When schools were closed during a five-month period of lockdown in Kenya this year, almost 4,000 schoolgirls became pregnant in one county alone.
The current ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Campaign’[i] is an opportunity to spotlight a growing body of evidence that shows a heightened risk of violence against girls, including sexual exploitation, harassment and child marriage, during the COVID-19 pandemic.[ii] While preventive measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, like school closures, disrupt the education of every child, school for some children also provides the only respite from abuse in the home (whether occurring against them or between their parents).[iii]
Girls, in particular, face higher hurdles to return to school. Up to 10 million more girls could be out of secondary school when the pandemic is over. Economic stress may mean families need girls to find work and take on caregiving responsibilities, or they may be forced into transactional sex or early marriage.[iv] The situation is even worse for refugee girls, with some estimates reckoning half of all refugee girls in some countries will not return when classrooms reopen.[v]
Recently, WFP, together with fellow offices of evaluation across the international community, contributed findings from evaluations related to Gender Equality in Education to a lessons learned publication,[vi] coordinated by the Evaluation Coalition on COVID–19. Evidence showed that the value of school feeding programmes goes far beyond child nutrition to include having strong positive effects on primary school enrollment, particularly for girls and internally displaced populations, as well as improvement in school completion and drop-out rates. “Take home rations” worked well in several countries, making a significant contribution to advancing girls’ education and other indirect benefits. In South Sudan, for example, food served as an incentive to some parents who would normally send boys to school while keeping girls at home to work, helped their families with cooking or were married off early in exchange for bride price.
According to the lessons learned publication, school feeding programmes can provide appropriate incentives for the most vulnerable children to return to school, especially when the design is inclusive and there is engagement with stakeholders to address barriers to girls staying in school. Additionally, it was found that intersectoral approaches involving health, education and protection were effective.
WFP’s new School Feeding Strategy, launched in 2020, positions schools as platforms in which a wide range of other services can be delivered alongside school feeding. As an example, the Canadian-funded Breaking Barriers to Girls’ Education project, jointly implemented by WFP, UNICEF, and UNFPA in Chad and Niger, aims to increase girls’ access to quality education by addressing the barriers faced by girls to enrol in and attend school. The three UN agencies are working together to deliver a set of integrated health and nutrition services through which the most significant barriers to girls’ education are tackled, including measures to reduce the incidence of GBV, and the provision of ‘safe spaces’ for girls. The project, which is set to be evaluated in 2022, is expected to contribute to the global evidence-base on how integrated packages of support, including GBV prevention activities, can reduce the barriers to education for girls.
While evidence is growing on the positive role that school feeding and education can play in keeping girls safe, there is still much to learn. WFP is developing a new impact evaluation window –a series of evaluations – on school-based programming that aims to increase the understanding of how programmes can better support outcomes such as girls education.
While gender-based violence can happen anywhere, promoting a safe school environment has a significant role to play during and beyond the 16 days of activism against GBV.
[i] The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an international campaign that takes place each year. It commences on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day, indicating that violence against women is the most pervasive breach of human rights worldwide. From Awareness to Accountability | Global 16 Days Campaign
[ii] UN Women, COVID 19 and Ending Violence against Women and Girls, (2020)
[iii] UN Women, PREVENTION: Violence against women and girls & COVID-19 (2020) brief-prevention-violence-against-women-and-girls-and-covid-19-en.pdf (unwomen.org)
[iv] The Malala Fund GirlsEducationandCOVID19_MalalaFund_04022020.pdf (ctfassets.net)