Back to school? Think again

August 18, 2022
By Sirena Cordova
August 18, 2022

A new school year is just beginning for students across the U.S., and most are hoping for a sense of normalcy after a tumultuous two years of COVID-19 safety measures that shuffled them in and out of the classroom.  

But for many students here and around the world, especially girls, there is no excitement around supply shopping or reuniting with their friends again — because none of that will happen at all. Between schools staying closed over fears of a new COVID-19 wave and other barriers to getting an education, back-to-school doesn’t look quite as bright. Here are four reasons why. 

1. War and displacement 

When the war in Ukraine began, the country’s nearly 6 million children instantly lost their education. Currently, more than 2,000 schools have been severely damaged from attacks, and at least 200 are destroyed.  

A school in the city of Chernihiv destroyed by an air strike.
A school in the city of Chernihiv was destroyed by an air strike, and 850 students lost access to their education.

Millions of families are internally displaced; they’re still in Ukraine but forced to find safety in a new town or city. They might be safe from bombs and bullets for now, but rising concerns about access to food and water, among other necessities, introduces a whole new set of barriers to getting to school. 

For the children who have fled the country, school won’t be the same this year even if they’re able to find a class to attend. Many refugee children and their families are in nearby places like Poland, Moldova and Romania, but the culture shock on top of dealing with the trauma of war is a lot for children to handle, and it’s more than should be asked of them. And they miss home. 

“No matter how good the situation could be here, it doesn’t matter because I miss my school, my friends, my activities – everything I used to do back home,” Arina, a 13-year-old girl currently in Romania, says.  

Arina shows Plan a painting she made of her home back in Ukraine.
Arina shows Plan a painting she made of her home back in Ukraine.

Refugee girls face even more risks during war. Trafficking and gender-based violence increases, especially when girls are moving across borders – sometimes alone – which keeps them from school altogether. 

So far, Plan has reached thousands of teachers and refugee students to provide training, supplies and learning centers to support quality education during this crisis. Thousands more people are still struggling to cope with their situation, all while watching more and more of their homeland destroyed. 

[Read: Photo story: Through the eyes of Ukrainian refugees] 

2. Hunger

The war in Ukraine also impacts families far beyond Europe’s borders. Across countries in Africa who relied on grain from Russia and Ukraine, the halting of imports has cut millions of people off from their only source of food. Intense drought in the region has decimated crop harvests and killed livestock, leaving people starved and desperate. 

Girls like ZamZam and Juweriya, who are both 12 and from Somalia, face unprecedented challenges under a drought. Often responsible for walking long distances to fetch whatever water they can find and being the last to eat if there’s anything left, attending school is nearly impossible. 

ZamZam, Juweriya and their friend Habbiq sit together on a bench and read through some school materials.
ZamZam, Juweriya and their friend Habbiq struggle to make it to class every day, especially when they haven’t eaten anything.

Without enough food and water, girls’ health plummets, and they can’t get the most out of their education.  

“Because of the drought our sheep have died,” ZamZam says. “Because of the drought in our country, there is a shortage of food. Sometimes we have breakfast, and sometimes we don’t. When I arrive at school, I feel hungry [in my classes]. When I’m hungry, I can’t study well.” 

Girls are dropping out of school entirely to move with their families in search of food and water elsewhere. Without enough children enrolled, schools are closing and shutting out anyone who’s left. 

“I’d like to have more classrooms at school,” Juweriya says. “Now, there are three. One is an office, and two are classrooms. We want more rooms.” 

Right now, more than 1 million children under 5 in Somalia alone are facing acute malnutrition. Of those, how many will even make it to the first grade if this crisis persists? 

[Read: In her own words: The violence of hunger] 

3. Legal gender discrimination

August marks the anniversary of the U.S. military’s exit from Afghanistan in 2021, and what’s happened since then is devastating for girls and women. Once in power, the Taliban immediately banned girls from attending secondary school, effectively killing the dreams of some 850,000 teenage girls.  

Instead, girls are expected to tend to the home with their mothers, whose dreams of a freer life have also crumbled under Taliban rule. And if they’re not doing chores, they’re being forced to marry older men, sometimes Taliban officials, to protect against retaliation for ever going to school in the first place. 

In the face of this violation, some girls and young women have opened secret schools in informal places like extra rooms in someone’s house so they can continue learning. They’re also finding loopholes in the laws and running madrassas (religious schools) and tutoring centers as high schools. 

At least inside these rooms they’re safe, but the walk to and from is terrifying. If even one girl is found out, it could put everyone’s lives at risk. After all, attacks targeting female students in Afghanistan aren’t new. 

[Read: Still in Afghanistan: 4 stories of girls and women you need to hear]

4. School violence

For parents in the U.S., sending children to school has become a source of anxiety and fear with every passing year. The threat of gun violence in what should otherwise be a safe space for children to learn is no longer a rarity. 

People organized in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2018 for a March for Our Lives demonstration against gun violence.
People organized in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2018 for a March for Our Lives demonstration against gun violence.

As of August, there have been 27 school shootings in 2022 — the most widely publicized being the May attack at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. While these events are horrific and traumatizing for the surrounding communities, the mass media coverage of violence at schools shares the devastation with all parents across the country.  

Now, schools are implementing more security measures to prevent attacks and protect students, like requiring clear backpacks, installing metal detectors and organizing active shooter simulations to train children on how to respond.  

Ultimately, children carry this anxiety with them to the classroom, especially if their school has already been the site of an attack. Strengthening support networks for children of all ages has never been more important. 

And that goes for all children in any context. Girls are especially vulnerable to losing their education during war, climate disasters and targeted violence — often permanently. Our future rests on their ability to grow and succeed, and it starts with access to a quality education in a safe and inclusive environment. 

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