For International Day Of The Girl 2020, Stylist investigates how girls across the globe are being affected by the coronavirus pandemic – and hears from seven girls about the unique challenges they’ve faced this year.
In September 1995, 17,000 participants, 30,000 activists and representatives of 189 governments poured into Beijing. They were there for the Fourth World Conference on Women, a marathon 12-day event where they hammered out a plan for improving the lives of women and girls around the world. It was a historic moment, the first time so many countries had mutually agreed to work towards gender equality. And there was a major focus on the lives of girls, as governments recognised the “persistent discrimination against and violation of the rights of the girl child” as a global problem.
Twenty-five years on, much has changed for the better. Girls born today are twice as likely to survive beyond the age of five as women born in 1995, while girls’ enrolment rates in primary and secondary education have almost doubled in low-income nations. Feminism has also entered (or returned to) the mainstream in many countries since 1995, inspiring generations of girls to advocate for their own autonomy, safety and dignity.
Yet in 2020, Covid-19 is threatening the progress made by and for girls worldwide. Across the globe, 91% of children in education have had their schools closed this year – and girls are much less likely to return to education once they leave. According to Unesco, around 10 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school following the pandemic. Problems with girls’ access to education have been compounded by the fact that, worldwide, boys are much more likely to be able to use the internet, a gender gap that’s even more damaging in an era of remote learning.
It’s not just girls’ education that’s suffering. Gender-based violence has soared around the world since the start of the pandemic; in Peru alone, 606 girls were reported missing between the start of lockdown in March and 30 June, almost double the number of adult women who disappeared over the same period. According to a major report by Plan International, the “secondary impacts” of the pandemic could result in 2 million more cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) and 13 million more child marriages over the next decade. Save The Children predicts that 500,000 more girls are at risk of being forced into child marriage this year alone, with 1 million more expected to become pregnant.
“Covid-19 has had an enormous impact on all our lives, but the impact is not equal – for girls in countries affected by conflict there are devastating consequences,” says Brita Fernandez Schmidt, executive director of Women for Women International UK. “For the first time in decades, instead of progress towards gender equality, we risk sliding backwards and losing hard-won rights.
“To get back on track, governmental responses to the pandemic must take into account the unequal impact on girls and include measures to prevent gender-based violence, protect sexual and reproductive health and rights and ensure girls have access to education rather than be forced into marriage or the workforce. Because we see every day just how far girls can rise when given the opportunity.”
Below, seven girls from around the world share their experiences of living through the pandemic with Stylist.
Riko, 17, Japan
“It has been six months since a state of emergency was declared in Japan due to coronavirus. Currently, to boost the economy, there are few restrictions on moving around. I even feel encouraged to go out. People say that all measures are being taken to prevent infection, so it is getting safer than before.
“I am afraid Japan is getting less and less aware of the virus. TV news seems to report less and less about Covid-19, which, I think, is still the major threat to the world. My school resumed in June and I go to school six days a week. I pass through Shibuya, which is the crowded and popular shopping area of Tokyo, and I see so many young people hanging around in groups. I personally worry about this situation, which could trigger another increase in Covid-19 cases.
“I wear a mask all the time at school to avoid infection and wash my hands regularly. I avoid going out other than to school and stay home as much as possible.”
Zainab, 16, Nigeria
“The pandemic put a halt to school, and I fear that we may never catch up with our counterparts in developed communities who have been attending virtual classes.
“The government did their best in curbing the spread, but it was not enough. I lost a friend to the virus and that has left me full of questions that I cannot find answers to. If God wills it, I will be a medical doctor so that I can preserve life.”
Geeta*, 13, India
“I have four siblings: two younger sisters and two brothers, one of whom is disabled. I do household work. I studied until secondary school, but had to leave because I needed to help care for my younger siblings. Because of the virus, my brother and sister’s school has closed. Everyone is at home. Even my play time has stopped during the lockdown.
“Because of the lockdown, there is no work anywhere. My father used to work in Delhi, but he lost his job. Since then, the situation has been very difficult. We have only been eating rice and salt. Before the pandemic, we used to eat enough rice and daal.
“As a result, my parents wanted me to get married to a boy from a nearby village. He is 20 and has been working as a labourer since he was a child. Thanks to Unicef, the Child Prevention and Adolescent Empowerment Project of ActionAid from Bihar state, and local social workers, the marriage was cancelled and my family had counselling. They explained why marriage for me was not a good idea, and enrolled me and my sisters back in school.”
Aava, 16, Finland
“I think the Finnish government has handled the pandemic well. I went back to school at the end of May. We need to be more careful than before: we have to remember to wash our hands more often and try to keep distances. Otherwise, being at school is pretty similar to before the pandemic.
“I am worried about how the pandemic will and has affected the vulnerable ones – girls in developing countries, for example. I’m afraid that, because of the pandemic, equality and human rights will go backwards. I’m also very, very concerned that, because of the Covid-19 crisis, climate change will be forgotten and considered less important and therefore actions against it postponed. We don’t have enough time for that!
“I wish adults understood better how much climate change is going to affect our future – and how it already affects our present. The times are different compared to their youth in many ways, and they really need to face that fact. Otherwise, I feel quite hopeful and excited about the future.”
Rym, 17, Lebanon
“This has been an extremely challenging year, especially living in Lebanon, a small country that has faced every crisis you can imagine – from the economic crash to the Beirut explosion that has left us all broken in different ways. One of the biggest challenges I have faced is keeping faith and hope in my country.
“But I am extremely proud to be a Lebanese woman in the making, and I am determined to bring tangible change to my community and country. We are going through very uncertain times, but I believe Lebanese women will pave the way for a better future.
“Lockdown gave us the privilege of time. I had the opportunity to question my priorities and to get a clearer vision on how I want the ‘new normal’ to be. My biggest worry is about the unprivileged people who are the most impacted and will be even more affected as we try to recover from the pandemic. We should always remember them and listen to them in our recovery plan.”
Malak, 12, Yemen
“The situation is so bad with coronavirus. A lot of people died. Restaurants and parks are closed. Many people lost their jobs. Schools are closed and we can’t study. I don’t like staying home. I hope to get back to school so I can make my dreams true.
“I am so worried that my family will get sick from coronavirus. My brother Ala works as a physician’s assistant, and me and my family are always worried about him.
“I took part in Covid-19 prevention training with Care International, and learnt how to wash my hands in the correct way, to keep a distance between myself and other people and to cover my mouth and nose with a mask. Now I meet my friends in our neighbourhood, with a distance between us, then I teach them about washing their hands in the correct way. My parents are so proud of me.
“It is so hard for girls to do things that I am doing now because there are people who accept that and others that don’t. It is so important that girls have the same opportunities as boys. I hope war stops in Yemen, so we can build huge schools and hospitals.”
Heba Rose, 16, UK
“The pandemic has made me put things into perspective. It allowed me to slow my life down and not take things for granted. Not seeing my friends every day and missing out on my education has been a big challenge. I really prioritise schoolwork now. I do worry the number of coronavirus cases will increase, even though my college has put in great measurements to ensure pupils stay safe.
“I also worry people will stop caring about the social issues they were interested in during lockdown because of long periods of time to reflect. I organised the Manchester Black Lives Matter march in June and I intend, as a human rights activist, to keep raising issues of equality. There are thousands of young people who are committed to making change in the world, and I am certain we will one day achieve absolute equality between men and women.
“Being a girl in 2020 is still not as easy as people think. It entails many challenges, from the gender pay gap to being fearful of walking in the streets. But girls supporting girls makes me proud to be a young woman. The unity is incredible.”
Heba Rose and Rym appear in The WOW Foundation’s Young Leaders Directory. Find out more at thewowfoundation.com
* Name has been changed
Images: Getty; Plan International