The coronavirus pandemic, also referred to as COVID-19, has wreaked havoc upon the global population and worsened a multitude of challenges that we all face as a collective. With the enforcement of strict and lengthy lockdowns, the world has come to a standstill in all circles of life. The education sector has also had to face the brunt of the pandemic.
According to estimations by UNESCO, 89% of the total students enrolled in educational institutions are currently out of school (Albrectsen et al., 2020). Approximately, 48% of these students are girls. A further deep-dive into these alarming statistics reveals an even bleaker picture for female education. Upon investigation, it is clear to see that a significant proportion of these girls reside in underdeveloped countries where acquiring an education is already an arduous task. School closures in Mali, Niger, and South Sudan have brought the learning of more than 4 million girls to an abrupt halt (Albrectsen et al., 2020). The Malala Fund has released a report that estimates that 10 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school after the crisis has passed (“Malala Fund releases report”, 2020). It is reasonable to assume that many of these schoolgirls will belong to third-world countries.
Pakistan is a country that faces problems of a similar nature to these nations. Prior to the global pandemic, the literacy levels in Pakistan were already severely lop-sided. There was a difference of roughly 20% between the literacy levels of males and females (“Gendered Impact and Implications”, 2020). Today in Pakistan, not only do a fewer number of girls attain an education, there is also a worrying disparity in terms of the number of educational institutions that have female enrollment. Several social and economic factors have contributed to these inequalities weaving themselves into the fabric of Pakistani society.
The fallout from COVID-19 could lead to a huge setback in the efforts to bridge the gaps that currently exist in the education system. The steady stream of work done in regards to the Gender Parity Index (GPI) is under serious threat of being eroded away. With the closure of all public and private institutes, students now face an increasingly uncertain future. As observed in previous health emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak, the education system in Pakistan with low learning levels and high dropout rates is likely to be severely impacted (“Gendered Impact and Implications”, 2020). In traditional societies like Pakistan, women are expected to take up a majority of the domestic chores and also perform childcare tasks. With the closure of schools and other institutions, the involvement of girls in such tasks will increase manifold. In addition to this, without schools serving as a necessary lifeline, many girls become susceptible to domestic violence (“COVID-19 school closures”, 2020). This could be of the verbal, physical or sexual kind and may have lasting adverse effects on women. There is also a precedent that indicates that many young girls are married away for their own “protection”. Due to an early marriage, and in many cases the subsequent adolescent pregnancy, girls get detached from their educational journey and it is extremely unlikely for them to resume it (“COVID-19 school closures”, 2020).
It is, thus, imperative that those in power and those with privilege act in a responsible manner. Firstly, since distance learning is the obvious short-term solution, it is important that people realize, understand and communicate the call for continued investment in girls’ learning. Community sensitization on the importance of girls’ education should continue as part of any distance learning program (Albrectsen et al., 2020). The formation of clubs and societies dedicated to raising awareness as well as promoting girls’ education is a good starting point for efforts. By word of mouth and discussion, the severity of the situation can be communicated effectively and this can lead to tangible actions from the authorities.
The mediums and mechanisms through which distance learning takes place must be rigorously designed. During this process, the gender digital divide must be considered. Many girls do not have access to laptops or smartphones in Pakistan. Furthermore, many who do have access, lack the required digital skills that will enable them to acquire online education. This includes the necessary measures that many girls must undertake to ensure their online privacy and shield themselves from harassment.
It is also crucial that all digital solutions keep in mind those who are the most disadvantaged. Therefore, it is important to introduce approaches that are widely accessible and also make sense in economic terms. Television and radio broadcasts are the go-to options that have been used in times of crisis in the past. Through educational programs, governments have attempted to engage children and keep them learning. Pakistan has launched the ‘Tele-school’ initiative which is very much in the same vein. Studying schedules must also be flexible. In this way, learning can take place around the domestic demands that are disproportionately made on girls and women (“COVID-19 school closures”, 2020).
Governments and authorities, however, can’t fill all the gaps. This is where non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have a massive part to play. Through focused efforts, the Aitebar Foundation and similar organizations can make a significant difference in the lives of many females. A couple of solutions that can kick-start these efforts are:
Provision of inexpensive or second-hand laptops and smartphones: Aitebar can approach wholesale markets that sell digital gadgets and partner with them to equip girls with technology they can use to continue their education. Other more innovative solutions include providing single-board computers to these children. For example, the Raspberry Pi 4 is a $35 computer that can fulfill most, if not all, the needs of a student even in university. Single-board computers do require some assembly, however, and that could be a possible impediment.
Connect students to relevant and useful online services: The internet can be a student’s best friend in such trying times. Talented people around the world have come up with user-friendly and information-rich resources that can jump-start the educational journey of students in need. For example, “Khan Academy” offers free online lessons and practice in math, sciences and humanities, as well as free tools for parents and teachers to track student progress. For those with basic mobile phones, services like Cell-Ed provide learner-centered, skills-based learning platform with offline options (“Distance Learning Solutions”, 2020).
Albrectsen, A.-B., & Giannini, S. (2020, March 31). COVID-19 School Closures Around The World Will Hit Girls Hardest. Plan International. https://plan-international.org/blog/2020/03/covid-19-school-closures-hit-girls-hardest
(n.d.). Gendered Impact And Implications Of COVID-19 In Pakistan. UN Women | Asia And The Pacific. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/04/gendered-impact-and-implications-of-covid-19-in-pakistan
(2020a, March 5). Distance Learning Solutions. UNESCO. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/solutions
(2020b, April 6). Malala Fund Releases Report On Girls’ Education And COVID-19 | Malala Fund Newsroom. Malala Fund | Newsroom. https://malala.org/newsroom/archive/malala-fund-releases-report-girls-education-covid-19
(2020c, April 29). COVID-19 School Closures: Why Girls Are More At Risk. IIEP-UNESCO. http://www.iiep.unesco.org/en/covid-19-school-closures-why-girls-are-more-risk-13406