What global issue is on your mind lately? Most likely, it’s the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic is, understandably, taking up much of the spotlight right now. But the reality is that the challenges that were with us before COVID-19 are still with us now. They’re not slowing down. In fact, they’re doing the opposite. They’re scaling up.
Girls around the world already know this. Because they’re facing these challenges — bravely, even if quietly — every day of their lives.
Let’s take a look at some of the key issues that don’t stop for pandemics.
1. Child marriage
Weddings are still being planned, and brides are still putting on wedding dresses. Brides as young as 12. Like Mamesh*, who lives in northern Ethiopia, where 75% of girls are married under the age of 18. Mamesh wanted to stay in school, but her family forced her to marry a man much older than her. She didn’t even know about it until the morning of her wedding. “They decorated the shed and that’s when I realized what was going on,” she says. “I’d never met the man before that day.”
There are different reasons parents decide to marry off their daughters. And many may believe they’re doing what’s best for them. If you can’t afford to care for your child, you have to make difficult and painful decisions. Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbate the economic hardships facing families. And when poverty worsens, the futures of adolescent girls are sacrificed. Right at the end of the aisle, by the marriage altar.
*Name changed to protect identity.
2. The unique health needs of adolescent girls
Imagine the waiting room in a rural community clinic. It’s bare-bones, but it’s the only facility for miles, so it’s a busy place. On a usual day, before COVID-19, it would have been full of young women seeking routine, but crucial, services. Some may be there to get birth control or have their first exam. Others are pregnant, anxiously waiting for a check-up. A few of them are going into labor. Some new moms come in, hoping to get their babies weighed and vaccinated. It’s just another day in the clinic, with the doctors and nurses making the most of limited resources.
Now, in the age of COVID-19, those resources will need to stretch much, much further. The line in the waiting room is longer. People are coughing. As more and more people get sick, the strain on the system becomes overwhelming. Attention is diverted to emergency response, rather than routine services. Women and girls just have to wait.
Though they’re being overlooked, their reproductive health needs haven’t disappeared. Pregnancies increase, since there will be less access to contraception. Babies will be born, whether or not doctors are there to care for them or their mothers.
3. Conflict and migration
Our world doesn’t face one humanitarian crisis at a time. Sadly, things like war, gang violence, food insecurity and natural disasters are still displacing people from their homes. Migrants are still on the run, desperately seeking safer futures for their families. Refugees are still arriving in overcrowded camps.
The health systems in these contexts are usually weak, or just nonexistent. Migrants and refugees were already susceptible to disease prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Imagine what it’s like for them now.
Girls and women are especially vulnerable in these situations. Girls like Amal. She’s an 11-year-old Syrian refugee. She can’t practice social distancing while living with six other people in a makeshift shelter. And she can’t wash her hands for 20 seconds when she doesn’t have access to running water. What will protect her from the pandemic when it arrives in her camp? What should she do when she starts to hear coughing all around her at night?
4. Gender-based violence
Gender-based violence is its own kind of pandemic — globally, one in three women have experienced some form of it. And during emergencies, it always gets worse.
Quarantining keeps us safe indoors from COVID-19, but what if your home isn’t a safe place? What if you’re stuck inside with your abuser? Family tensions can be amplified by isolation and stress. And girls may not have access to the help they need — either because they can’t leave home, or because the support systems in their community have broken down. By escaping one crisis outside their home, they’re trapped inside with another one.
As we all focus on getting through the COVID-19 pandemic together, we must remember the challenges that are still affecting vulnerable girls and children every day. We can’t let progress toward equality be the one thing that the pandemic stops.
Now more than ever, we need to continue our critical work to advance girls’ rights across the world. The only way forward is together — with no girl left behind.