As of April 26, Zimbabwe had 31 confirmed cases of COVID-19. And just like most of the world, the measures taken to stop the spread of the virus has had a significant impact on the country, including school closures and lockdowns. We know that girls and women will suffer from secondary effects of the virus: increased gender-based violence, not returning to school, early and forced marriages — the list of potential impacts goes on.
But what does everyday life look like for adolescent girls right now? Plan International staff interviewed girls ages 13-18 over the phone to make sure our response was tailored to this age group, which is often forgotten as attention is focused on young children or women more broadly. The answers are far more dire and heartbreaking than expected.
“I feel very very sad and worried because I am locked here,” Precious said. “My family is in Bulawayo town while I am here living in a small and crowded room. I have no pads, no food and no money … I failed to raise enough money to travel to Bulawayo when we were informed that schools were closing earlier by our School Head … I don’t know where I am going to get the money for me to be able to travel to Bulawayo and am not sure if we will be allowed to travel any time soon. I am not able to communicate with my family and there are no buses.
“This is going to affect my results when I finally sit for the exams. I am not able to study because most of the time I will be busy begging for food, which most families are no longer able to give … What can I do? I don’t have much and I have to survive.”
The response from Precious was echoed by her classmates as girls worry about meeting their basic needs. And, although they are anxious and afraid, they very much want to continue learning. Girls are experiencing hunger, separation from family and a lack of hygiene products and other necessities, as well as extremely heightened anxiety.
Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, Plan International had begun to work with Precious and other adolescent girls to address the obstacles that prevent them from finishing secondary school. The girls challenged several aspects of traditional development design. In response, architectural and building plans were being put in place to build a dormitory, and programming to better support students was being developed. While these activities will resume once it is safe to do so, girls can’t wait that long.
Using interviews to better understand the girls’ immediate needs, funds are being repurposed for activities such as:
— Provision of supplies to keep girls and their families safe, through the distribution of emergency kits containing solar lamps, hand sanitizer, reusable masks and menstrual pads.
— Cash transfers to girls to cover immediate food needs for the next three months.
— Education support to help keep girls on track in school through the distribution of materials, including readings on math, integrated science, biology, chemistry, physics, geography and English.
— Later, the team will broaden learning though the development and distribution of virtual life skills lessons.
Development practitioners know from past responses that crises hit the most vulnerable, including girls, the hardest. However, despite on-the-ground experience, data detailing the full impact on girls’ lives is lacking. As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold, the international development industry must make it a priority to include girls in response planning first and foremost to ensure that programs are addressing girls’ immediate needs and priorities. And secondly, including girls will help to ensure that accurate data, disaggregated by gender and age, is captured, so that the development community can respond more quickly during the next crisis. Without taking these steps, past mistakes will be repeated and lessons for future crises will not be learned.
Precious’s name has been changed for protection purposes.
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