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Coronavirus health crises and the impact on girls

Coronavirus, health crises and the impact on girls

Lessons we can learn from Ebola about the impact of health crises on girls

Coronavirus is continuing to sweep the globe, causing the worst health crisis of a generation. It’s severely challenging many of the richest countries in the world, with Europe and North America the current epicentres.

However, cases are now rising in some of the poorest counties, where health systems are fragile and the ability to mitigate the economic and social consequences is limited.

While children’s health appears to be less directly impacted by coronavirus than adults, we know the impact of the pandemic on children, especially girls, will be long-lasting.

Our latest policy briefing, Implications of the Covid-19 Crisis on Girls and Young Women, considers the lessons we can learn from Ebola on the gendered experience of health crises.

It is based on a review of the existing evidence and learning, as well as Plan International's own experience in responding to Ebola and what we know to date about the impact of coronavirus on girls and young women. 

A young woman teaches children how to wash their hands
Children learn handwashing in Laos. Our emergency response to coronavirus includes sharing public health information and implementing effective hygiene practices, including the installation of additional hand-washing facilities.

1. Violence, especially gender-based violence, will increase

Past health crises, as well as early evidence from coronavirus, show that domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence are exacerbated as households are placed under increased stress.

Adolescent girls experience an increase in early and forced marriage, with teenage pregnancy rates increasing by 65% in parts of Sierra Leone during Ebola, as well as an increase in transactional sex in order to source vital products, such as hygiene and period products.

It’s vital that emergency response plans for coronavirus consider and prepare for expected surges in gender-based violence.

2. Learning must be prioritised

Coronavirus has caused school closures across the globe. As a result, UNESCO estimates that 89% of children and youth are currently out of education – that’s 1.54 billion globally. Therefore, it’s vital that home learning is as impactful and inclusive as possible.

Disease outbreaks exacerbate the existing burdens of unpaid care and domestic work that fall disproportionately to girls and young women, meaning that girls are much less likely to home study than boys. Girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of education than boys during crises.

We know from experience that many girls may never return to school, further entrenching gender gaps in education, increasing the likelihood of child marriage and exploitation, and undermining girls' longer term opportunities.

During the school closures due to Ebola in Sierra Leone, only 30% of children said that home learning was taking place.

3. It’s more important than ever to protect sexual and reproductive health rights

Learning from the Ebola crisis teaches us that services such as pre and post-natal care, family planning, sexual health and abortions are often deprioritised in crises, just at the time they are needed the most.

During the Ebola epidemic the Democratic Republic of Congo saw a 70% decrease in distribution of contraceptives.

Adolescent girls, including survivors of gender-based violence, have unique sexual and reproductive health needs and, without action, the coronavirus crisis will cause them to face even greater barriers to accessing vital services than usual.

A girl makes a face mask in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan
A girl makes a face mask in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.

4. Psychosocial support will be needed

Ebola challenged the emotional wellbeing of children by disrupting their friendships, through bereavement, loss of their hopes for education and even through the loss of the normal care and intimacy from parents.

Children changed the way they played – a vital element of childhood development – confined to their homes without contact with their friends, unable to play group games and sports. It was a traumatising time for children: seeing loved ones die and being isolated without the necessary support.

This shows that health crises deeply affect the environment in which children grow and develop, meaning the need for psychosocial support, mental health services and counselling is paramount.

5. Many were already living through a crisis before coronavirus hit

The situation will be exacerbated for those living in humanitarian contexts such as refugee camps, where water is scarce and conditions crowded. Even before this pandemic, the needs of people living in these settings outstripped the available funding.

Girls living in these contexts are acutely vulnerable to the impacts of this pandemic. There are enormous obstacles to disease prevention and treatment, as well as disruption to essential humanitarian assistance and protection, particularly in refugee camps and in situations of armed conflict.

A global ceasefire, as well as prioritisation of humanitarian operations is vital.

Coronavirus will have a detrimental impact on girls, impacting key years in their upbringing that they will not get back, and the ramifications will be felt for many years after the initial health crisis is overcome.

This is an unprecedented global crisis. Overcoming it will require the highest degree of international cooperation, information sharing, and solidarity to ensure a well-coordinated response that protects people in all parts of the world.

Two girls standing in a tent

Coronavirus: Children’s Emergency Appeal

We cannot end this pandemic until we end it everywhere. We are in this together.

That’s why we’ve launched our Coronavirus: Children’s Emergency Appeal, to help provide the most vulnerable communities around the world with food, essential hygiene kits, access to clean water, vital public health information, as well as learning materials and support to keep children safe.

If you’re able to support the appeal, your gift will be gratefully received.

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