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  • Uloma Ogba

Mitigating the effects of COVID-19 on girl-child education in Nigeria: Lessons from the Ebola Crisis

Nigeria has the world’s largest number of out-of-school children — a staggering 13.2 million. Sixty percent of them are girls. With the onslaught of the COVID-19 crisis, and the resulting closure of schools, the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria has only increased. The pressing question is how many of them, particularly the girls, will return once the crisis is over and schools are back in session again. Looking at a cross-section of the countries that were affected by the Ebola crisis — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — data suggests that health crises have negative and often long-lasting impacts on girl-child education. These include an interruption in learning, early drop out from education, increased shortage of teachers, and a decrease in education financing.

However, the results of some of the interventions these countries implemented to deal with the challenges to their educational systems can provide valuable lessons for Nigeria. They can help determining what the approach — including from parents, teachers, schools, and the government — should be to ensure all children have the opportunity to continue learning and the ability to return to school once the worst of the crisis is behind us.

Facilitate remote learning

At the height of the Ebola epidemic, over 100,000 schools shut down across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, impacting almost five million school children. By the time the schools reopened in 2015, students had lost close to 2,000 hours of education. During the crisis, radio lessons emerged as a popular and low-cost approach to distance learning for marginalized communities. To ensure that disadvantaged Nigerian students, including girls, experience only minimal interruptions in their learning, the Nigerian government and NGOs in partnership with the private sector, should explore different channels that are accessible and affordable to deliver educational content to students.

For instance, ACE Charity Africa has launched its ACE Radio School across several states in the Northeast of Nigeria to provide educational content on literacy, numeracy, and STEM during peak hours when students are likely to be tuned in. There is a provision for students and their parents or guardians to call in with feedback on the content that is broadcast or topics that they would like to see covered on future shows. Beyond radio, other media such as TV, eLearning platforms, and mobile apps can be explored. At Give Girls A Chance, given the limited access the girls in our program have to digital channels, worksheets were prepared for them prior to schools closing. Mentors also check in regularly via phone calls to follow up on the girls’ progress and address any issues that the students may have while studying independently. None of these measures can replace formal schooling, but it is essential that these students and their parents see this time, not as a protracted break or a distraction, but as one during which it is important and possible to keep learning.

Prioritize gender when planning for school reopening

Looking at the countries affected by Ebola, it was found that after the crisis, girls’ enrolment — already lower than boys — did not return to pre-crisis levels. In Liberia, about eight of every 100 girls of primary school age were out of school before the outbreak. By 2017, this number had almost tripled to 21. Similarly, in Guinea, as of 2018, girls were 25% less likely than boys to enrol in secondary school compared with pre-crisis levels. In Sierra Leone, girls in highly affected communities were 16% less likely to be in school after they reopened. Some parents prevented their children from returning to school due to fears and concerns of infection. Girls’ responsibilities in the home also increased during the crisis and some of them were required to contribute economically — including being forced into sex work — to make up for any loss in income their families suffered during the crisis. Nigeria is likely to experience the same situation as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the livelihoods of the informal sector.

To encourage the re-enrolment of girls after the crisis, the government, through the Ministry of Health and community-based initiatives, must ensure that marginalized communities have access to accurate and updated information on the pandemic. Give Girls A Chance is exploring avenues to source medical masks for the girls in our programs as well as their families to ensure their safety as they, along with the rest of the country, emerge following the easing of the lockdown restrictions on May 4th.

Lessons from the Ebola-affected countries also showed that cash transfers to families in disadvantaged communities, provision of essential services such as food and healthcare, community education programmes, and waiving upcoming examination fees can be effective strategies for encouraging girls’ enrolment. These measures help reduce the burden of families to care for and invest in the education of their girl children. In addition, public schools can support these efforts by ensuring that their students have access to decent water and sanitation facilities and that they provide relevant social and health education, with guidance on safeguarding against re-emergence of the coronavirus.

Increase education financing and ensure that it benefits all children equally

During the Ebola outbreak, governments of affected countries needed to channel available resources into the health sector, and this meant diverting funds from other social sectors in the short term. As public revenue declined and fiscal deficits increased, most of these countries increased their reliance on aid and decreased their investment in education. Nigeria’s 2020 allocation for education is N575.031 billion (5.2% of the total budget). This figure is already well below the 26% benchmark that UNESCO recommends for education as a proportion of a country’s annual budget. As it stands, education financing in Nigeria cannot afford to take a hit.

Working alongside donor governments and the international community, the Nigerian government should already be identifying and implementing emergency financing measures to soften the impact of the economic downturn on education, health, and other vital public services.

NGOs working in the Nigerian educational development sector should also be hard at work devising strategies — including gender responsiveness into our planning and budgeting — and launching proposals to generate much needed funding for the Nigerian education sector and ensure that, once secured, this funding benefits those that it was intended to serve.

Over the past few months, families across Nigeria have had to come to terms with a life without school. For some, this disruption will only be temporary. But for millions of Nigerian girls, this disruption might prove to be permanent and have long-lasting negative impacts if we do not heed the lessons from the past Ebola crisis. We must do all that we can to secure the future of these girls and ensure that we do not lose the gains in girl-child education that the country has been making steadily over the past few years.

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