A 16-year-old Australian student, Mayela Dayeh, will address the United Nations general assembly on Wednesday night to present the findings of a survey that shows young women and girls are shouldering a greater economic, domestic and emotional load and working harder during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The study, released by humanitarian organisation Plan International as part of a report called “Halting Lives – The impact of Covid019 on girls and young women”, surveyed more than 7,000 15-to-24 year-olds across 14 countries.
“I think Covid has exacerbated issues we already knew were there, which we had either become complacent about or comfortable with, especially in terms of the gender divide,” Dayeh, a secondary school student, said.
“Looking at my circle of friends and acquaintances, there have been greater responsibilities expected of them at home, and there’s been an absolute decline in mental health.”
As part of the Plan International survey, 7,105 young women and girls in Australia, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Spain, the United States, France, Vietnam, and Zambia were surveyed between 9 June and 14 July. They were asked about their knowledge of the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences on their lives in relation to education, wellbeing, economic security, livelihoods and access to technology.
Nearly one-third (26%) were worried about the loss of household income due to the pandemic, and 62% said they were struggling as a result of not being able to go to school or university. More than half (58%) of girls were feeling the negative effects of not being able to leave the house regularly, while 58% highlighted not being able to socialise with friends as a negative consequence of the pandemic. Nine in 10 girls surveyed said they were feeling high or medium levels of stress or anxiety due to the pandemic.
In Africa, girls and young women not being able to go to school or university was the most frequently cited negative effect (20%). Girls and young women in Spain and India reported the highest levels of “major change” to their lives, the survey found.
“This aligns with the reports of lockdowns in both these countries,” the report said. “Spain had the most reported cases in Europe and quickly imposed a nationwide quarantine to stop the spread. India also had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. The severity of the Indian lockdown has not necessarily resulted in fewer cases … Unsurprisingly perhaps as high levels of poverty and overcrowding in India make social distancing practically impossible.”
A report from the United Nations population fund, published in April, predicted lockdown-related disruption over six months could leave 47 million women globally unable to use contraception, leading to a projected 7 million additional pregnancies. The United Nations report also said “over the next decade, the often-overlooked secondary impacts of Covid-19 could also result in 31 million new cases of gender-based violence, 2 million million more cases of female genital mutilation and an estimated 13 million more child marriages”. This was seen during the Ebola outbreak, when there was a spike in unintended adolescent pregnancies in Sierra Leone.
A respondent to the Plan International survey, 16-year-old Lucilene from Mozambique, said: “I live with my brother and my parents who have chosen not to talk about such topics as sexual health because they are very traditional. I fear that if the coronavirus does not go away soon, many girls who grow up in families like mine will not be able to have access to useful information we get in school girls’ clubs.”
A co-author of the Plan International report, research manager Isobel Fergus, said the survey results revealed that “opportunities fought so hard for are disappearing”.
“They’ve told us about tensions at home, feeling lonely, and missing school, their friends and the easy freedoms of going out and about,” Fergus said. “It is going to be very difficult to make up for this lost time and the digital divide means girls, particularly in low-income countries, find it hard to access the information they need for their education and their health.”
When the results are presented to the United Nations general assembly on Wednesday, Dayeh will call on it and other international donors to pay particular attention to low-income countries. Education ministries must prioritise learning continuity during school closures, the assembly will be told.
Director of advocacy and community engagement for Plan International Australia, Holly Crocket, said: “The survey is a wake-up call for governments to recognise that health emergencies affect groups differently.
“For girls, the risks of staying home are heightened,” she said. “It affects their mental health and puts them at greater risk of domestic violence. Because of the patriarchal social norms that dictate girls should take on the vast majority of unpaid domestic labour, there is a real threat that they will be made to drop out and stay out of school.”