COVID-19 is imperiling the safety and education of many Latin American and Caribbean girls, reports Plan International, an independent development and humanitarian organization advancing children’s rights and equality for girls. With the closure of schools, many girls have been trapped at home and subject to increasing gender-based violence. Moreover, for some, their education may be derailed permanently with lasting generational effects.
Ninety-five percent of girls have been out of school since mid-March, and this has made them highly vulnerable. Amalia Alarcón, Plan’s Regional Head of Gender Transforming and Influencing, explains how the pandemic has a clear gender component. “The control measures for the disease do not take into account the specific vulnerabilities of girls, adolescents and women as the risk of suffering gender-based violence at home, increases. According to Plan International, “There has been a significant rise in reports of physical, sexual and psychological abuse directed towards girls and adolescents, with many more cases likely going under the radar.”
In order to stem COVID transmission, lock-downs and closures are imperative; however, their effects are particularly pronounced on girls, many of whom have only tenuous access to education, and are already vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Moreover, the region already has the second highest rate of teenage births worldwide. Teenage pregnancies are a major reason for school drop-outs, and a lack of access to contraception and increased sexual violence may increase these numbers.
Plan International is working in 13 countries across the region to ensure that young people have access to educational materials and psychosocial support, and that pregnant teenagers and young mothers retain access to education. Plan is also providing menstrual hygiene kits to teens and young women, as the lack of such products is often a barrier to female education.
In certain populations of girls, missing several months of school is not a temporary blip that can be overcome; it may completely derail that child’s educational trajectory, with long-lasting effects for the family and community. “Girls not returning to school will a cause a generational risk. A girl who does not complete education today will have fewer opportunities and this may affect future generations. If governments do not take urgent actions to ensure girls make a return to school, we will see the gender gap widen in terms of access to education – setting back decades of progress,” says Janaina Hirata, Plan International’s Regional Specialist for Education in Emergencies.
While remote learning is possible in wealthier countries, this is not always the case in poorer ones. Moreover, violence and the threat of it, along with being required to perform unpaid care and domestic work, make it difficult to study. Plan quotes 13-year old Coral from the Dominican Republic, who says, “I wish we could go back to normal, so that I could go back to school, and my life would be like it was before. I see that many girls have to do more work at home than boys.” However, once the pandemic is over, many girls may never return to school.
In the article “Schools will reopen. Will Latin America and the Caribbean be ready?” Claudia Uribe, Director of the UNESCO Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Office, and Bernt Aasen, Regional Director of UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office, state, “The longer students stay away from the educational environment, the greater the risk that they will never return, especially the most vulnerable.” The authors noted that prior to the onset of the pandemic, twelve million children were already out of school; the fear is that this number will increase. Reopening schools is a challenge, but doing so safely is vital not only for girls’ education, but in some cases for their very survival.
Isolation in the home makes it more likely that girls and women will be victims of domestic and gender-based violence, as abusers are frequently relatives or close acquaintances. Plan International cites figures from agencies in Colombia, El Salvador and Peru indicating a significant increase in complaints of sexual violence.
Plan International is working with multiple levels of government, NGOs, and youth and community groups to protect girls and adolescents from gender-based violence. “The objective of our work is to continue understanding and addressing the influence of gender norms on girls and boys, and how those gender norms can encourage and maintain violence, says Alarcón, adding “We also consider it essential to continue working with boys, adolescents and men, supporting them to embrace positive masculine identities and promote gender equality, as a form of violence prevention.”
Plan International is urging governments to address gender-based violence, particularly that directed at children, and further recommends that governments “guarantee sexual health services and reproductive rights to all girls, adolescents and women in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Getting girls and young women back in school safely is one of the best things that can be done to improve not only individual lives, but also the region’s economic and social development. To this end, Plan International is soliciting COVID-19 relief donations.
Plan International USA is an independent development and humanitarian organization advancing girls’ equality and children’s rights. It is part of the Plan International network of collaborative partnerships between 21 national offices and more than 50 program offices. Plan International was established in 1937 by a journalist and refugee worker assisting children affected by the Spanish Civil War. In its early years, Plan was heavily focused on assisting children displaced by WWII, and alleviating poverty in war-torn areas of Europe. Since the 1960s, its emphasis has shifted to the developing world, and of late Plan has increasingly focused on improving the lives of girls. Plan’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign launched on the first International Day of the Girl in 2012, and its programs impacted four million girls. Currently, Plan’s programs reach over 56 million children in more than 50 developing countries. Plan is a 501(c)(3) headquartered in Warwick, Rhode Island with an office in Washington, D.C.
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