SAN FRANCISCO — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter our lives, a startling truth has been realized that, sadly, mirrors trends of all global crises. Women and girls, particularly those in vulnerable communities, are disproportionately impacted.
Women are often on the front lines, caring for their communities. Women comprise 70% of the healthcare and social sector workforce in 104 countries, analyzed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Women are also expected to care for sick family members and neighbors, particularly in communities where gender stereotypes prevail. Even when it comes to work, nearly 60% of women are in the informal or gig economy where jobs are far less secure. In these jobs, women earn less, save less, and ultimately, are at greater risk of falling into poverty.
For me, the impact on education is most worrisome. I can’t stop thinking about the futures of the tens and thousands of girls and young women Room to Read supports through our Girls’ Education Program. They will struggle even with our support, let alone those who are dealing with school closures. The acute costs that girls and young women will pay in their future potential are far-reaching and even irreversible.
While time out of the classroom for students in many parts of the world may mean distance learning or separation from friends, for many other children, the implications are severe. For low-income communities around the world, coronavirus could mean the permanent end of a child’s education. We sadly know the risks too well.
The countries we work in already face uphill battles against high levels of school dropout for girls. That is why we are concerned that schools are closed in every country where our Girls’ Education Program currently operates. We are dealing with the realization that this will be the last time we see some of the girls enrolled in the program and that likely many of their peers will never return to school.
Girls in low-income communities face significant pressures to marry and have children too young, and can become victims of domestic violence, trafficking or rape. These risks increase without the haven of a supportive environment at school. Many will also face demands to abandon their education in order to support their families financially or through home care during this pandemic. This is an urgent and deeply concerning time for girls. We must implement interventions to flatten what will surely be a concerning curve in human potential lost.
Sapana is a 21-year-old woman in Nepal, who graduated from Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program and went on to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. She is now helping her community during this pandemic by bravely and selflessly caring for patients. Sapana is living proof of what happens when you educate a girl.
Without our investments in education, in these communities, we would not have the first generation of educated young women, the first generation of healthcare workers! In Sapana’s words: “My parents insisted that I leave my job as a nurse because they were afraid of the pandemic. After a long discussion with them, I was able to finally calm them out of the panic. I love my work and this is why I studied so hard…so that I can be of help to others”.
We know how to help. Our source of hope in these dark times comes from a familiar source – strong women mentors. Girls who are supported by Room to Read typically meet regularly with a female mentor assigned to be their advocate and guide while navigating obstacles to their education and charting their own paths. With communities physically separated from one another, our mentors can no longer conduct their home visits and check in on the well-being of the girls. However, the need to keep in regular contact with these girls is more urgent than ever, so mentors have sought out solutions to continue their important work.
Our teams on the ground are identifying girls most at risk, so we can support them more intensively. Our mentors, known as “social mobilizers” are calling the girls and their families on the phone and conducting video chats and conferences whenever possible, to ensure these young women are safe and remain tenacious in their pursuit of an education.
In Cambodia, Ranny is a social mobilizer working in the Kampong Cham region. She currently has 140 girls under her watch in her district despite the lockdown. Her motivation is an inspirational message to us all: “The reason for our work is to empower girls and reach about gender equality. As long as children are educated, society will become better.” Ranny and her team are innovating to communicate with the girls through social media channels, from WhatsApp to Facebook messenger. If a girl does not own a phone, the mentor helps her identify one to use from a parent, relative or neighbor.
We cannot let the doors of opportunity close forever on the future female scientists, healthcare workers, and leaders of our world. Let’s make sure they see the inside of a classroom again and are able to pave the way for a safer, healthier and more prosperous future for us all.
Dr. Geetha Murali is the CEO of Room to Read, a non-profit organization creating a world free from illiteracy and gender inequality.
All photos courtesy of Room to Read: 1) Ranny in Cambodia; 2) Sapana in Nepal; 3) Dr. Murali