COVID-19 Threatens Decades of Progress on Gender Equality. This World Children’s Day, We Must Fight Back.

COVID has exacerbated and worsened harmful gender practices, but girls have faced systematic oppression for centuries. In order to both salvage previous progress and further advance the rights of girls, we must tackle these structural barriers.

COVID-19 Threatens Decades of Progress on Gender Equality. This World Children’s Day, We Must Fight Back.
(Left to right) Weynhareg Embiale and Enatnesh Tefere of Wengi primary school, Zigem, Amhara region. (Flickr / Unicef Ethiopia)

Every Nov. 20, World Children’s Day provides an opportunity for the global community  to come together to celebrate and promote children’s rights and to reflect on what more must be achieved. At the heart of this lies the advancement of gender equality and the creation of a more just and equitable world for girls. 

During the last decade of World Children’s Days, there has indeed been a lot to celebrate. Across the world, the percentage of girls in school was rising while in parallel, teenage pregnancies and harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) were all in decline. The ability to attend school and avoid early motherhood and marriage enabled girls to become young women who could meaningfully engage in political, economic, and social life on their own terms. This was not just a victory for human rights but was also critically important for international development and social progress. 

However, the past nine months threaten to reverse these hard-fought gains. 

COVID-19 has left no one untouched, but it has had an especially pernicious impact on girls—most particularly those from already marginalized communities. At Equality Now we partner with organizations around the world that advocate for the rights of girls and the reports that we are getting from the  frontlines have been nothing short of alarming.


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From a dramatic rise in sex trafficking in Malawi, to spiraling rates of sexual violence in India, from subversive restrictions on access to abortion in the U.S. to an increase in teen pregnancy and female genital mutilation in Kenya, it is clear that COVID-19 is an existential threat to gender equality. 

Although the pandemic has put in sharp relief the endemic inequality that persists around the world, it did not create the underlying conditions. This holds true for the disproportionate burden that girls and young women are currently experiencing during the pandemic.

COVID-19 Threatens Decades of Progress on Gender Equality. This World Children’s Day, We Must Fight Back.
Youth-led Twin cities Awake the Suburbs protest on June 17. (TML Weekly / Creative Commons)

While the economic desperation wrought by the coronavirus has pushed many families to enter their daughters into early marriage, it did not create the societal conditions that judged a girl’s worth on her ability to be a wife. The very fact that it is economically more advantageous for a girl to enter into premature motherhood rather than receive an education and have the opportunity to earn a living is evidence of structural misogyny. 

And while the subterfuge of crisis has enabled the practice of FGM to proliferate, COVID did not create a world in which a woman’s body and ability to receive pleasure was in and of itself a threat to the social order. 

COVID has exacerbated and worsened harmful gender practices, but girls have faced systematic oppression for centuries. In order to both salvage previous progress and further advance the rights of girls, we must tackle these structural barriers. One of the most effective ways to do this is to dismantle sex discriminatory laws and policies that have prevented girls from reaching their full potential long before the world had heard of the novel coronavirus. 

On the eve of World Children’s Day, my organization Equality Now and our Tanzanian partners filed a case at the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights challenging the ban on pregnant and teenage mothers in Tanzania. The country’s policy of expelling pregnant girls from primary and secondary school dates back to 1961, but the practice has escalated during the past five years because of ardent public endorsement by  senior government officials.

Preventing pregnant girls and adolescent mothers from attending public school in the best of times results in a cascade of harms, but  now during COVID  portends physical, emotional, economic and social ramifications at an alarming magnitude and rate.. 

The ban in Tanzania is only one such example of a sex discriminatory policy that impedes girls from reaching their full potential. Countries around the world have laws that treat women and girls as second class citizens.

For example, in the Dominican Republic, the legal age of marriage for girls is 15 while for boys it is 18, and 25 jurisdictions in the Americas have what is known as an estupro provision, a law that lowers the punishment for rape committed against adolescents because it assumed that teenage girls are inherent temptresses that adult men cannot fairly be expected to resist. These type of laws have embed gender discrimination in the very foundation of society and have helped fuel the gendered impact of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Advocates have long used World’s Children Day to remind the international community of the importance of  investing in children and their holistic wellbeing. As the pandemic continues to ravage across the world, this call could not be more urgent.

This year we must continue to dismantle systems that perpetuate inequality and call on governments to address discriminatory laws and policies so that every girl can lead a life of her own making. 

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About

Faiza Jama Mohamed is the Africa region director at Equality Now and led the effort to open the organization's Nairobi Office in 2000. She has more than 20 years of experience advocating for the legal rights of women and girls at the national, regional and international levels. Previous to joining Equality Now, Faiza was an active member of the women's movement in Somalia.