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It's a bleak 'Day of the Girl' because of the pandemic. But no one's giving up hope

A teacher wearing a biosecurity suit as a preventive measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, gives a class to a girl at home in Cali, Colombia, on August 4, 2020. - The "teacher at home" modality implemented by a local kindergarten seeks to help children keep in touch with teachers and reduce the emotional impact due to isolation during the pandemic. (Photo by LUIS ROBAYO / AFP) (Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images)
A teacher wearing a biosecurity suit as a preventive measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, gives a class to a girl at home in Cali, Colombia, on August 4, 2020. - The "teacher at home" modality implemented by a local kindergarten seeks to help children keep in touch with teachers and reduce the emotional impact due to isolation during the pandemic. (Photo by LUIS ROBAYO / AFP) (Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images)

October 11 marks the 10th anniversary of the International Day of the Girl. It's a day created by the United Nations to "highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face."

It's also a day to assess where girls stand: what they want and what the world needs to do to give them their rights.

But finding signs of progress for girls in 2022 is difficult.

I asked one of the experts I interviewed for this story if she could offer a reason to be hopeful for the future of girls. She's Agnes Igoye, Uganda's deputy national coordinator of the prevention of trafficking in persons during the first two years of the pandemic and a Senior Aspen New Voices fellow.

Instead of offering hope, Igoye replied with a cause for concern: "In 10 years, the children born of incest will have grown, so we'll have to have that discussion as a world."

She's referring to one of the many ways that COVID-19 has had an impact on the lives of girls. During the pandemic, she said, parents are going out to work or do errands and kids have not been able to go to school – their safe space – during various lockdowns.

Girls were often in homes "with a lot of abuse," says Stephanie Musho, a human rights lawyer in Kenya who is also an Aspen fellow.

"It is extremely devastating and sad," says Igoye.

Teen pregnancy — including pregnancy from rape and incest — is just one of the ways the pandemic has stalled progress for girls in many countries.

"What we're seeing is a shadow pandemic — even though I hate the term, because it makes it seem lesser," Musho says. "In what's being called 'the shadow pandemic,' the burden was falling a lot on girls."

And the world is just beginning to unpack the impact, including the pandemic newborns. "We're going to have to deal with the children born during COVID-19," says Igoye of Uganda, pointing to rising rates of teen pregnancy. "The girls got pregnant, but the people responsible for those pregnancies were closer to them — fathers, cousins, laborers, teachers, pastors or siblings.

"Because the children will have issues, and they're going to question and have challenges. We'll have to deal with that as a world."

A day born in optimism

The mood in 2022 is a far cry from the optimism surrounding the Day of the Girl at its creation.

"It was a hopeful moment when [the day] was adopted," says Michelle Milford Morse, vice president for girls and women strategy at the United Nations Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports the U.N.

Progress was being made in educating more girls. There was a feeling that activism could pave the way to a brighter future. Soon after the Day of the Girl was established, more than 500 girls from 14 countries developed The Girl Declaration, which called for action for girls to improve their education, health, safety and economic security.

The introductory words reflected the determination to build a better world for girls: "I was not put on earth to be invisible ... I have a voice and I will use it. This is the moment when being a girl became my strength, my sanctuary, not my pain."

Child marriage in particular was targeted by both Day of the Girl and The Girl Declaration.

"Child marriage divorces girls from opportunity. It jeopardizes health, increases exposure to violence and abuse, and results in early and unwanted pregnancies — an often life-threatening risk," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, reinforcing the importance of this campaign, when the Day of the Girl was established. "Let us do our part to let girls be girls, not brides."

The commitment to help girls looked to be working. Over the past decade, child marriage has been on the decline, says Ginette Azcona, who leads data and statistics, global reports, research and data section for U.N. Women. "The prevalence of child marriage had been falling, and adolescent pregnancy was dropping. We were making consistent, slow progress — not as quick as we would like but in a positive trend. Way more girls were enrolled in school and graduating."

That progress continued over the years.

The pandemic pushes girls "deeper into the cracks"

Then came SARS-CoV-2.

Early on, back in 2020, gender equity advocates warned that the pandemic was already threatening to derail the progress toward goals for girls.

This dire prediction came true. "Over the last couple of years during the pandemic, many of those areas really slipped," says Azcona. "Progress is just nowhere near where we need to be."

Of course, the pandemic did not create the circumstances that lead to child marriage and teen pregnancy. But, says Morse, "it dramatically exacerbated them. Girls fell deeper into those cracks."

This summer, for example, the U.N. announced that it won't come close to its goal of eradicating child marriages by 2030. Indeed, the pandemic may have pushed as many as 13 million additional girls into marriage, according to a study by UNFPA. Executive director Natalia Kanem stressed that "Girls under lockdown and out of school are highly vulnerable to harm. With the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda as our guide, we need to do better to ensure that girls are not left behind. We cannot allow the current crisis to derail the future of an entire generation."

Fallout from school shutdowns

"We had just finally begun to unlock school for girls — imperfectly, but steadily," Morse says. "We finally have girls staying in school longer and learning more than at any point in time. And now those gains have unraveled."

Up to 11 million girls might be pushed out of school permanently because of COVID-19, according to a study by UNESCO, due in part to unintended pregnancies.

And girls did not always get the same benefits from remote learning as boys did. That's true in Uganda – which had the world's longest pandemic school closure of two years – and in many other countries, from Pakistan to Mexico to sub-Saharan Africa, Igoye says.

In rural locations and poor communities, with less internet connectivity and fewer devices to access the internet, families usually favor sons over daughters when it comes to the technology needed to succeed in school. "Say a household has only one laptop," explains Antra Bhatt, a statistics specialist for research and data section, U.N. Women. "If there's a girl and a boy, the priority is given to the boy."

Other factors have conspired against girls. In Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, girls are no longer allowed to attend high school.

"We need to be investing in girls' education (and education more broadly) to gain dividends now and in the future," says Azcona, pointing out that under 3% of national stimulus funds worldwide went to education.

Teen pregnancy on the rise

School shutdowns didn't just bring education to a halt. The specialists I interviewed point to other consequences.

The Kenyan Ministry of Health reported that 152,000 girls got pregnant over a three-month period in spring of 2020, a 40% increase over the country's average monthly total pre-pandemic.

According to the 2022 UN Gender Snapshot, 56% of adolescent girls from hard-to-reach populations in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda who had dropped out of school early in the pandemic were currently or recently pregnant.

"I remember going to one sub-county and found over 1,000 girls who were pregnant," Igoye says. "And those were just the cases reported in the health center — I can't imagine how many more were not reported."

UNFPA found that 1.4 million girls and women became pregnant unintentionally over the first year of the pandemic. The study attributes this largely to a loss of "access to family planning services."

"The worst place for a girl child was in their home," Igoye says. Many of the sexual encounters with family members likely wouldn't have occurred if everyone was in schools, she explains.

In Uganda, which had the world's longest school shutdown, lasting two years, what passes for good news now when it comes to teen pregnancy is this: Until recently, a law in Uganda held that pregnant girls couldn't go to school. But when the government realized how many girls were pregnant when schools reopened, it "issued a blanket statement [in February 2022] saying that girls who are pregnant could now go to school," Igoye says.

Experts believe that school shutdowns have also led to increases in child marriage.

Early in the pandemic, a study by UNFPA projected that the pandemic could "result in 13 million more child marriages."

Before the pandemic, the girls could say, "I want to be in school; I want an education," Musho says. In rural areas of Kenya, she has received reports of families who didn't have internet for distance learning and decided to marry their daughters off. The parents may have been motivated by the bride price they would receive in an arranged marriage, she says. Igoye says she has heard reports of similar arrangements in Uganda, where the family often receives cattle in exchange for giving a daughter in marriage.

Sex work, home violence, female genital mutilation

There is more bad news about the way the pandemic has affected the lives of girls.

As poverty has worsened during lockdowns, Igoye says she has knowledge of parents who encouraged their daughters to trade sex for money.

"During lockdown, it was often children who were responsible for taking care of the parents," she says. When the pandemic shut down employment for parents, children would try to sell goods on the streets. "And some mothers would send their girl children to 'go bring sugar.' It meant you go and have sex for money to feed the family," she explains, drawing from her firsthand work to stop the trafficking of children for sex work.

The pandemic is also likely leading to more instances of female genital mutilation, says Musho.

This genital cutting is a coming-of-age ritual in many countries, typically performed under age 15. In a previous NPR article on this practice, Christina Pallitto, scientist at the World Health Organization's Department of Reproductive Health and Research, said, "There are no benefits, only health risks. It's a way of controlling female sexuality. You're damaging healthy tissue and altering it in ways that may be permanent, for no medical reason."

While progress had been made in reducing FGM with various community-based programs, the pandemic interrupted these efforts.

"We are losing ground in the fight to end female genital mutilation, with dire consequences for millions of girls where the practice is most prevalent," said Nankali Maksud, UNICEF senior adviser, prevention of harmful practices, in a statement issued early this year.

"When girls are not able to access vital services, schools and community networks, their risk of female genital mutilation significantly increases – threatening their health, education and future."

Home life was also disruptive for both girls and boys, noted in a study by researchers in Singapore. Girls and boys were exposed to more gender-based violence between adults at home, likely due to stress from increased poverty and school closures and less access to social services. In Peru, girls in a community program called Kusi Kawsay created a music video to bring attention to the surge in domestic violence.

Such community-based girls organizations also have been working to reduce the gender-based obstacles that girls faced, helping them stay connected to school by providing devices for distance learning during the pandemic, said Tammy Tibbetts of She's the First, which builds coalitions of community-based girl organizations across East and West Africa, Latin America and South Asia.

Can the world still be hopeful about the future of girls?

The message of 2022 is very different from the heady optimism when the Day of the Girl was born.

Reflecting on the many ways that the progress for girls has not only stalled but been set back, Morse of the United Nations Foundation says: "The common thread is that girls always endure the worst outcomes of social and economic stress because they lack political and social power, and they're denied the means of securing political, social and economic power. They are denied control over their time, their bodies and their futures and thus control over their fates. It's a disaster for girls, but the truth is, it's not great for the world, either."

It doesn't have to be this way, Morse adds.

"We almost never ask girls what they want or need," she says. "And when we do, we don't listen. We need to listen to what girls want. They have reasonable and powerful ideas. And the things they're asking for — safer communities, safer schools, education, a chance to write their own stories — would benefit boys, too."

Back in 2020, Morse advised that the world needed to "put women and girls at the center of efforts to recover from COVID-19." That did not happen, she says, and now we're facing the consequences.

Still, she hasn't lost heart: "When you work on gender equality, you can never give up hope!"

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a freelance health journalist in Minneapolis. On Twitter: @milepostmedia . Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.