Asia’s post-pandemic priorities must include education for girls

Marina Mahathir is a writer and women’s rights activist in Malaysia. Laura Deal Lacey is executive director of the Milken Institute. Both serve on the board of trustees of the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Latifa and Hakima, two ethnic Hazara girls from a remote village in Afghanistan, were thrilled when they gained entry in 2011 to the privately-run Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

It had been 10 years since Afghanistan’s Taliban government had been ousted by a U.S.-led international coalition and many women and girls were experiencing life opportunities for the first time, including tertiary education.

By 2021, there were 131 Afghan girls enrolled at AUW, the second-largest cohort after Bangladeshis among 984 students from 35 ethnicities. Many have been studying online from home since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Bangladesh in 2020.

Then, on Aug. 19, the Taliban returned to Kabul, threatening the civil rights of the female population, particularly in education. Despite conciliatory Taliban statements, women in Afghanistan are already reporting that women and girls are being told to stay home “because our forces who are new and have not been trained may mistreat women.”

A female student stands outside the gates of the Asian University for Women in Chittagong in August 2018: many women and girls were experiencing life opportunities for the first time.   © Reuters

Most countries in the global south have accepted that education, particularly of girls, is crucial to development, although many have struggled to implement the necessary policies and infrastructure. In Afghanistan, education for everyone has suffered from decades of conflict, but women have fared much worse than men. The overall literacy rate improved to 43% during the U.S.-led occupation, but only 29% of women can read and write.

What is happening in Afghanistan is also occurring more widely in the larger context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted education for millions of children around the world. In the East Asia and Pacific region, governments had been slowly expanding access to schooling before the pandemic struck, especially for girls. Over the two decades before the pandemic, the number of school-age girls not in school in the region halved to 15 million, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

School closures caused by the pandemic have been particularly disastrous for girls. Being stuck at home has meant having to deal not only with disrupted learning but with other gender-related problems. Girls are expected to help with household chores, leaving them less time to learn. In Indonesia, according to a recent UNICEF survey, 68% of female students using distance learning are studying for only two hours a day, or less, while 30% have no access to online programs.

In poorer homes, tensions caused by unemployment have led to domestic violence and even sexual exploitation. In 2020, Save the Children, a charity, analyzed household survey data from low-to-middle income countries and found that 61,000 girls within the East Asia and Pacific region and 191,200 girls in South Asia were at risk of child marriages, defined as formal or informal unions below the age of 18. The charity also estimated that an additional 118,000 girls in the EAP region and 138,000 girls in South Asia were at risk of pregnancy in 2021.

Other health issues have also come to light. Before COVID-19 girls could escape to school for socializing, physical activities, menstrual health services and even food. But these outlets and services have become scarce or nonexistent. A UNICEF Thailand survey on the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people conducted between March and April 2020 found 76.5% of girls reported mental health issues compared to 69% of boys. Suicide helplines have reported an uptick in calls, mostly from teenage girls.

The impact of the pandemic on girls in Asia, and more broadly on the countries they live in, can only truly be measured once the virus is brought under control. With vaccination rates still lagging in many countries, it is difficult to predict when this will happen. Understanding what has happened will also depend on the transparency of the governments measuring the impact — including the loss of teachers and students to the virus — their financial capacity, and their political will to rebuild education infrastructure to pre-pandemic levels.

Governments need to place a gender lens on this issue to identify the special problems that girls face in continuing their education. Investing in female education is an economic imperative. As far back as 2014, UNICEF research showed that the impact of female education on national economic growth is undeniable: On average, a one percentage point increase in female education raises annual growth in gross domestic product by 0.2 percentage points.

But education for girls is about more than economics. Educated girls become more self-confident, and are more likely to take up jobs that benefit their communities and countries. The higher their levels of education, the more likely they are to contribute to nation-building.

Sadly, that is not now likely to happen in Afghanistan. While the Taliban has said it will review the participation of women in Afghan society “in the context of Sharia Law,” economic and social opportunities are unlikely to continue unchanged for young women like those studying at AUW, many of whom were very young or not yet born when the Taliban was last in control.

But governments of other developing countries throughout Asia should start thinking hard now about how to build on the progress made before COVID-19. If societies are to rebound stronger from the pandemic, extra effort must be put into ensuring that women and girls have the opportunities, resources, programs and services to complete their education. This is not just the right thing to do; it is also in the economic interests of every country in the region.


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