COVID-19: Empower girls to determine their future

Daw Ma Saw Myint, head teacher of an LWF-run temporary Learning Space in Myanmar, experienced herself the limited opportunities for girls and women. She is trying to keep adolescent girls in school. Photo: LWF/ S. Thandar

International Day of the Girl: Concern about the impact of COVID-19 on girls 

(LWI) - On International Day of the Girl, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is raising awareness about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on girls in vulnerable communities. LWF is calling upon the international community and governments to ensure their well-being and protection. 

“Our country programs have identified increased rates of violence against girls as one of the most concerning secondary effects of this virus. The closing of schools, and the impact of lockdowns and other restrictions on the economic situation of vulnerable families, are putting girls in particular at risk of exploitation and abuse,” says Chey Mattner, LWF World Service Head of Operations.

LWF through its humanitarian and development arm, World Service, works with refugees, internally displaced people (IDP) and vulnerable communities in 25 countries worldwide. In Kenya, South Sudan and Myanmar, LWF provides primary education to refugees and IDP children in refugee camps and settlements.  

In Jordan, LWF provides psychosocial support to refugee children, and has been rehabilitating schools, which are used by local and refugee children. In all those countries, child protection is an integral part of the programming.  

13-year old Ma Aye Nyein from Rakhine state, Myanmar. Her parents gave permission for her to continue school, which is very uncommon in her context. She hopes the extended school closure will not undo that promise. Photo: LWF/ S. Thandar 

 

School: High drop-out rate expected 

Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the LWF schools and learning centers have been closed. In Kenya the government has set up radio and TV lessons, but not all students could benefit from those emissions, Joseph Mutamba, LWF Technical Advisor- Education and Child Protection in Kenya, says: “Most girls do not have access to radios, to participate in these lessons. Ownership of the radio is mostly in the hands of the father, we had to talk to the parents not to take away the radios from the children to allow them to follow lessons. Still, many mothers in the community have delegated household chores including taking care of siblings to the girls, leaving them with little or no time for study.”

The teachers fear that school closures will undo progress, which has been made in convincing parents to give girls an education. “Most of our people believe that girls should stay at home and help the family when they turn 12, 13 years”, says Daw Ma Saw Myint, head teacher of an LWF school in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. “I always need to go their home and encourage their parents and brothers.” 

 The absence of formal classes and persistent teachers could mean the end of school for female students like 13-year old Ma Aye Nyein from Rakhine state, Myanmar. Her parents were opposed to her continuing school after grade 5, some teachers made them reconsider. That was just before the lockdown. Now, Aye Nyein fears that promise will not hold: "I hope I will be able to continue after COVID-19 and that my parents will not change their minds.” 

Girls practice soccer at the LWF Peace Oasis in Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan. The soccer field has been shielded from outside view to offer a protected space for the girls. Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert 

 

Negative coping mechanisms 

It is not only traditional values that threaten girls’ education. As people lose their livelihoods because of measures to contain the coronavirus, girls more than boys are expected to work.  

One of the results is early marriages being fast-tracked. “Young girls are entering marriage to alleviate the financial pressure on their parents,” says Jojanneke Spoor, LWF senior program quality officer in Jordan, about the situation in Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan.  

The situation is similar in the LWF education programs in South Sudan and Kenya. LWF traditionally has mechanisms embedded in their education work (link: https://www.lutheranworld.org/news/network-stop-early-marriage) . “In school, we have a protection network that students can turn to and seek support, for example if they are in danger of being married off”, says Lokiru Yohana, LWF Regional Program Coordinator for East Africa and Protection Focal Point. “Without the opportunity to confide in a teacher during school hours, girls have lost that support, which is often the last resort.” 

On the other hand, lockdown and confinement have exposed girls to abuse at home. “Many girls we spoke to mention that there is abuse in the household since strict COVID-19 measures were imposed,” says Spoor about the situation in Jordan. “People were locked inside for a long time; many families have lost their source of income and children cannot access school. The stress this caused has a clear impact on their social and psychological wellbeing.” 

Limited access 

Betty Lamunu, LWF child protection coordinator in South Sudan, has noted a doubling of teen pregnancies and reported cases of sexual violence, as compared to last year. “In Ajoung Thok refugee camp, there is a very persistent rumor that you would no longer be able to have children when testing positive for COVID-19,” she says. Opportunities to counter those perceptions are limited, as is the access of humanitarian staff to vulnerable communities during lockdown. 

Students listen to radio lessons in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp. Photo: LWF/ P. Omagwa 

 

LWF country programs are raising awareness and following up on the situation of the girls mainly through their strong local connections, working through incentive staff from the communities they serve.

In Kenya and Myanmar, LWF staff together with partners in the education sector have developed homework packages for the students. In Kenya, those were handed over in person, giving teachers also an opportunity to follow up on the girls’ situation. LWF also partnered with a local radio station near Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, for remote classes, and purchased radios for girls and vulnerable students. 

Call for more protection 

In Myanmar, the situation is much more difficult, as the IDP camps have been inaccessible for months. LWF can only work through community-based staff. "We are in constant contact with our volunteer teachers, providing remote one-to-one support, and are now starting to conduct more formalized online refresher trainings,” says Jessica Gregson, LWF Myanmar education coordinator. Teachers are paid through mobile money, but the lack of access makes it difficult to deliver books and worksheets to the students.

In South Sudan, LWF has planned a manifestation to raise awareness about girl rights. On Oct 11, the International Day of the Girl, 100 female students from Ajoung Thok and Pamir refugee camps will meet in groups of ten. They will develop some radio messages to be broadcast locally.

“Our staff are working hard to minimize the impact despite the many challenges in front of them,” Chey Mattner, LWF World Service Head of Operations, says. “But much more needs to be done. We call on the international community, especially governments, to ensure girls have every opportunity to enjoy their fundamental human rights of protection, education, and an opportunity to determine their own future. “ 

 

LWF’s work in child protection and education is supported by ACT Church of Sweden, Australian Lutheran World Service, the Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Bread for the World, Canadian Lutheran World Relief, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, European Union, The German National Committee, United States Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BPRM), Myanmar Humanitarian Fund, UNICEF, and the UNHCR.