The Covid-19 pandemic has taken 1.6 billion students out of classrooms around the globe. Although students everywhere are struggling to access education during the pandemic, the problem is especially exacerbated for girls. Girls in lower-income countries face unique challenges both in getting to school and in staying enrolled. These challenges include everything from lack of funding, to sexist norms about girls’ education, to outright gender-based violence.
And it is even worse for refugee girls. Refugee children in general are disadvantaged, with only 61% of refugee children having access to primary school education compared to the global average of 91%. However, in large refugee-hosting countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, there are only seven refugee girls for every ten refugee boys in primary school. The problem of accessing education for this population is not new, but it is worsening during the pandemic, threatening to reverse the recent progress that has been made in educational gender parity.
Refugee girls face a unique intersection of obstacles to obtaining an education, both as females and as displaced people. They face both the systemic discrimination, limiting gender norms, and outright violence that girls face globally, and also the lack of economic resources, lack of access to healthcare, and again, violence, that refugees face. These obstacles only get worse as refugee girls grow. As girls get older, their school costs rise, they face greater risk of sexual assault or other gender-based violence, and they are often assigned disproportionate amounts of housework compared to their male peers.
What is At Stake?
The good news was that, before Covid-19, the world had made significant progress towards gender parity in education. Between 2000 and 2018, the number of girls who were unable to access primary school education fell by 44%, and by the following year almost two thirds of all countries in the world had achieved gender parity in primary school access. Unfortunately, the pandemic is threatening to unravel much of that progress. Although Covid-19 will likely cause only a temporary educational disruption for most students globally, it threatens to be catastrophic for refugee girls. The greatest concern post-pandemic is that refugee girls who left school due to the crisis will never return, potentially putting 20 million more girls around the world out of school permanently. If this happens, several decades of global progress towards gender equality in education could be lost in a matter of months.
Barriers to Refugee Girls’ Education So, what are the unique challenges faced by refugee girls during the Covid-19 pandemic, and why will these challenges pose a long-term threat? There are three main categories of barriers that refugee girls face to accessing education during and after the Covid-19 crisis: 1) financial instability, 2) damaging gender norms, and 3) increased sex and sexual violence. Each barrier is amplified by a student’s status as both a girl and a refugee, and each barrier threatens to undo long-term progress in refugee girls’ education unless solutions are implemented sooner rather than later.