When schools shut: Gendered impacts of COVID-19 school closures

By Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education

“I didn’t need to be involved in household work earlier but now as I’m sitting at home, I must take up household chores. Yes, if I had a brother, he would not have to do household work, he would just roam around. But I have to get involved in housework because I am a girl,” said a 16-year-old girl from Bangladesh

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic 1.6 billion students in 190 countries were affected by school closures. Not only did they lose access to education, but also to the myriad benefits of attending school, at an unparalleled scale. Educational disruption of this extent has alarming effects on learning loss and school dropout. Beyond this, it poses threats to gender equality, including effects on health, well being and protection that are gender specific.

Drawing on evidence from about 90 countries and in-depth data collected in local communities in Bangladesh, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Mali and Pakistan, the UNESCO Global Study When schools shut: Gendered impacts of COVID-19 school closures brings to the fore that girls and boys, young women and men were affected differently by school closures, depending on the context. It shows that gender norms and expectations can affect the ability to participate in and benefit from remote learning.

As expressed eloquently in the quote at the start of this blog, the Global Study found that, in poorer contexts, girls’ time to learn was constrained by increased household chores. Boys’ participation in learning was limited by income-generating activities:

“My father is a farmer. He sometimes asks me to help him in the field. But he didn’t ask me to join him when I had school. But now I do not go to school, so I go to the fields to help him with his work.” – Interview, boy, age 17, Bangladesh.

These gendered impacts can be seen clearly in the table below taken from a survey of girls and boys in Kenya who did not return to school when they re-opened.

Our study also found that girls faced difficulties in engaging in digital remote learning modalities in many contexts because of limited access to internet-enabled devices, a lack of digital skills and cultural norms restricting their use of technological devices.

The digital gender-divide was already a concern before the COVID-19 crisis. The in-depth studies on Bangladesh and Pakistan in the global report revealed its gendered effects on remote learning during school closures. In the study on Pakistan, only 44% of girls in participating districts reported owning mobile phones for their personal use, whereas 93% of boys did so. Girls who did not own mobile phones reported that they relied on their relatives’ devices, typically those belonging to their fathers.

The longitudinal study on Bangladesh showed that girls studied under the supervision of family members, pointing to the importance of family support for continuous studying. The most accessible form of remote learning was television, whereas computer-based learning was least accessible for girls. Even though television was most accessible, only 52% of girls reported having a television at home. While 95% of girls reported that their household owned a mobile phone, only 24% reported having a smartphone. While some of the girls were able to use family members’ phones, they were not always able to do so. Their access was restricted since some parents were concerned that providing girls with access to smartphones would lead to misuse and could result into romantic relationships. The longer girls were out of school, the higher was the risk of learning loss. From April to September 2020, the share of girls reporting that they did not study at all increased from 1 to 10 percent.

The Global Study makes several recommendations on how to challenge gender-based barriers for participation in remote learning. To advance equal access to gender-responsive and inclusive remote learning, it recommends to:

  • provide a range of remote learning options including low-tech and no-tech solutions
    • spearhead and support efforts to reach the most at-risk learners
    • design and develop gender-responsive educational resources and tools
    • provide appropriate teacher support and training
    • use formative assessments to track learning outcomes

The study was published by UNESCO under the umbrella of the Global Education Coalition’s Gender Flagship. It was prepared by the Population Council, with funding from the Global Partnership for Education. Along with its research into education, it also investigates the gender-specific effects on health, well-being and protection. It is a timely reminder that schools are sites not only for learning, but also lifelines for girls and boys – an essential space for their health, well-being and protection.


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