Because of child marriage, teenage pregnancy, and the pandemic, girls are not finishing their secondary education.
The Woman Post | Valentina Ibarra
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According to UNICEF (2020), more than two-thirds of countries have reached gender parity in enrolment in primary education. Even though countries like Chad and Pakistan persist in the disparities, the data is a considerable progress in achieving universal primary education. But when it comes to secondary and tertiary education, the numbers are not as good. In developing countries, for every 100 men that complete upper-secondary school, only 70 women achieve the same milestone (UNESCO, 2019). The reasons why may vary from poverty to geographical location, early marriage, pregnancy, traditional gender roles, or even all of them.
Every year, more than 12 million underage girls are forced into marriage (UNICEF, 2020) and 21 million teenagers between 15 and 19 years old get pregnant (WHO, 2020). Even as these factors cannot be applied to every context -for example, studies found this is not the struggle causing drops out in Guatemala (UNESDOC, 2015)-, in regions like sub-Sharan Africa and South Asia they play a key role in the education gap. In marriage, there is a prevalence between early marriage increases and the decrease of enrollment and completion rates in secondary school (OECD, 2015), since it leads to dropping out to exert their role as housekeepers and mothers. In teen pregnancy, even as efforts are focused on making possible for them to return to school after childbirth, it usually jeopardizes education and employment opportunities (WHO, 2020).
In the COVID-19 conjuncture, the problem is even more worrisome. Previous pandemics, like the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leona, have shown how that sickness and mortality can lead to children having to work to subsist. It affects both genders, but women get at risk of ending up in transactional sex or forced into marriage. Furthermore, they must participate in unpaid jobs within the household, like child and sickness care, and get at risk of suffering domestic abuse. But as this pandemic also includes mobility limitation, children without internet access stop attending their schools and the safe spaces created for girls’ health education are not accessible anymore. (Mendez and Evans, 2020). While the discussion of opening or not the schools continues worldwide, kids are suffering the consequences of losing their secondary education. And even as it affects boys too, previous experiences have shown girls are at a different risk of never coming back to school.
The problem of the gender education gap is a global one and as a society, we need to move forward to support girls in finishing their studies. Sadly, data shows this is not enough to secure better life outcomes (Jakiela and Hares, 2019), but it’s a necessary first step to address other problems like quality of education and work opportunities. Public policymakers need to understand how the problems can interlap, contradict or change given the context, so the programs can be successful in reducing the number of women not finishing secondary education. And as the pandemic continues, the gender focus becomes more necessary, girls must go back to school.