This column is an opinion by Alexandra Chaves, a 19-year-old Plan Canada Youth Advocate who is passionate about gender equality and girls’ rights. She is also an actor and dancer with a role on CBC Gem’s dance drama series, The Next Step. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
It’s been nearly one year since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. Shortly afterward, schools in Canada and the world began to close, making access to education a global issue.
Here at home, students began navigating the new challenges of online education, lost school days, and the effects of the pandemic on their mental health. But the extent of uncertainty for students in many communities around the world, and particularly for girls and young women, has been much greater.
More than 11 million of them may never return to their education after the pandemic, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). That’s the equivalent of 30,000 girls a day who may drop out or not have access to school in 2021 due to COVID-19, one girl every three seconds.
Why is this the case? The problem stems from a continuous cycle of gender inequality and poverty in developing countries.
Unequal and harmful gender norms often put the onus on a girl to care for her household and siblings, creating a situation where her family may see more value in keeping her home than sending her to school.
Girls sometimes face the risk of child- and forced-marriage, which can result in them dropping out of school. Stigma and a lack of access to clean water or sanitation in some places also make it difficult for young women to attend school while menstruating.
In contrast to the accessibility of education in Canada, the trek to school for girls in some countries also puts them at an increased risk of violence or harassment – a risk many parents will not allow their daughters to take.
Even in those developing countries where education is free, the cost of uniforms and school supplies is beyond the reach of many girls and women.
This means that even in circumstances where parents want their daughters to attend school, the financial barriers may be too great.
COVID-19 has added an additional layer to all of the barriers girls and women face, through school closures, lockdowns and unequal access to alternatives such as online learning.
No one’s future should be decided for them, but for many around the world, the pandemic is doing just that. It’s robbing girls of their education and threatening the future of up-and-coming leaders and change-makers in the process.
Education is important to me, and I have never taken it for granted. I was fortunate enough to grow up with access to quality education at a public school near my house. I also had the flexibility and support to pursue an online education, which has allowed me to develop an acting career while exploring university aspirations.
Unfortunately, many young women are not afforded such opportunities. Access to education is a fundamental right under Article 26 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but for millions of girls around the world, it is a right that is not upheld.
We must act now to stop this setback.
Schools enable girls to grow knowledge, provide them with opportunities, and act as a safe space to build confidence and personal agency. Getting and keeping girls in the classroom is crucial to improving our global society.
I have learned that the world changes when young people demand it. We can harness the power and privilege we have to create meaningful change.
We have the power to ensure that the world recognizes girls and women in crisis, and the challenges they face. Now is not the time to stay quiet.
On International Women’s Day, as we celebrate the achievements of women and progress toward gender equality, we have a chance to reflect on how to create a new normal where girls and women worldwide can fully realize their rights, including access to quality education.
Working with Plan International Canada toward gender equality has made me optimistic for the future. I have had the privilege to listen to and speak with inspiring and passionate youth who are creating change in their own communities and abroad. I encourage those looking for ways to be involved in creating change to visit and follow informative social media sources like @UNWomen and @feminist, and to share their messages and spread awareness. Join the conversation and listen to discussions about the gender equality movement.
Ask questions. Sign petitions. If you have the means, donate to organizations that are working to stop the setback to women’s and girls’ rights caused by lack of access to education.
And encourage others to do the same.
The signs are all around us. We can only make the changes the world needs right now when we work together to ensure that women and girls everywhere can access the education that is their right, and realize their inner power to be the leaders they are — now and in the future.