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When schools shut: New UNESCO study exposes failure to factor gender in COVID-19 education responses


Paris, 11 October – When schools shut, a global study exposing the gendered impact of COVID-19 school closures on learning, health and well-being, has been released by UNESCO on the occasion of the 2021 International Day of the Girl Child, 11 October. It finds that while gender norms and expectations can affect the ability to participate in remote learning, interventions that challenge gender-based barriers can limit learning loss and drop-out rates when schools reopen safely.

Despite swift action by governments and their partners to ensure continuity of learning, COVID-19 school closures have hampered children’s and young people’s right to inclusive and quality education in countries across the world,” said UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education Stefania Giannini. “The examples included in this report remind us that the path to equality is not a straight line and that purposeful, sustained and collaborative actions are needed to get us on track and to build back equal.”

The study includes a review of published research and a large-scale survey of organizations working globally on gender equality in education, as well as in-depth data collected in local communities in Bangladesh, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Mali and Pakistan.

Four main areas where gendered impacts have been observed:

  1. Household demands on girls and boys, particularly in the poorest contexts, constrained their ability to participate in remote learning. Girls’ increased time spent at home often carried a greater burden of domestic responsibilities, as documented in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Niger, Pakistan and Sierra Leone and other low- and middle-income contexts. Boys’ participation was often limited by the need to earn an income: one-third of respondents in one survey across 55 countries indicated an increase in the prevalence of child labour related to COVID-19 school closures.
  2. The gender digital divide significantly constrained girls’ ability to learn online. In countries with data, adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 were less likely than boys to have used the internet in the past 12 months, and fewer of them owned a mobile phone. Among learners surveyed in three districts in Pakistan, 44% of girls, compared to 93% of boys, reported owning a mobile phone. Girls who did not own mobile phones reported that they relied on their relatives’ devices, typically those belonging to their fathers.
  3. Limited data available to date about school return rates also show gender disparities. A study conducted in four counties in Kenya found that 16 % of girls and 8 % of boys aged 15 to 19 failed to re-enrol during the two months following school reopening in early 2021, citing the inability to pay school fees as the main reason.
  4. Beyond education, school closures have impacted children’s health, notably their mental health, well-being and protection. Girls reported more stress, anxiety and depression than boys in 15 countries across the world. LGBTQI learners reported high levels of isolation and anxiety. Fears about increased crime and violence were also reported by boys, particularly in crisis-affected contexts.

As governments brought remote learning solutions to scale to respond to the pandemic, speed, rather than equity in access and outcomes, appears to have been the priority. Initial COVID-19 responses seem to have been developed with little attention to inclusiveness, raising the risk of increased marginalization. There are exceptions: Ghana’s plan recognizes gender-related barriers to studying during school closures while Rwanda supports pregnant girls and adolescent mothers to continue their education.

Most countries across all income groups report providing teachers with different forms of support. Few programmes, however, helped teachers recognize the gender risks, disparities and inequalities that emerged during COVID-19 closures. Female teachers also have been largely expected to take on a dual role to ensure continuity of learning for their students, while facing additional childcare and unpaid domestic responsibilities in their homes during school closures.

The study calls on the education community to factor gender in policies and programmes to tackle declining participation and low return-to-school rates in vulnerable communities, including through cash transfers and specific support to pregnant girls and adolescent mothers. 

Continued efforts are needed to track trends and expand interventions to bring an end to child marriages as well as early and forced marriages. practices which rob girls of their right to education and health and reduce their long-term prospects. Yet, such marriages appear to be increasing in some contexts. More work is also needed to document good practices, notably those that are equity-focused and designed to leave no one behind.

The study also demonstrates a strong need for no-tech and low-tech remote learning solutions, measures to enable schools to provide comprehensive psychosocial support and to monitor participation through sex-disaggregated data, among other necessary measures.

UNESCO’s celebration of International Day of the Girl Child will feature a conference on 11 October (1.30pm to 3.30pm, Paris time), entitled Digital Generation. Our Generation: Learning in the era of COVID-19. Organized by UNESCO in partnership with Plan International and the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, the conference will explore how to close the gender gap in digital access and skills, support safe online spaces, and leverage the power of technology to advance girls’ and women’s education, leadership and gender equality and ensure that girls are empowered to maximize their potential both online and offline. Register here.

When schools shut was prepared under the umbrella of the Global Education Coalition’s Gender Flagship with evidence collected by the Population Council. It was generously funded by the Global Partnership for Education.


Media contact: Clare O’Hagan, UNESCO Press Service, +33(0)145682917, c.o-hagan@unesco.org


Photo: ROMEDIA/Shutterstock.com