Students or brides? Millions of at-risk girls calls for a U.S. and U.N. response

September 9, 2022
By Emma Merryman, Policy intern
September 9, 2022
~5 min read

The future of girls’ education is in jeopardy. COVID-19, the climate crisis and the food crisis have all forced young women and girls out of school. Recently, the U.S. Congress found that 24 million children are at risk of permanently leaving school due to COVID-19. The Humanitarian Response Plan, led by the U.N., has found an increase of child, early and forced marriages from 2.7 million girls affected in 2021 to 4 million girls affected this year. Thankfully, several new initiatives hope to provide solutions to the girls’ education crisis.

U.S. response: Legislation

The Global Learning Loss Assessment Act of 2021 (H.R.1500), introduced by U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan with bipartisan support, would require USAID to create a report on the impact of COVID-19 on their basic education programs. The bill specifically addresses the issues of gender inequality in education by requiring the report contain “identification and description of any gaps in, or barriers to, reaching and educating marginalized populations, such as girls.”

After more than two years of the pandemic, there is still so much we don’t know about the state of our world, but with 24 million children at risk of permanently dropping out of school, it is imperative that we fill the gaps in our knowledge in order to fix education systems. The bill has been passed in the House, and recently, the Senate version of the bill (S.552) introduced by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, was advanced by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and awaits final approval by the full Senate.

The Keeping Girls in School Act, which Plan has actively advocated for, would add to this effort, so its bipartisan approval by the House Foreign Affairs Committee is encouraging. It passage by the full House and Senate would also positively impact the lives of girls around the world.

The U.S. has also shown global leadership by approving $5 billion for food aid as part of the emergency package for Ukraine. Although the link between food aid and girls’ education is not always recognized, when crisis strikes, girls are more likely than boys to be taken out of school, and expected to travel to find food, leading to higher rates of violence and sexual exploitation. With an estimated 828 million people experiencing food insecurity, this U.S. aid is critical to rebuild communities and keep young women safe.

In Grace’s town in South Sudan, it hasn’t rained for two weeks. Without rain, the family has no crops to sell, which means they can’t pay for school fees.
In Grace’s town in South Sudan, it hasn’t rained for two weeks. Without rain, the family has no crops to sell, which means they can’t pay for school fees.

U.N. response: Transforming Education Summit

The U.N. is responding to these challenges with their Transforming Education Summit (TES) on Sept 19. Young people are the ones experiencing these challenges in the education system, and if we are looking to make any kind of meaningful change, then those same young people should be at the forefront of this conversation. The U.N. has laid out four overarching principles that will guide the TES, with being “youth-inspired” at the top of that list. TES is proposed as an event by, with and for young people, but concerns that youth inclusion has not been meaningful or impactful have been raised some who attended the pre-summit event in June.

A youth-led approach should be carried throughout all the work that goes into transforming education. Young women are vital to this process in order to address the gender gap within education. Plan, in response to 2020 school closures, published the Building Back Equal guide to getting girls back into schools. The guide cites the pandemic as the biggest disruption in the history of education and, though we may describe these times as unprecedented, its disproportionate impact on young women is not.

Getting and keeping girls in school is a constant struggle that has been exacerbated by recent events. When the Ebola epidemic forced schools to close in Sierra Leone in 2014, it was disproportionately harmful and disruptive to girls’ lives, as they experienced an increase in gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy and child labor — a reality that did not end with the epidemic — as the rates of school dropouts continued to increase for girls. Young women and girls are facing a similar future following the COVID-19 pandemic.


  • The passing of the Global Learning Loss Assessment Act will help us better understand what has actually happened to education over the past two years. In order for progress to be made, we have to know where to start, and this bill will help to clarify which areas of education need more attention and work.
  • Acknowledgment of the disproportionate harms girls and women encounter in times of crises is imperative to creating impactful responses. The food crisis not only requires that aid be given to combat hunger, but also gender-based violence and other linked effects that have risen in recent years.
  • The U.N. needs to commit to making young people an essential part of the discussion around education. As young people have brought to our attention in the past two years, bridging the digital divide for young women and rural communities is essential. Many of our new ways of learning and interacting happen online, in spaces where some communities may not have access or feel safe. Making the internet secure and accessible for young people will not only allow them to take part in digital distance learning now but also create a more resilient education system for the future. This will help accomplish the U.N. deputy secretary-general’s goal to “lay the foundation for transformation while recovering and responding to immediate needs.”

Seven years ago, when the sustainable development goals were created, we would not have been able to guess the challenges that lay ahead. Now, as we find ourselves repeating over and over again how we’re living in an unprecedented moment in history, it’s time we face the reality of our situation and work to get back on track with the progress that was previously made. Young people are the key to making that progress, but we have to be willing to listen to them and give them the support that they deserve.