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Halting lives : The impact of COVID-19 on girls and young women

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On 31 December 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) was formally notified about a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City, home to 11 million people and the cultural and economic hub of central China. By 5 January, there were 59 known cases and none had been fatal. Ten days later, there were 282 confirmed cases, of which four were in Japan, South Korea and Thailand and there had been six deaths in Wuhan.

The virus responsible was isolated on 7 January and its genome shared on 12 January. The cause of the severe acute respiratory syndrome that became known as COVID‐19 was a novel coronavirus, SARS‐CoV‐2. On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a worldwide public health emergency. At time of writing 188 countries are affected by the virus, with 25,500,870 confirmed cases and 850,879 global deaths.

As cases continue to spread worldwide it is becoming very clear that the outbreak of this virus has implications that reach far beyond the direct impact on people’s physical health. What started as a health emergency is causing fundamental shifts in society as governments struggle to try and contain the crisis. Responses have included lockdowns, which range from self-isolation to mandatory quarantine with regulated exceptions; closure of international and internal travel; bans on social gatherings; closure of bars and restaurants; schools shut; suspension of religious gatherings; financial loan packages for businesses; financial support for individuals; reduction in transport and retail services and the suspension of non-essential businesses from building companies to leisure centres. At the height of the isolation measures about 3.9 billion people (half of the world’s population) were in lockdown. Restrictions have eased in many countries, but COVID-19 prevention measures such as local lockdowns, social distancing, meeting only in ‘bubbles’ and wearing facemasks remain in place. For communities, particularly those in conflict areas or living in refugee camps, already struggling with overcrowding, poor sanitation and little in the way of social protection, these mitigation measures are largely impossible and the virus continues to be deadly. To date, modelling predicts that the overall COVID-19 pandemic is expected to last for a period of at least 12 to 18 months.

COVID-19 is having an impact on all sectors of society across the world. But its impact does not fall equally: the virus seems to discriminate between rich and poor, young and old, male and female but is in fact taking advantage of pre-existing inequalities. These intersectional and intergenerational vulnerabilities paint a complex web of inter-connections which impact on various groups dependent on factors like sex, gender, age, race, disability status and income status, to name a few. With this in mind Plan International, in line with its continuing focus on gender equality and girls’ rights, commissioned research to look specifically at the impact of the current pandemic on girls and young women, collecting data from over 7,000 girls across 14 countries. The report also includes extracts from interviews with young women, reflecting on the impact COVID-19 has had on their lives, conducted by Plan International in Mozambique, Brazil, Ghana and Nicaragua.

Why girls and young women?

Over the past months, as the world has sought desperately to deal both with the medical impacts of the virus and to prepare a response to its many secondary effects, research on COVID-19 has accelerated. However, there is limited research on the social impacts of COVID-19 and on the consequences for young people, especially those specific to girls. Adolescence, particularly mid to late adolescence (15-19 years), when numerous overlapping transitions can define the future, is a critical period for all young people. For girls and young women, in many countries across the world, it is a time when they are particularly at risk: decisions are often made for them that are detrimental to their future, and the expectations and opportunities, for girls, in all their diversity, diverge considerably from their male peers. In later adolescence decisions are being made for girls about their education, marriage and career paths. The burden of household responsibilities grows heavier and their freedoms may well be curtailed in line with gendered expectations about female behaviour and girls’ vulnerability to sexual violence. A global pandemic which pulls girls out of school and has a detrimental impact on family income can only make matters worse.

“In my family, we have always struggled financially, but the uncertainty with the coronavirus and its future effects on our income is making people desperate. If the older generation like my grandmother and my uncle had information about the positives of sending girls to school as opposed to just having them aspire to marriage, the pressure on me and other girls would stop.” Angelina, 17, Mozambique

The scale of this pandemic affects girls and young women in all aspects of their daily lives: their safety, wellbeing, education, economic security, health, nutrition and access to technology. All pre-existing inequalities are made worse by COVID-19. Its impact on girls and young women, who face unique vulnerabilities, needs to be acknowledged and it is their experiences and perspectives this research seeks to understand.