Interventions that are likely to be impactful are those that are anchored on sound policies and strategies, are well-planned and resourced, are efficiently executed, and are effectively monitored and evaluated. This presupposes a ‘normal environment’ yet these conditions are hardly met fully during ‘normal times’ when it comes to Africa. And so, we find instances of glaring gaps between policy pronouncements and practice responses, with resources neither adequate nor targeted appropriately to fully implement programmes. This situation curtails implementation of interventions to a few areas or aspects, and limits impact. The COVID-19 pandemic simply accelerated such an imbalance, bringing to the fore the inadequate level of preparedness, especially for the sector of education, coupled with the fact that learning how to deal with the pandemic unfolded even as policy and practice changes were put in place, making them moving targets.
Equipped with a gender, equity, and inclusion lens, the KIX Observatory on COVID-19 Responses in Educational Systems in Africa provided some valuable lessons, particularly for girls and other vulnerable groups. This is based on available evidence, from 40 GPE partner countries in Africa, on how governments responded by changing policies and practices to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the sector in terms of the continued operations of education and the well-being of learners beyond education.
Financing girls’ education
Education policymakers need to target or ring-fence funding provision for girls to ensure that planned interventions get implemented to prevent further widening gaps, risks, and vulnerabilities that existed before crises such as COVID-19 and increasing exclusion during crises. An example is the previous insecurity situation in Burkina Faso that worsened in the last two years with the closure of more than 2,000 schools due to demands from terrorists. This instils fear in both girls and young women, as well as their parents, of returning to school. Insecurity, COVID-19 and other major emergencies are key reasons why the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) estimates that more than 5 million primary and secondary school learners from sub-Saharan Africa are unlikely to return after the reopening of schools, many being girls.
Despite variations from one country to another in the proportion and stage of implementation of interventions, it was good to see some countries targeting funding, with development partners assistance through grants or loans, to support vulnerable populations that included the education of girls in marginalized areas. This ensures that such funding reaches their intended beneficiaries. Examples are seen in countries such as Benin (gender sensitization), Nigeria (girls-focused programmes), Senegal (digital safe spaces for girls to access peers, mentors, and information), and Zimbabwe (gender-sensitive remedial programmes) as well as other countries like Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Malawi, Mali, and Togo.
The other priority area was in support of teacher training on remote learning technologies where the Central African Republic trained its teachers on dealing with gender-based violence and in addressing learners’ psychosocial and mental health needs. At the same time, DRC, Kenya, Mali, and Zimbabwe incorporated the gender equality and inclusivity aspects in their teacher training programmes during the period of the pandemic. Supplies and other measures for water, sanitation and health (WASH) in Mozambique included improving toilets for girls and providing them with sanitary towels to increase their enrolment.
Girl-focused school reopening campaigns
We have seen return to school campaigns in Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Nigeria that incorporate child-friendly messaging through local mass media that targets rural areas. Strengthening the aspect of protection in the messages, with the involvement of other arms of government, and encouraging the participation of frontline stakeholders in the campaigns - like civil society organizations that implemented education interventions to promote return to school for girls who are pregnant and or had given birth - help to improve the impact. This was the case in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda. Keen to maintain or improve on its 100% learner transition from primary education to secondary education, Kenya joined Lesotho, Sudan, and Rwanda in using national and sub-national government administrators to monitor and enforce the return to school policy through discouraging activities such as the use of girls in household chores.
Global and regional initiatives such as GPE’s “raise your hand” financing campaign that supports domestic and external financing of girls’ education in Africa, and the African Union- Centre for Girls and Women's Education in Africa ((AU/CIEFFA)“AfricaEducatesHer” campaign strategy to increase awareness on getting girls back to school post-COVID-19, particularly through policy revisions for re-integration of pregnant schoolgirls, demonstrate that where partners stand strongly with governments during crises, girls are among the frontline winners.
Sustaining such initiatives calls for the allocation of more domestic resources to create sustainability in financing emergency responses and demonstrating how these enhance equity and inclusion in education. Additionally, governments need to engage with key partners to support major investments in education technology and remote learning infrastructure in hard-to-reach areas as well as in countries in transition.
A look at the well-being of girls
The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore the fact that the well-being of children, especially girls and young women, encompasses several interlinked issues inside and outside the learning environment. As such, mitigating interventions require a holistic and multistakeholder approach, involving governments and active partners, including the local communities, to be successful. They also need to be contextualized to the prevailing socio-cultural, socio-emotional, and socio-economic situations. Though government-driven, the national policy and practice responses in this area for girls and women had a strong element of humanitarian collaboration with local, regional, and international partners focussing on health and nutrition, protection against sexual violence and teenage pregnancy, and supporting learners in refugee and internally displaced populations.
Governments deployed creative strategies to ensure the continued provision of school meals in some of the GPE partner countries. This included take home rations in the form of dry food stuffs and supplements (Chad, Liberia, Niger, and Republic of Congo), daily meal deliveries (Liberia, Mozambique, Madagascar and Sudan), and cash transfers or vouchers (Niger, Togo, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, and Zimbabwe). On reflection, an important gap in these responses is lack of quality data, for example, on how many girls actually benefited from these noble interventions that targeted vulnerable families.
A number of girls experienced sexual violence during the COVID-19 period, fell pregnant or were traumatized due to inadequate mental health and psychosocial support systems arising from the lack of access to menstrual health management products. This shows that it may not be enough to institute well-intentioned policy and practice responses, but follow up by finding innovative ways to involve those with ‘acquired’ responsibilities such as parents and the community to ensure their implementation. The fact that most governments provided radio and TV lessons, with digital lessons in a few countries, complete with official timetables, does not mean learners, especially girls, attended the lessons. Other factors such as reduced socio-economic status in many families due to poverty and job losses, as well as children-headed households, for example, meant other priorities took precedence to learning. Some homes increased family chores for girls, others sent their girls into early or forced marriages or to be exploited in exchange for money and food, while other girls were forced to turn to ‘other’ sources to meet their basic needs that their families were unable to provide.
In order not to condemn girls who find themselves in such situations, governments need to, among other measures, embrace actionable school continuation and/or re-entry policies and legal frameworks for teens who fall pregnant. Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe have shown that it is possible and can, hopefully, help to influence change in other countries. In Tanzania, for example, a presidential decree that barred pregnant girls from continuing their basic education has since been reversed following the government’s announcement lifting the discriminatory ban. Such flexibility will enable the teens to adjust in the new normal, promote their re-entry back to school while also encouraging schools to institute systems that mitigate future disruptions of learning.
The COVID-19 recovery programs should also step-up policy and legal mitigation mechanisms, and reinvigorate monitoring systems, for the sky-rocketing sexual and gender-based violence, including enhancing reporting mechanisms and providing shelter for the victims. One approach is to incorporate lessons on how to help girls deal with the trauma of gender-based violence in teacher training programmes, as one of the cross-cutting issues. This will ensure that teachers learn mitigation strategies that they can impart on the learners. For this to work effectively, governments need to prioritize teacher capacity strengthening during crises, and have targeted interventions for learners in marginalized settings or from poor households that may not be reached by remote learning solutions.
To prevent the potential loss of over USD 10 billion in GDP across sub-Saharan Africa (as estimated by World Vision International in 2020) due to the denial of the opportunity for adolescent mothers to return to school after the COVID-19 school closures, especially in conflict-affected regions, we must deliberately work towards eliminating the exposure of girls and young mothers to abuse and violence, early or forced marriages, female genital mutilation, unwanted pregnancies, gender-based violence and HIV.
Embracing pro-poor policies and actions will see, for example, the narrowing of the gap between high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech learners as governments develop remote learning solutions. This could be part of placing greater focus on disadvantaged girls at-risk of not returning to school, to achieve similar enrolment levels for both boys and girls, as was the case before school closures.
The proverbial saying, 'nothing for us without us' aptly applies here. Any interventions should consider the place of young girls in driving education reforms considering the COVID-19 experience. They should clearly articulate how to meaningfully involve girls from policy through to evaluation of impact. But this also requires quality data, which remains a perennial challenge for the continent, and strengthening community level capacity for early detection and dealing with anxiety and stress related social behaviour, especially for young girls. We must do all it takes to prevent the fears raised by Megan Stacy in 2020 who noted that with "no school or teachers’ watchful eyes...no trusted adults checking in...no playdates with friends...and stress piling up at home", isolation during the COVID-19 lockdown could raise the danger of child-abuse.