COVID-19 sounds the alarm for girls’ safety

By Allison McCrave
June 10, 2020

Social distancing is a luxury that 19-year-old Rose can’t afford.

Rose lives with her family in Dzaleka, the largest refugee camp in Malawi. Currently filled to capacity, it is home to over 40,000 people who fled their countries to escape war and violence.

Health hazards were already severe in these crowded camps, where health services are often weak and medical supplies are limited. But the effects of COVID-19 could be catastrophic.

“This pandemic, the way it’s spreading very fast, if it reaches here, many people will be infected, and it will be very difficult to control it,” Rose explains.

Plan International is working hard to protect vulnerable populations, providing sanitation kits, food and clean water sources. Collaborating with the U.N. Refugee Agency and other local partners, we established a reception center where new arrivals at Dzaleka are housed under a mandatory 14-day quarantine, before they move into the community.

We’re also working with young leaders like Rose to educate communities on the importance of strong hygiene practices, like hand-washing. “We are trying to raise awareness and teach each other about the virus and how we can protect ourselves and our community from it.”

Rose is determined to do everything she can to keep herself and her community safe — not just from COVID-19, but also the secondary effects of the pandemic, which can be just as dangerous.

Already vulnerable, girls and young women are disproportionately affected in times of crisis, as harmful practices like child marriage, trafficking, abuse and gender-based violence increase drastically. “Since no one is working and we are just staying home, we may face a lot of violence,” Rose says.

Plan is collaborating with young activists like Rose to raise awareness about what girls should do — and where they should go — if they experience or witness abuse or violence of any kind. Rose is urging her peers to be watchful and to advocate for their rights. She has this powerful advice for them: “Don’t let anyone destroy your future.”

Girls like Rose aren’t only fearful for their safety today — they’re also worried about how COVID-19 will impact their future. When schools close their doors, adolescent girls are at the highest risk of never returning to the classroom. For girls living in refugee camps, school closures will be the most devastating, as they are already at a disadvantage — refugee girls at secondary level are only half as likely to enroll in school as their male peers.

The fight for gender equality cannot take a backseat right now. As we all focus on getting through the COVID-19 pandemic together, we can’t let progress toward equality be another thing the pandemic stops. Now more than ever, we need to continue our critical work to advance girls’ rights across the world. The only way forward is together — with no girl left behind.

“These are tough times for us all,” Rose admits. “But together we can — and we will — survive.”