The direct impact of Covid-19 pandemic, the ensuing lockdown across the world and its effect on the population during and after the same is yet to completely emerge. This pandemic forces us, as a global community, to rethink how we look at and interact with each other as human beings and evaluate all the social justice work happening across regions. The pandemic has brought to the fore all the inequities that exist in our society, with the most marginalised communities and identities are bearing the brunt of poor health systems, poor response mechanisms, increased violence, lack of access to technology. Even basic rights of food, housing and access to clean drinking water and sanitation services are compromised for the most economically poor population, making them more vulnerable.
These inequities will impact women and girls even more during and after the lockdown, as they have been a marginalized group even in normal times. Reports emerging during the current times are showing that women and girls have been experiencing more violence and discrimination along with lack of access to resources, education and health services. With the lockdown in place and nowhere to turn to for help, they are forced to compromise and stay in abusive and unsafe homes and communities.
This document tries to highlight and capture some of the critical areas where adolescent girls will be impacted post the Covid-19 pandemic and how one could plan to mitigate some of these by taking a few proactive steps in their settings.
The Long Term impact of Increased Violence
With the enforced lockdown, the lack of mobility has cut off people from support services, networks and outlets for emotional release, putting survivors living in abusive relationships in even deeper trouble. For girls who are in already unsafe homes, risks of emotional, physical, and sexual violence within families multiply during stressful situations.
We know that there is already a rise in violence in homes – the National Commission for Women in India reported a rise as early as March, in the first phase of the lockdown, and from the UK to Egypt to France, this is a trend we are seeing throughout the globe. An increase in reporting of child abuse has also been reported by Childline during this period. And it is to be noted that during the Covid19 lockdown, many regular services for violence survivors have been suspended, with all resources focused on fighting the pandemic.
So what does this mean for the future? By future, we mean a post-Covid world – whatever that looks like – where undoubtedly there will be many women emerging from homes who have faced violence, abuse, harassment and more. We’re looking at months of accumulated trauma, perhaps long-term, which may need specialised care and services. We’re looking at the same women who may have lost their hard-won independence and agency and may now be fully dependent on abusive family members and partners. There are studies which show the trauma related to violence leading to long term impact on mental, physical, emotional and sexual well being of an individual.
- Creating awareness on recognising violence and measures to stay safe along with available services in the community.
- Shelter homes and helplines should be strengthened to deal with crises, investing more in response mechanisms related to women and girls, especially which can be easily accessed.
- Increased psycho-social support for girls, including social and emotional nurturing during and post Covid-19, especially to deal with violence.
- Focusing on building emotional resilience while working with adolescents.
Temporary halt in Education
Only 8% of households with young people have computers and access to the internet. Girls who have little or no access to technology might miss out on education totally during the period of lockdown as schools are closed, and/or they are taken off schools for the temporary period of the lockdown. The reduction in instructional time impacts learning achievements. Educational inequities grow as economically advanced families have better technological and resources to enrich children during lockdown while poorer families might not.
As families are hit by economic hardships, potential for increased drop-out rates might disproportionately affect adolescent girls. This will exacerbate gender gaps in education and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and early and forced marriages.
Previous research shows that girls at secondary level are only half as likely to enroll as their male peers; in India 49% of girls in the age group of 15-18 are already out of school. Ebola forced five million children out of school for up to nine months in the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Many never went back, more boys than girls.
As poverty levels rise more girls are involved in domestic and caring responsibilities limiting their home learning too. Several studies have also found that the closure of schools increased girls’ vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse both by their peers and by older men, as girls were often at home alone and unsupervised. Sexual exploitation, in the context of selling sex for food and other essentials, was also widely reported, as vulnerable girls and their families struggled to cover basic needs. The loss of a school year or term can also have a significant impact on girls’ futures, as they face the ever growing pressure to marry.
- Working with teachers and school staff to ensure appropriate distance learning practices are adapted to ensure schooling continues
- Communication on sensitisation of communities on the importance of girls’ education and delaying marriage
- Where digital solutions are less accessible, low-tech approaches like sending reading and writing materials home and the use of radio and television broadcasts to reach the most marginalised may work. There is a need to ensure programme scheduling and learning structures are flexible and allow self-paced learning.
- Increased digital training for girls so that they are trained with the necessary digital skills, including the knowledge
- Girls’ usage of cell phones to be encouraged socially and not looked down upon as taboo
- Encouraging girls to return to school by asking SMCs to adopt flexible measures, course correction and bridge learning
- Safe schools to reopen as quickly and as responsibly as possible. Schools should be cleaned and disinfected publicly to allay parents’ fears. Teachers should conduct temperature checks and monitor signs of infection among students. On sustainable safe schools, education authorities should implement preventative public health programmes on basic measures such as hand-washing, vaccinations and sanitation practices.
Increased Possibilities of Early Marriage
While it is still too early to predict how the pandemic of COVID-19 might affect the incidence of early marriage in India, global experiences from earlier natural disasters and other acute emergencies strongly suggest that girls will be disproportionately affected, particularly amongst the poorest and socially marginalised groups. Many girls and boys will be affected by the crisis.
Many of the complex factors that promote child marriage in regular set-ups are exacerbated in an emergency setting, as family and community structures break down during natural disasters and emergencies. A pandemic of this nature will also present unique challenges that can increase child marriage both during and after the lockdown. With safety at home and in communities a big concern and no schools to attend, girls are sitting at home and parents find it convenient to get them married to “ensure their safety”. It is already being reported in one of the leading dailies, that Karnataka has seen a rise in reporting of child marriages. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the condition in India and the real impact will be known once this phase is over. A study by Plan International in crisis settings shows that girls and their families live in fear of violence and are not only concerned about the constant presence of armed men in the communities, but also about gender based violence (GBV) within families.
- Looking out for early marriage, teenage pregnancies and trafficking cases in our communities and providing them support or intervention.
Lack of Access to Nutrition and Health Services
In India, 40 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys are anaemic. Anaemia among adolescents adversely affects growth, resistance to infections, cognitive development and work productivity. Lack of nutritious food during lockdown and scarcity in general among marginalised communities put girls at higher risks – since social norms dictate that girls get poorer nutrition than boys, when families are hit with economic adversities, girls nutrition suffers. We might see an increase in malnourishment post the lockdown.
During lockdown, nutrition of vulnerable girls will also suffer from their inability to reach the mandated iron folic tablets they are supposed to have.As health services are overrun, access to sexual and reproductive health services for girls are restricted. Girls might be exposed to hygiene and menstrual health related diseases because of the lack of water and sanitation facilities and will have little access to health care facilities during a pandemic. Vaccines can be delayed or missed. Girls might also go through mental and emotional stress during the lockdown period.
Girls living in poverty have extremely limited access to other resources even when there is no pandemic.
- The role of ASHA workers is crucial in this time and ensuring that they have enough supplies of nutrition supplements can go a long way in ensuring health of adolescents in the villages. It is imperative that we work with local government agencies to make sure that there are not gaps in these services.
Health, bodily autonomy and safety
Public health, the economy and girls’ safety and bodily autonomy are inextricably linked. In India girls take part in domestic chores much more than boys. They might also face huge cultural pressures to provide for their families. During a crisis, this role increases dramatically. In an outbreak like COVID-19, girls are in greater danger of exposure to the virus because of their care responsibilities to their siblings, parents and elderly relatives. During the lockdown these girls must be the ones assisting in household chores like fetching drinking water etc. Lack of or limited access to running and clean water or sanitation facilities during this time also affects their health and hygiene needs adversely as it is not possible to wash hands and maintain cleanliness all the time
Under extreme shortages of resources, some girls might become victims of increased trafficking into unsafe situations and might even be forced to sell sex in exchange for money or supplies.
This, along with any violence they might face may result in affecting the health of girls adversely. For example, there are high chances of teenage pregnancies because many young girls may already live in abusive situations with very limited access to health services, such as abortions, it is likely that we will see the number of teenage pregnancies rise.
- Providing essential reproductive health services and companionship through girls clubs and other networks. Health care providers should be trained in identifying women and girls at risk in all testing and screening locations, such that recommendations for safety measures can be passed on to them.
- Increased awareness on Covid 19 measures and protocols in their own languages in easy to understand formats, like leaflets with graphics, comics, radio programmes and television shows, public announcements
- Lobbying with local television channels , print media and radio stations for space to provide edutainment targeted towards adolescents during lockdowns including messages on early marriage, trafficking, safety and security.
- Providing peer leaders with smart phones to stay in touch with their community and peer group. Conversation locally on encouraging girls to use cell phones and not look at it as a taboo. Conversations on online safety.
- Promoting intergenerational dialogue and jointly exploring solutions with parents to address issues like school dropouts of girls, early marriage, mobility and access to health services.
The lockdown is not under our control but we do have ample experience and research to foresee some of the fallouts from a health emergency like this, both in India and globally. We need to start building the safety nets we know of in our intervention communities, work with various government stakeholders, frontline workers, colleagues from the media and parents right now.
How we work with our collective experience and come together to lessen the impact of this pandemic on adolescents, especially girls, is what will make all the difference.