The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on global gender equality – as equals

She had no idea that the 19-year-old had started exchanging sex for money to help pay for the food for her three younger brothers and two cousins, who live together in a one-room house in a seaside slum. in Mombasa Kenya. When Bella came home with rice and other ingredients for dinner later in the day, she didn’t explain how she bought them.

“The pandemic broke the economy, especially for my region. So I had to help with expenses in one way or another, ”said Bella on WhatsApp. The teenager asked for her name to be changed to protect her identity.

Before the pandemic, Bella was a sophomore in a high school in the city, where she was an avid history student and enjoyed playing table tennis with friends during breaks between classes. But in March, with the spread of Covid-19, Kenya closed and so did schools.

Unable to continue her studies remotely due to a lack of electricity and internet access, and with her mother’s income from selling vegetables on the cut street, Bella started washing clothes to help supplement the family’s income.

“God, that day, my mom almost killed me. My mom was so mad at me, she hit me. I don’t want to talk about it. She didn’t know I was having an affair with that man.”


When one of her much older clients pressured her for sex, saying she would pay 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($ 9) or 1,500 shillings ($ 13) for unprotected sex – triple what he paid to wash his clothes – she felt she couldn’t say no. After he found out she was pregnant, he disappeared.

“The pandemic played a very important role for me to achieve this pregnancy now, because if the pandemic was not here, I would be at school. How to wash clothes and all that stuff, meeting that man, it wouldn’t have happened, “said Bella, who is currently receiving social support and money transfers through ActionAid, an international campaign group. She complements this with odd jobs and laundries.

Now three months pregnant, Bella said she will not be able to resume her studies when schools in Kenya fully reopen in January – a friend of her mother, who was helping to pay her fees, withdrew her support.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that nearly 24 million children and adolescents, including 11 million girls and young women like Bella, may drop out of education next year due to the economic impact alone. pandemic (130 million girls have already been out of school, according to the agency). That reality not only threatens to throw back decades of progress made towards gender equality, but it also puts girls around the world at risk of child labor, teenage pregnancy, forced marriage and violence, experts say.
“It’s kind of a vicious cycle,” said Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for education, noting that girls who became pregnant during isolation are less likely to return to school; the policies and practices of some countries specifically prohibit their participation in education. Teenage pregnancies during the pandemic threaten to block the education of one million girls in sub-Saharan Africa alone, according to a report by World Vision, a member of UNESCO’s Covid-19 Global Education Coalition.

For many girls, school is not only a place of learning and a path to a better future, adds Gianni, it is also a lifeline – offering vital nutrition services, menstrual hygiene management, sexual health information and social support.

Previous crises have proved that girls are the first to be removed from the classroom and the last to return. When the Ebola outbreak led to the closure of schools in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, girls faced increasing poverty, child labor and teenage pregnancy, preventing them, in some cases, from resuming school, UNICEF reports have shown, Save the Children and UNDP.
In Sierra Leone, teenage pregnancies more than doubled to 14,000, according to UNICEF. And many girls in the country have never returned to the classroom, in part because of a recently repealed policy that prohibited pregnant girls from going to school, Plan International reported. Enrollment fell by 16 percentage points in the most affected communities in Sierra Leone, according to a working document published by the World Bank.
Using data on school dropout from the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, the Malala Fund estimated that an additional 20 million girls of secondary school age could remain out of the classroom long after the coronavirus pandemic had passed.

“The pandemic played the biggest role in me getting this pregnancy now, because if the pandemic was not here, I would be at school. Meeting that man would not have happened like never before.”


The repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic on girls have been felt for generations.

Earlier this year, UNFPA designed whereas blockages lasting at least six months can lead to about 7 million additional unwanted pregnancies and 31 million cases of gender violence, as well as 13 million child marriages and 2 million cases of female genital mutilation in the next decade .
Covid-19 will also put another 47 million women and girls into poverty, according to an analysis commissioned by UN Women and UNDP, which estimates that about 435 million women and girls will live on less than US $ 1.90 per day in 2021. According to the report, the number of women and girls living in extreme poverty will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2030.

“With the impact of Covid, we are seeing a very rapid and dramatic reversal of the progress we have made on gender equality,” said Julia Sánchez, ActionAid’s secretary general, highlighting issues on which advocates have made progress in recent years, such as ending with genital mutilation.

“Suddenly, it is as if we have all turned our backs and started walking in the opposite direction.”

In an ActionAid survey of 1,219 women aged 18 to 30 in urban areas of India, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, only about 22% of those who were studying said they could continue their studies remotely. But the survey was limited by the fact that young women were interviewed based on their willingness and willingness to respond – only about 25% were currently in any form of education.

Out of school and facing extreme economic insecurity, many of the girls interviewed said they were forced to assume a greater burden of unpaid care and domestic work, without access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services – including birth control – – and were more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

Reported incidents of violence were particularly high in Kenya (76%), where young women interviewed repeatedly mentioned sexual abuse and early pregnancy. Echoing Bella’s story, several girls and young women who were out of school told researchers that they were forced to exchange sex for money out of financial desperation, ActionAid wrote.

“There are many girls in my area who are going through the same situation. As for my situation, I am now just waiting for God to help me with this and I will get out of this insurance.”


Like many other countries on the African continent, Kenya has pledged to close the gap in education exclusion by providing access for all children by 2030. But the dispersed approach to dealing with teenage pregnancy – a problem before the pandemic – was criticized by campaign groups like Human Rights Watch. In July, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered an investigation into the growing reports of violence against women and girls, noting that teenage pregnancies had increased during the pandemic.

Frustrated advocates say cuts in foreign aid from donor countries like the UK amid a wave of Covid-induced austerity measures will have devastating impacts on girls’ education and leave them without the safety net the school offers. They warn that failing to put women and girls at the center of recovery plans comes at a high cost to economic growth, especially when faced with one of the deepest recessions since World War II.

A World Bank report, released in partnership with the Malala Fund in 2018, showed that limited educational opportunities for women and girls completing high school can cost the global economy between $ 15 trillion and $ 30 trillion.

“Governments are under pressure because aid is going to be cut, because revenues are declining because of the economic effects of Covid and also because there are greater demands in the health sector,” said Lucia Fry, director of research and policy at the Malala Fund, said . “In some cases, not all, countries are in fact diverting funds from education at this time of great need.”

Various advocacy groups are calling on governments to maintain the priority they have given to education, while seeking the international community to provide fiscal stimulus in the form of debt relief and emergency aid. In the long run, they are considering reforms to things like the international tax system so that countries can keep more of the revenue they have for public services.

Meanwhile, teenagers like Bella are having to change their expectations for a future at school to one at home.

“It’s been so hard for me. I have no words to explain how I feel,” said Bella.

“Going back to school won’t be possible … and my baby is coming.”