COVID-19 is ripping away girls’ safety. Financial stress on families is putting girls at greater risk for child marriage. Law enforcement attention is being diverted, and girls’ likelihood of being rescued from trafficking is lower than it already was. And stuck at home, girls are being subjected to door-to-door female genital mutilation — lockdowns are being seen as an opportune time to force girls to undergo the procedure.
If the pandemic is making girls defenseless to this extent, what are the implications for girls with disabilities?
Patricia from Kenya says COVID-19 is taking a serious toll on people with disabilities in her community. “I understand that everyone is scared about it,” she tells our local staff. “But I have a visual impairment, and for girls like me, the reality of this disease affects us even more deeply.”
“There’s a lot of stigma around people with disabilities,” Patricia says. “But how much more will there be now?”
An estimated 80% of people with disabilities live in developing countries. The girls and young women of that group face huge barriers in achieving gender equality, receiving job training and accessing education. Many experience a lifetime of discrimination and abuse. In fact, around 90% of children living with a disability weren’t enrolled in school before COVID-19. And now, their disadvantage has been magnified by the pandemic.
Aimée from Togo was enrolled in school and luckily received the hands-on support she needs, as she has a genetic condition that’s caused a loss of mobility in her legs — something her four brothers also live with. Her dream is to become a doctor, but she’s more worried than ever about her future. Without strong internet connection for virtual learning or the hands-on support she needs while learning from home, she’s not sure she’ll ever catch up.
“I sincerely hope people look into the situation for people with disabilities,” Aimée says. “We’re really suffering.”
Sisters Fatouma and Koumba from Togo who have hearing impairments faced immense challenges in receiving their education before COVID-19. Fatouma’s school is far away from home, and her family couldn’t always afford transportation costs, so she often had to miss class. Koumba’s school doesn’t provide support for students with disabilities, so she says she had to copy other girls’ work to keep up. Neither sister is able to learn from home during the pandemic.
“I want to be a midwife,” says Koumba. “But I don’t think I’ll ever get that opportunity.”
“We don’t know what the future holds for our education,” Fatouma says. “We don’t even fully understand what’s happening. We see people who are wearing face masks, so we just wear them too. Deaf people are being left behind.”
For girls who need direct assistance with school and daily activities, social distancing isn’t an option. And that leaves them extremely vulnerable to getting sick. “I need help from caregivers to get food, get dressed and bathe,” Aimée says. “I don’t always know if they’ve washed their hands.”
Keeping assistive devices like wheelchairs clean presents another challenge for girls. “I use a cane to help me with my movement,” Patricia says. “I must keep touching it to support myself, but I know coronavirus can survive on surfaces. I can’t sanitize it all the time, so therein lies the risk of exposure.”
Some girls with disabilities are being forced to beg on the street for people to help them. Patricia is extremely worried about these girls, who are now even more vulnerable to abuse. “If girls who have no disabilities are at risk of abuse, imagine how much more vulnerable we are,” she says. “People can very easily take advantage of us, and that terrifies me.”
So, how can we help vulnerable girls and children with disabilities during COVID-19?
To support all girls through this difficult time, Plan is working with girls and children with disabilities to help them understand the consequences of COVID-19 and how they can protect themselves from violence. We’re teaching families and neighbors how they can help keep vulnerable girls safe. We’re distributing gloves, masks, hand sanitizer and soap to caregivers. We’re providing inclusive education for children who are out of school. And, we’re teaching parents how to help their children continue to learn using innovative distance learning methods.
But millions of more vulnerable girls across the world are waiting for our help, and we can’t reach them without you. All of us need to remain united if we want to get through this crisis and come out the other side kinder, stronger and more connected.
“My hope is that people will still be willing to help me cross the road,” Patricia says. “I hope people will still be kind to us.”