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Most school students will remember Covid-19 as a temporary interruption, but for many girls it will have lasting effects. Nearly 130m were out of school before the pandemic and Malala Fund’s research estimates that an additional 20m who were in secondary school may never return once it subsides.
Millions of girls and young women are studying at home without access to the internet. Girls unable to use distance learning or afford tuition are now taking on more household responsibilities or getting married. Others are working in low-paying, insecure jobs to help ease the financial strain on their families.
Past health and economic shocks teach us that, for many girls in low-income countries, these disruptions to their education can become permanent. In Sierra Leone, protracted school closures led to a 16 per cent decline in re-enrolment once schools reopened after the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Despite the heightened difficulties, girls continue to fight for their education. After schools closed and learning resources grew scarce, Elvira, Maria Florinda and Yessica, three students in Guatemala, created libraries in their communities to help fellow indigenous students keep up their studies. In Indonesia, activist Nayla Ariwibowo started her own initiative to collect and distribute school supplies to students living in orphanages.
Too often, girls are left to pick up the pieces of broken education systems. While their efforts are innovative and inspiring, they should not have to bear this responsibility. Governments need to allocate funding to ensure that every child can go to school.
When education is well-financed, school systems are able to hire and retain qualified teachers and reduce overcrowding. They can also provide students with updated curricula and access to classroom technology. But Covid-19 has left government resources strained.
The international development community said the 2020s would mark a “decade of delivery” for education. Instead, we are facing a severe setback. Two-thirds of low and lower middle-income countries have cut education spending. The UN predicts rollbacks in foreign aid are next. If these projections are correct, the global education funding gap will soon rise to $200bn a year.
Failing to invest in girls’ potential is a missed opportunity. Girls’ education is key to rebuilding communities and countries and offers us the best protection against future crises.
Ensuring every girl can learn for 12 years could unlock up to $30tn in global economic growth. Women with primary education earn up to 19 per cent more than girls with none; those with secondary education earn almost twice as much. Every country would benefit. Malala Fund research shows that educating young women can also help prevent wars, improve public health and even help mitigate the effects of climate change, by giving them the skills to contribute to a low-carbon economy.
When I first started speaking out, I did not have the resources or influence to create change. Yet I knew innately what this research confirms: education is transformative for girls’ futures.
With my organisation, Malala Fund, I continue my fight for a world where every girl can learn and lead. Through our programming and advocacy, we are amplifying girls’ voices, pushing for policy changes and investing in local education activists, who know what works best to drive change in those communities with the most girls out of school. It is a network of support my father and I wish we had earlier on.
During Covid-19, these local advocates developed innovative solutions to ensure girls can continue learning and return to school as soon as it is safe. In Nigeria, they produced educational radio broadcasts so students could continue their studies, even in remote parts of the country. In Pakistan, they developed child-friendly TV programmes and apps for distance learning. But the pandemic’s impact on education has been so great that it requires leaders at the highest levels to take action, too.
Girls in lower-income countries will continue to face recurring school closures until their communities have access to vaccines. So wealthier countries should make sure their distribution is equitable. They can do this by supporting Covax — the World Health Organisation initiative to distribute vaccines to lower income countries — and by lifting patents and transferring technologies to allow for more widespread production.
Leaders must also stop the setback for girls by providing a substantial financial stimulus to education. But lower income countries cannot afford to bear this cost alone. In recent years, 24 low-income countries spent more on servicing external debt than on education.
The IMF estimates that African countries now face a funding gap of $345bn to restart their economies and fund urgent healthcare, vaccination and education programmes. High-income countries need to deliver a full replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education, a multilateral funding initiative, to ensure that 46m girls enrol in school between now and 2026.
Wealthier nations should also take measures to free up domestic resources in low-income countries, allowing them to spend more on public services such as education and healthcare. To achieve this, leaders at the G7 Summit in Cornwall in June can aid low-income countries’ liquidity with additional Special Drawing Rights (a financial instrument that would boost countries’ balance sheets); cancel unpayable debt for the next three years; and increase foreign aid to 0.7 per cent of GDP.
But pronouncements at global summits are not the same as progress. Governments must choose to invest more in girls’ education. If we can keep girls in school, we can equip them with the tools they need to challenge our world’s most pressing problems. We will all be better for it.
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani activist, UN Messenger of Peace and the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She is co-founder of Malala Fund.