnant primary school girls report from Tunduru district few weeks ago after closure of schools due to Covid-19 pandemic still haunt me.
Tunduru District represents many areas where the access to sexual education is still a mountain to climb for them and thus exposes young girls to early pregnancies, early marriages and sexual exploitations to female teenagers.
In these trying circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, many vulnerable groups will be made even more so.
Key among them are young girls from low-income backgrounds who risk falling into the same circumstances as this example. The crisis is likely to put them at higher risks of sexual violence and exploitation, trafficking, child marriage, forced labour, and social exclusion.
Have school closures affected girls anyhow? Yes.
Back in mid March, after registering three [Covid-19] cases, the government ordered all learning institutions from kindergarten to university level across the country should be closed with immediate effect. And let me put this clear, from the medical point of view, I strongly applaud that move.
All these forms of closing were necessary because when we did that, we limited how this virus could possibly spread.
Why is it important to limit this virus spread because we have to offer the community protection for those who can’t protect themselves like children, elderly people, those with serious medical and chronic conditions and those who are immunocompromised, possibly because of medical condition or the medication they may be taking.
With a limited health system and inadequate healthcare resources, closing schools was necessary to prevent our healthcare system from being overloaded with Covid-19 patients.
But as far as what happened in Tunduru district is concerned, let’s not forget the fact that these school closures have affected the girls.
Across the continent, girls already face a host of barriers to education that result in substantial gender disparities. They are also exposed to many abuses, including child marriage and female genital mutilation, which end their education abruptly.
Schools typically provide safe spaces for girls. When they are in school, they are less likely to be forced into marriage. During this pandemic, however, schools are not there to protect girls.
Human Rights Watch research in several African countries shows that child marriage and the resulting early pregnancies, a key barrier to girls’ education, can increase significantly in crises.
13 out of the 15 countries in the world where more than 30 per cent of primary school age girls are out of school, are in sub-Saharan Africa.
As girls get older, the gender gap in education steadily widens. By upper secondary school, there are gender disparities in 91 per cnet of the region’s countries. This is according to recent UNESCO report that I came across. The pandemic could threaten the African Union’s Agenda 2063 commitment to eliminate gender disparities at all levels, including in education.
Governments should work with communities, school officials and teachers to initiate and monitor whether girls are participating in remote educational programmes.
If these initiatives are not reaching girls or if their families or communities are not prioritising the girls’ education, they will need to intervene.
The government should empower teachers and provide them resources so they can do their essential outreach work.
This will involve checking-in on their students, particularly girls, and talking to parents to ensure they understand that children need to remain engaged with their studies.
Governments should additionally provide information and services on sexual and reproductive health to adolescents.
This includes making sure they can access a broad range of contraceptives, which respects their dignity and privacy.
Creating community awareness on sexual and reproductive health is important to curb this problem. The girlchild should not have to be safe only at school, but also in the comfort of her home.