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Crises and COVID-19: Experiences of women and girls

By Rachel Veneman

The issue

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by crises. Over the past 18 months, Plan International has studied four regions experiencing humanitarian crises that have been exacerbated by COVID-19: Venezuela, the Rohingya community in Bangladesh, South Sudan and the Lake Chad Basin. Women and girls are experiencing these joint crises in a different manner than boys and men, yet are still lacking the ability to be heard and access to fora where decisions are being made.              

Venezuela’s socio-economic and political situation became a humanitarian crisis in 2014, with COVID-19 making things worse. The Rohingya community faced similar problems when forced to flee Myanmar. Of this group, 52% of the total are female, with 55-60% of the total being under the age of 18. South Sudan’s half-decade-long crisis displaced 4 million people, with 2.4 million being under the age of 18 years old. The crisis in the Lake Chad Basin has uprooted more than 2.2 million people — half of whom are children — and has been marked by gender-based violence (GBV) and violence against children.

The socioeconomic-related issues facing these countries in crisis have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and made the struggles of girls and women more severe. The pandemic introduced new fears, with 43% of Venezuelan refugees and migrants reporting that isolation due to COVID-19 heightened their sense of insecurity. Measures taken to reduce spread ­­— such as lockdowns and quarantine — negatively affected those in crisis as these measures led to economic recession, barriers to accessing educational services and heightened exposure to violence and exploitation.

Safety and security

Girls and women in crisis face GBV and the potential of child, early and forced marriage (CEFM), resulting in a lack of safety.

—    The rates of CEFM in the Lake Chad Basin are the highest in the world, at 89% of girls marrying as children.

—    Thirty-five percent of girls report feeling unsafe in their own home.

—    The fear of GBV outside of the home leaves 48% of girls reporting they feel insecure and unsafe, resulting in girls staying home and not fully integrating into their host country.

COVID-19 has exacerbated these experiences as girls face further isolation and families are forced to make difficult decisions about their children’s futures.

Education

Girls often face barriers to receiving a quality education in the best of circumstances, and those obstacles increase considerably during times of crisis. A few of these barriers include struggling to obtain documentation to formalize enrollment, schools being too far away for daily commutes and challenges to catching up on missed education due to migration. Girls also face xenophobia, child labor, early unions, pregnancy and motherhood — all of which prevent them from receiving quality educations and completing their schooling.

This past year, a total of 28% of Venezuelan refugee and migrant girls say they are not enrolled in school. And, only 16% of females over the age of 15 in South Sudan are able to read and write.

Health

Girls in crisis lack access to quality health services and information. A total of 40% of Venezuelan migrant and refugee girls do not have access to health services, and any accessible services there are sub-standard. In Cox’s Bazar, 67% pregnant women have no access to gynecological or obstetric health care. Some of the barriers to accessing health services include:

—    Documentation requirements.

—    Costs of services.

—    Discrimination.

—    National health systems not covering services.

The Lake Chad Basin exemplifies the fatal effects of these barriers, as 773.4 maternal deaths occur there per 100,000 live births — the highest rate in the world.

Due to overwhelmed healthcare systems from COVID-19, these numbers are expected to continue to rise.

Recommendations

The studies ask girls what changes they would like to see. They said they want more control over their lives and to have the ability to make important decisions themselves. Girls see education as the best way to improve their present and future lives and are searching for livelihood opportunities, access to health services and consistent food, water and supplies.

Here are their recommendations for a better today and future.

  1. Listen and include. Girls know what is needed to improve their lives, and we must start listening to them.
  2. Safety. This includes working with boys and men to address violent behavior, and financing and implementing programs that focus on GBV prevention.
  3. Health. Prioritize funding for the provision of adolescent girl-friendly information and services regarding health, including mental and sexual and reproductive health services.
  4. Education. Flexible school systems are needed to guarantee educational quality and responsiveness to girls’ needs, particularly for safe school re-openings. Girls’ education needs to be included in crisis planning efforts.
  5. Safe spaces. Provide safe spaces for girls to learn about COVID-19, sexual and reproductive health and other topics that are relevant to them.

COVID-19 has magnified the struggles of girls who were already in challenging situations. We can only plan for a better future when we listen to girls and includes their unique needs in solutions. 

 

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