07 Dec COVID-19 and Africa Symposium: Lockdowns, School Closures and Young Girls’ Access to Education in Africa
[Mandipa Machacha is a Feminist Human Rights Practitioner, and a LL.D. student in Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria Centre for Human Rights.]
Despite extensive protection of the right to education in international and regional human rights instruments, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, both globally and in Africa, mere access to education was still not guaranteed in practice to all children. UNESCO reported at the end of 2018 that 258 million children worldwide were out of school, with over 50 percent of these children being in Sub-Saharan Africa. Girls access to, retention in and completion of schooling is of particular concern; with the latest figures from UNESCO showing that 52 million girls in Africa are not in school. Of this number 4 million will never step into a classroom, in contrast to the 2 million boys.
In 2020 the situation became even more dire as African children’s access to education was exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the WHO COVID-19 officially hit African shores on 14 February 2020, resulting in African governments being forced to take decisive measures to deal with the potentially devastating effects of the pandemic. A large number of countries worldwide, including in Africa, attempted to curb the spread of the disease by the implementing countrywide lockdowns many of which, as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education has noted, included national school closures.
The impact of the lockdowns on African children’s access to education has, according to UNICEF, been unprecedented, with research suggesting that the effects are expected to worsen in the medium to long term, most especially in disadvantaged contexts. Young girls have been found to be particularly vulnerable during school closures with a range of countries reporting higher incidences of out of school girls, as well as increases in gender-based violence, teenage pregnancies, child marriage, exploitation and other forms of abuse against adolescent girls.
Girls’ Right to Education
Non-discriminatory access to education for girls is a right guaranteed under international human rights law. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has detailed States’ human rights obligations relating to girls’ education in its General Recommendation 37. Provisions protecting gender equality, which necessarily include equality in education, can also be found in a range of international and regional human rights instruments.
General Comment 13 of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Committee) has clarified the normative content of the right to education in terms of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The Committee clarified that education must be acceptable, accessible, adaptable, and available. States have legal obligations to realise the right to education, including minimum core obligations that are of immediate effect. More generally, States must take deliberate, concrete, and targeted steps, within the maximum of their available resources, to move expeditiously and effectively towards the full realisation of the right to education.
It is notable that unlike the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which makes provision for derogation of rights pursuant to a declared state of emergency, the ICESCR does not include a provision on derogations in states of emergency. The ICCPR also contains a number of limitations clauses in respect of a number of rights that allow for necessary and proportionate, non-discriminatory limitation of rights in several specified circumstances, including in situations of public emergency. Article 4 of the ICESCR, however, has a somewhat different standard for limitations, providing that States:
“may subject such rights only to such limitations as are determined by law and only in so far as this may be compatible with the nature of these rights and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society”.
Nevertheless, minimum core obligations of States in terms of ESCR are of immediate effect and, in line with some of the Committee’s General Comments (14 and 15), are arguably non-derogable. In the context of the right to education this would include the obligations to:
“ensure the right of access to public educational institutions and programs on a non-discriminatory basis; to provide primary education for all, and; to adopt and implement a national educational strategy which includes provision for secondary, higher and fundamental education”.
Consequently, the ICESCR read with the Committee’s General Comments can be interpreted as requiring States to ensure that these minimum levels of the right to education are always satisfied. State obligations associated with the core content of the right to education therefore remain in effect even during situations of emergency, including those resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 and its Impact on Girl’s Access to Education
In a report published by UNESCO ahead of International Literacy Day, it was found that at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, ninety-four percent of the world’s student population, that is approximately 1.6 billion children, were forced out of school. In addition to this at least a third of school children, some 463 million, were unable to access remote learning during school closures.
A Human Rights Watch report published in August 2020 highlighted the effects of the pandemic on education in Africa more specifically. It found that millions of children had already been deprived of their right to education as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns and school closures. As a result children were being more exposed to greater health and well-being risks – both psychosocial and physical – during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moreover, the Human Rights Watch’s report indicated that young girls in Africa were disproportionately vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic, despite the commitment of African states to achieving gender equality in education. In Kenya and Niger, as examples, young girls have been forced to take on additional childcare responsibilities and household chores and it was also found that boys were more likely than girls’ to be given access to scarcely available technological devices and data required for remote learning. This confirms a more general trend noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education that “in the poorest countries, women are 33 percent less likely to use the internet than men”.
Unfortunately, it is often countries experiencing high levels of poverty and economic vulnerability that have the highest gender disparities in education. For instance, UNESCO has estimated that school closures in Mali, Niger, and South Sudan (countries that already have some of the lowest enrolment and completion rates for girls) have forced over four million girls out of education.
The international NGO Education Can’t Wait has made similar observations with regard to girls vulnerability noting that young and adolescent girls are “twice as likely to be out of school in crisis situations and face greater barriers to education and vulnerabilities such as domestic/gender-based violence when not in school”(as was also the case in Sierra Leone during the Ebola pandemic). In many countries across Africa this gender-based violence has manifested itself in the form of an increase in child marriages, with disconcerting evidence emerging of increases in child marriages in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Malawi.
Building Back Better, Leaving No Girls Behind
African States, like other States, are legally obliged in terms of international human rights law to remove all discriminatory barriers to girls’ education, whether they exist in law or in everyday life. They are also required to undertake positive measures to bring about equality, including in access to education. These obligations persist even during a pandemic. So, what can be done in the circumstances?
Unfortunately, the trajectory of this pandemic has been fluid and everchanging, making it difficult for States and experts to devise effective policy measures to respond to human rights violations which have arisen as a result of COVID-19 response measures.
Nevertheless, in order for States to ensure that girls do not face additional inequity and fall even further behind in their education as a result of the pandemic, it is essential that African Governments prioritise human rights compliant solutions that analyse and address the specific needs and rights of girls’ as part of their responses to COVID-19.
States are well advised to pursue initiatives that, amongst other things, prevent barriers to education, such as the burden of caregiving, marginalization in the home and inequitable distribution of learning resources including technological resources. States should also do more to ensure increased access to and opportunity for girls to learn and achieve equally during and beyond COVID-19.
Achieving the aspirations of Africa’s Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals will necessarily require closing the gendered gaps in access to education. It is especially during times like the current pandemic that States must ensure adherence their human rights obligations because it is in times like these that girls, who are often amongst the most vulnerable in our society, are otherwise left behind.