COVID-19 school closures have exposed children around the world to human rights abuses such as forced genital mutilation, early marriage and sexual violence, child protection experts say.
Globally, the World Bank estimates that 1.6 billion children were locked out of education by Covid-19.
As schools in England and around the world prepare to reopen this week, NGOs warn that millions of the world’s most vulnerable children may never return to the classroom, and say that after decades fighting for girls’ education the pandemic could cause gender equality in education to be set back decades.
In Tanzania, girls sent home from boarding schools where they were being protected from FGM have already been cut. In the Sahel region, where early marriage is widespread, Unicef worries that many girls will never return to school.
The Dutch charity Terre des Hommes runs a safe house for girls in Tanzania, protecting them from FGM. “The community has taken advantage of this situation of Covid-19 and where children are now back at home they are cutting their girls.
They know it is against the law but they are not afraid. We had one mother who was jailed for a year after carrying out FGM but for her she is happy. She is locked up but her girl is cut. “Many girls have been cut, including girls we had managed to keep safe through the cutting season, which began in October last year.
Some girls escaped and they ran to our FGM centre; we had several girls just turn up. For these children, school is a safe place.” The Tanzanian government is now sending back small numbers of pupils, starting with those who have exams in early June.
In west and central Africa alone, 120 million children were sent home after schools shut, and some had to make dangerous journeys over hundreds of miles on their own. Andy Brooks is Unicef’s child protection adviser in west and central Africa and has worked on issues of child exploitation for 30 years.
He says one major concern for girls is that being out of school for a prolonged period of time puts them at risk of early marriage. “Secondary education is a major delayer of early marriage. In this region of west and central Africa, four out of 10 girls are married before 18. If you look at the countries of the Sahel – Mali and Niger, Burkina Faso – it’s six out of 10.”
Brooks says there are fears for those who never return. “It’s a real worry that girls won’t come back … [because of the Covid-19 outbreak] the financial stresses might be even harder and families will be looking for girls to get married earlier.” However, the pandemic may offer an opportunity to help some children, he says.
“There is a phenomenon in the Sahel area, where many children are sent across borders to be with Qur’anic teachers and learn Arabic. There are hundreds of thousands of [these] children across the region, known as almajirai. They live away from home and the outcomes for these children are very poor; they often end up begging on the street.”
The sudden closure of schools put many children in danger by sending them on long unaccompanied journeys home, says Brooks.
“When [the schools] were closed suddenly children were roaming around trying to get home … Over 7,000 moved just from Nigeria to Niger; [we think] about 30,000 of them are on the move. It is an awful moment for vulnerable children but Covid has kicked open the door to this situation that wasn’t sufficiently known about. It could be an opportunity for change.”
Since the Covid-19 lockdown, some state leaders in Nigeria have called for an end to the poorly regulated Qur’anic schooling system.
In their recent framework for safely reopening schools, Unicef, the World Bank and the World Food Programme stated: “The adverse effects of school closures on children’s safety … are well documented. Being out of school … increases the risk of teenage pregnancy, sexual exploitation, child marriage, violence and other threats.”
The UN refugee agency has warned that school closures risk “reversing small gains recently made in expanding access to education for refugee children”. Even before coronavirus shuttered schools, fewer than half of school-age refugee children were enrolled, while only one in four were attending secondary school.
In Bangladesh, aid groups had been preparing to launch a pilot programme that would allow Rohingya refugee children in the settlements to start learning from the Myanmar curriculum for the first time in hundreds of informal learning centres.
Babu Nisa, a refugee teaching assistant at one of the centres, told UNHCR that her students were “very upset” when they heard it would be closed as part of the lockdown. Likewise, in Latin America, groups working with refugees fear Covid-19 will make finding school places even harder for displaced children.
Underlying fear of the resurgence of the Covid-19 virus also hangs over students who are returning to education, and, as in Europe, keeps some at home even when schools reopen. Eric Hazard is campaign and policy director for Save the Children in Africa.
He points to the known risk of sexual violence that girls face when not in school. “We know what happened during the Ebola crisis. There was an increase in children who dropped out of school, in particular girls. Over 11,000 girls in Sierra Leone became pregnant. We need to pay serious attention to the secondary risk [of lockdown] in terms of violence and sexual abuse against children.”