Pandemic’s impact on girls ‘damaging’

By Nicola Daniels

Teenage pregnancies and abuse are some of the negative effects of worldwide lockdown responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, experts have argued.

The impact on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of adolescent girls has been largely damaging, experts say, as about 194 countries opted to shut down schools and universities.

Lisa Bos, director of government relations at World Vision, a faith-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), and member of UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) Covid-19 Global Education Coalition, cites the example of Sierra Leone during the Ebola virus outbreak from 2014 to 2015.

“Schools were closed for eight months during the outbreak, and according to some estimates teenage pregnancy rates doubled,” she said, acknowledging that the lack of reliable data makes it difficult to assess trends.

Bos believes schools provide an important safe haven for young girls.

“Teachers generally keep an eye on the girls and can intervene if they identify signs of abuse,” she said.

“When schools close, children are often left unsupervised and, in the worst cases, can be exposed to predatory family members and neighbours.”

A survey, carried out by the White Ribbon Alliance in April and May 2020, provides some anecdotal support for Bos’s assessment. Based on interviews with adolescent girls in Kenya, the study reported, for example, a marked increase in consensual sexual activity.

Angela Nguku, executive director of the White Ribbon Alliance Kenya, an NGO focused on reproductive, maternal, newborn and adolescent health and rights in the country, said: “The exercise revealed some stark realities regarding the sexual and reproductive health choices that adolescents are making during this Covid-19 time.

“Consensual sex appears to have seen a sharp increase, with idleness and boredom cited as the main reasons for the increased activity.”

According to Unesco’s Institute for Statistics, at the height of the school closures in March last year, an estimated 1.54 billion school and university students were sent home, representing 89% of the 1.73bn young people enrolled in education globally. About 743 million of those children were female.

It added that the consequences of teenage pregnancy are multiple and serious, including termination of education, reduced job and career prospects, and increased vulnerability to poverty and exclusion. Teenage pregnancy can also have negative impacts on health.

Complications during pregnancy and childbirth were the leading cause of death for 15 to 19-year-old girls globally, said Anshu Banerjee, director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Najiba Khan (name changed at her request), a sexual and reproductive health expert based in Kabul, Afghanistan travelled to the city of Herat in the west of the country in August 2020 to monitor the implementation of a programme designed to prevent and respond to violence against women.

“Normally there should have been women there, but it was mostly little girls, some as young as nine,” she said.

“Many of them were fleeing arranged marriages, and all had suffered some form of physical abuse.”

Khan visited the women’s shelter five months into Afghanistan’s national Covid-19 response. A key aspect of that response was the closure of all schools and educational institutions.

Khan believes that decision contributed to the influx of girls at the shelter. “Schools afford girls at least some degrees of protection from domestic abuse. When the schools closed down, they had nowhere to go.”

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