Crises like the Covid-19 outbreak reveal the frailty of our systems and the strength of our promises. Beyond the health and economic effects, our world now faces a growing education emergency – and our response will impact generations of children.
Most countries around the world have closed their schools in response to the pandemic at some point this year. While this disruption to education has far-reaching effects for all, the impact is particularly detrimental to the most disadvantaged students and their families, especially in poorer countries. The educational consequences of coronavirus will last beyond the period of school closures, disproportionately affecting marginalised girls.
These girls are more at risk than boys of dropping out of school altogether following school closures – and women and girls are more vulnerable to the worst effects of the pandemic. Following the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak and school closures in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, enrolment rates for girls dropped. Increased rates of poverty, household responsibilities, child labour, early marriage and teenage pregnancy prevented many girls from returning to school.
Malala Fund estimates that approximately 20 million secondary school-aged girls may never return to the classroom after the pandemic, if dropouts increase at the same rate. In the longer term, poorer countries may struggle to provide sufficient financing for education, especially to support schools, teachers and students to fight reemergence of the virus and stay safe from indirect effects of further outbreaks.
Despite some distance learning solutions, it is estimated that more than 450 million students are cut of from education during school shutdowns. New figures released by Unesco’s global education monitoring report show that Covid-19 could increase the global education funding gap to $200bn per year.
But Covid-19 only exacerbated existing inequalities. Before the pandemic 129 million girls were out of school – and millions more were in school, but failing to hit minimum learning targets. As the UN general assembly begins this week, leaders face a choice: a recovery that gets us back to “normal” or a reset that drives progress. For education, the answer is clear.
A return to normal means underfunded schools, undervalued teachers and overcrowded classrooms. It means economic systems that prioritise profit at the expense of public goods such as education – even when we know that educating all girls for 12 years could unlock up to $30tn in earnings. It means harmful gender norms that limit girls’ ambitions and increase their exposure to violence and exploitation. Normal means education that reproduces the values and behaviours of our current world, where the climate crisis accelerates, and racial and gender inequalities continue.
Leaders can take the first steps toward transformative change by delivering a substantial financial stimulus to education. We need to protect aid budgets, but also increase domestic resources available to invest in education. Last year, 24 low-income countries spent more on external government debt payments than on education. In April, G20 finance ministers agreed to a temporary suspension of these payments for some countries – but this action did not include non-government entities such as the World Bank, one of the largest creditors. Education advocates are calling on donor governments to extend payment suspension until 2022 and commit to fully cancelling many of these debts. This is the fastest way to free up funds in low-income countries and allow them to redirect resources to their Covid-19 response, including education. In addition to debt cancellation, we can reduce the flow of finance away from low-income countries through global tax policy reform, enabling the necessary investments in education to get all girls back to school and learning.
Our goal should not be a return to the way things were but instead a renewed commitment to the way the world should be, a place where every girl can learn and lead. To achieve this, we must ensure our economies, societies and education systems work for girls, not against them.
As a child, circumstances beyond my control plunged my education – and my dreams for the future – into uncertainty. Right now, a generation of girls is in the same situation. As world leaders gather this week – albeit in a more virtual manner than previous occasions – to discuss our way forward, I hope they will work together and give all of our children the best chance to build a better world.
• Malala Yousafzai is a Nobel laureate and co-founder of Malala Fund