While Australian girls are struggling with social disconnection and are more vulnerable to family violence under COVID-19 restrictions, research has shown many of their peers overseas have had their schooling severed by the pandemic.
- Plan International’s Living Under Lockdown report found 743 million girls were currently out of school globally due to COVID-19
- There are concerns that many will be married early, putting an end to their education
- Young women in Australia are more vulnerable to family violence due to social isolation
Sydney student Mayela Dayeh knows all about the impact COVID-19 restrictions are having on her social life.
The 16-year-old experiences it every day.
“I’ve seen a lot of girls try to overcompensate with the loss of physical networking by using a lot of social media … and trying to call as many people as possible to try and bridge that gap,” she said.
Women aged 14-24 already spend nearly five hours more on social media a week than men in the same age group.
This pandemic may have seen that gap increase.
“I can see the mental health effect that has on a lot of girls,” Ms Dayeh said.
For Laila Yaqoobi, a 19-year-old nursing student in Melbourne, the loss of face-to-face social networks has been a struggle.
“When this pandemic first broke out, it was pretty nerve-wracking,” she said.
“I was really stressed and anxious … everyone was panicking.”
She said she really felt the loss of her supportive network of friends.
“To [not] be able to share your stories face-to-face, share your feelings. It just sets a barrier to your social life and deteriorates your mental health.”
The loss of social networks is just one issue highlighted in a report from Plan International on the impact of COVID-19 on girls and young women around the world.
In Australia, as with previous natural disasters, the pandemic has led to an increased vulnerability to domestic violence.
“Where there’s been disasters … you do see this increase in the vulnerability of women to domestic violence,” Professor Cathy Humphreys from the University of Melbourne said.
The recent bushfires revealed what could happen.
“The more intensely affected the bushfire area, the more the rate of domestic violence went up,” Professor Humphreys said.
She said advocates monitoring the situation had reported six fatal acts of violence against women in the last two weeks — about twice the average death rate.
“Isolation is so dangerous. We know that the more isolated a woman is when she’s living with domestic violence, the more vulnerable she is.”
The end of schooling
In Australia, girls and young women are preparing to return to the classroom if they’re not already back.
But in developing countries, many girls who have had their education disrupted during the pandemic may never return to school.
That was just one of the issues examined in the Living Under Lockdown: Girls and COVID-19 report that also looked at issues including gender-based violence and access to women’s health.
Laila Yaqoobi is a former asylum seeker who spent much of her childhood in Pakistan and still speaks regularly to friends there.
“They mostly rely on their parents for their financial support,” she said.
“Now that their parents are not working anymore, they can no longer go to school and pay their fees. Most of these girls won’t go back to school.”
“They will either fall into child marriages or teen pregnancies and it makes it impossible to continue their education.”
According to the Plan International report, 743 million girls are currently out of school due to the pandemic, and they don’t have the same level of access to online learning as boys.
“That’s something me and my friends talked about, is whether they can continue their education after this pandemic. So they’re really affected by this at the moment,” she said.
Boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls in low and middle-income countries and are 1.8 times more likely to own a smartphone that can access the internet.
Ms Yaqoobi’s concerns about education are shared by 19-year-old Tino Munyanyiwa.
The Melbourne engineering student was born in Zimbabwe and has lots of family and friends there.
With money tight, when the pandemic ends many families won’t be able to afford to send all their children back to school, she said.
“When you have to choose between a girl child or a boy child returning back to school, obviously a boy child would end up returning.”
‘Nothing’s given for nothing’
Ms Munyanyiwa said she was also worried about the increased dangers of sex trafficking in countries such as Zimbabwe, where international organisations have halted operations due to COVID-19.
“It would become more prevalent because organisations that focus on stopping that … are not able to focus on that. They’re not able to do their job,” she said.
“Obviously that’s going to make it easier for those that are on the bad side and wanting for that to happen.”
Plan International’s Susanne Legena said this pandemic was a perfect storm when it came to sexual exploitation.
“Girls are saying to us if you’re hungry and you’re in lockdown and you’re asking people for help … nothing’s given for nothing. And you’re really vulnerable to exploitation,” Ms Legena said.
Ms Legena said as the world emerged from this pandemic, Governments should not make the same mistakes as in the past.
“We have the lessons from previous crises to help guide us,” she said.
“Let’s think about what can we do in this time that will set it up on the other side for a more equal, fairer, better society.”