Why are girls particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Kerri Whelan
April 1, 2020

Today, a 13-year-old girl in Nigeria is unwillingly marrying a man she’s never met, a man old enough to be her father.

Today, a 6-year-old Syrian girl is sleeping outside of a closed border on the wintry earth — she only has one blanket that’s barely covering her feet.

Today, a 17-year-old girl in Nepal has her period, and she’s staying in isolation until it ends because she’s told she is “unclean.”

Today, a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador is seeking asylum in the U.S., all alone, because she’s desperate to escape gang violence.

And today, every girl fighting for an equal chance at life is being launched 10 steps back by a global pandemic.

On a normal day, girls’ rights are neglected. When a crisis hits, things get drastically worse. The devastating injustices that girls face are only heightened in an emergency like COVID-19.

COVID-19 is turning people’s lives upside down in the world’s wealthiest countries. So, what will be the outcome of this crisis for the world’s most vulnerable groups — girls and young women — who live in the world’s poorest areas?

These are some of the far-reaching consequences for girls as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Lost education

All over the globe, schools are shutting their doors to stop the spread of coronavirus. That means, in some countries, parents are scrambling to homeschool or set up virtual learning. In other places, it means girls might never step foot inside the classroom again.

Girls in low-income countries already face enormous obstacles to attend school. And with school closures necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, the future of girls’ education becomes more uncertain.

The longer a girl is out of school during a crisis, the less likely it is that she will return. Many girls and children around the world don’t have access to the technology that makes virtual learning possible. They may fall behind, lose progress and give up on finishing their education altogether. Their dreams for the future will be lost.

2. Compromised health services and teenage pregnancy

During crises, health care attention is diverted to emergency response. And that’s necessary. But what happens to girls who were going to the doctor to get birth control? Or the young women who are going into labor? They’re left waiting, overlooked, and their health is compromised. School closures and less access to health care means more girls dealing with unwanted pregnanciesAnd as we’ve unfortunately learned, respiratory infections like COVID-19 can be detrimental for pregnant girls and women.

3. Child labor

Parents are losing their jobs. But families still need to make an income. With schools closed and limited options, parents might have to turn to their children to help make ends meet. The girls who just days ago were spending their days learning at school and playing outside could wake up tomorrow facing a 10-hour day of hazardous work in a quarry. Girls might even be tricked into taking a job that they think will help provide for their family, only to discover too late that they’re being trafficked. Their physical and mental health will be seriously damaged. And if exploitative labor becomes their new normal, they may be forced to continue working, even when schools reopen.

4. Forced marriage

Crises like COVID-19 leave families making difficult decisions in order to survive. Girls often pay the price — they’re at greater risk of being forced into marriage during emergencies.

This is not only a pandemic, but an economic crisis. Parents who are running out of money to feed their children might see marrying off their daughters as a way to better protect them, while also being better able to keep their other children fed and alive. Girls are left in permanent relationships with strangers, forced to have children before their bodies are ready, never able to finish school.

5. Escalated domestic violence

Many countries have implemented stay-at-home policies. Though girls kept at home are better protected from disease, they are not protected from amplified family tensions and domestic violence. In the best of circumstances, girls are removed from violent situations at home after warning signs are detected at school or a health clinic. But with schools closed and health services at maximum capacity, there is more potential for girls to become victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and neglect. They become invisible and suffer in silence.

6. Susceptibility to illness for migrating girls

Refugee and migrating girls are already incredibly vulnerable to disease, even in the best of times. In refugee camps and overcrowded areas, there is limited access to clean water, soap and sanitation facilities. Girls’ immune systems are already at risk — in detention centers, they only get one menstrual pad a day, and it’s not enough. The result is infection. And social distancing is not an option for girls in caravans or refugee camps. Girls, children and their families seeking asylum are more likely to get sick, and if girls’ parents fall ill, girls are left all by themselves, vulnerable to assault.

Every one of us is facing this devastating crisis. It’s understandable to look inward. Our own health, the health of those around us and the road ahead is uncertain. But we have to remember the most vulnerable. We can’t forget about the inequalities that will worsen for girls because of this pandemic. Now more than ever, we need to continue our work to advance girls’ rights across the world. The only way forward is together — with no one left behind.