Photo courtesy of Komera

It’s been well over a year since COVID-19 emerged as a global pandemic and yet it will be some time before we grasp the full impact of the pandemic on girls’ lives and education. However, AMPLIFY Girls reminds us of the necessity of taking the time to truly understand the complexity of the issues at work. The collaborative research effort by AMPLIFY Girls and its community-driven partners also demonstrates the wisdom of asking girls themselves about the unique issues they faced and what they need to move forward. At the Imago Dei Fund, we are grateful for the important insights shared below from their multi-country research project. We look forward to the release of the full report this summer and the launch of their campaign focused on community-based solutions and policy changes in Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya that are informed by girls. — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

When COVID19 hit, the global community was asked to stay home.

But what if home wasn’t safe? What if school was the only place where you could get a meal, escape from the weight of household chores, learn about your rights and health, and ultimately see a pathway out of poverty.

For many young women and girls, this is their reality.

During the COVID19 pandemic, the global community mobilized into research mode to understand how COVID19 would impact girls’ education. Much of it from a desk or a mobile phone, global directors were surveyed, government officials provided feedback, and modeling was completed.

Rarely did anyone ask a girl directly what she felt were the barriers to returning to school and what she considered were strategies for that return. In the world of development, as we rush to solve problems, we often forget to ask questions of those most affected by the situation. We are in a pandemic in and of itself as we seek to solve the problem rather than slowing down, taking the time to understand the issues and trying to solve them through a community-based lens.

AMPLIFY Girls, a partner-driven collective of community-driven organizations in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania decided to address this issue by asking and listening to the adolescent girls they serve.

What happened when we asked girls?

In October 2020, AMPLIFY Girls, undertook a multi-country qualitative research study to ask girls why they were dropping out of school and their recommendations to get young women back to school and back on track.

The results are painful but important.

Our research makes clear the fact that girls are experiencing protracted trauma during COVID-19—trauma that is much larger and long-lasting than the period of school closures. The daily experience of violence, acute poverty, stress, anxiety, stigmatization and insecurity have all served to deteriorate girls’ psychological and emotional health, making school return unlikely without sustained and holistic care for multiple facets of their wellbeing.

At the highest level, our findings suggest that pregnancy is the primary driver of girls’ dropout from school during the pandemic, but that pregnancy is a symptom of underlying acute, economic vulnerabilities and is augmented by situations of social and physical isolation that are often mutually reinforcing. The overwhelming majority of focus group discussion participants cited transactional sex for basic goods (such as food, clothing, and menstrual hygiene products) as the primary cause of unintended pregnancies in their communities. Accordingly, we found that economic precarity leading to transactional sex and unintended pregnancies was the most common pathway leading to girls’ dropout.

With pregnancy and economic hardship cited as the primary drivers of girls’ dropout, our research found that the primary barriers to girls’ school return are toxic home, school, and community environments that view pregnancy from a moral lens. Whereas respondents very rarely reported that their families were unsupportive of girls’ education, girls frequently noted that their communities were discouraging towards pregnant girls’ education. Our research suggests that the social stigma surrounding teen pregnancy and motherhood is the single biggest factor keeping girls from returning to school post-pandemic.

Photo courtesy of GirlUp Uganda

Girls offered many important solutions and policies that they felt could support their continued learning. Recognizing the complex nature of their needs, common features of these recommendations were their holistic nature and their deep care for the social and emotional aspects of girls’ wellbeing, particularly pregnant girls. The vast majority of girls felt that psychosocial support for girls, combined with community norm shift and sensitization around pregnant girls’ value, their needs, rights and opportunities would be profoundly impactful.  Girls had many suggestions for government including:

  • Strengthened reintegration policies
  • School-level implementation to make schools more girl-friendly and supportive of pregnant girls and young mothers
  • Community-based strategies for preventing early and unwanted pregnancies
  • Better access to the necessary tools for participating in remote learning; and
  • More structured support and encouragement for at-home learning.

Our synthesis of these findings and girls’ recommendations leads us to the following calls to action to support girls’ school return. We divide these into actions that should be taken immediately to halt attrition in the short term, and actions that should be taken in the medium and long term  to prevent continued dropout in the future.

Short-Term Actions:

  • Provision of immediate economic reliefspecifically menstrual health supplies, food and school fees for both pregnant and non-pregnant girls. Removing the immediate economic pressures associated with risky behaviors and dropout is a necessary and basic prerequisite for returning girls to school.
  • Trauma counseling and The vast majority of girls are experiencing both acute and protracted trauma. Psychosocial support and counseling are necessary to encourage girls (both pregnant and not pregnant) that it is both possible to return to school. Mentorship by either peers or adult women can provide girls with a sense of connection, belonging, and hope.
  • Pathways for pregnant girls to continue learning. As work is undertaken in the long term to make schools more girl-friendly and less toxic to pregnant girls, pregnant young women require opportunities for learning outside the formal system. This might include private tutoring, private schooling, vocational training or other creative solutions.
  • Investment in physical and social infrastructure for digital learning. The pandemic is long from over in East Africa, and school closures are likely to continue. Vulnerable girls require immediate access to remote learning resources such as data, devices or hardcopy materials, combined with communities of support such as study circles and teacher guidance to help them remain engaged and motivated.

Long-Term Actions:

  • Make schools girl-friendly and supportive of pregnancy and young-motherhood through policy and enforcement. Explicit policy action is needed to support pregnant girls and young mothers’ right to complete their education. This must be combined with protracted engagement with schools to shift social stigmas and school-based policies around how pregnant girls are treated and what resources are made available to them to support their physical and emotional health and well-being.
  • Combat social stigma around pregnancy, and raise awareness about girls’ rights and needs in the community. This work is best done through community sensitization efforts and facilitated dialogue with girls, families, community leaders, men and boys.
  • Establish psychosocial support networks for girls and their families to navigate the social, emotional and health consequences related to unintended pregnancies, violence, and economic hardship. These might take a variety of forms including mental health services, peer-to-peer counseling, and/or adult mentorship.
  • Establish multiple access points for SRH information and services. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the ways in which girls rely almost entirely on schools for sexual and reproductive health information and access to menstrual health hygiene products. Finding ways to embed these resources creatively within communities will improve resilience and prevent health vulnerabilities in the future.

We believe that we can all agree on one common theme for investment. Invest in community driven organizations to do this work. Schools, governments and multi-national NGOs are not well-suited to meet the variety, complexity and long-term trajectory of what girls require. Supporting girls’ mental health, effecting community norm change, creating and maintaining community-based sources of support in the short and long term can only be done by organizations that have established community relationships and trust, flexible and creative approaches, access to the most vulnerable girls, and the ability to adapt to rapidly to changing local and global crises.

AMPLIFY Girls is launching a multi-country advocacy campaign leading up to our July 21, 2021, global launch focused on policy changes and improvements in Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. We invite partners working with adolescent girls to join us in these meetings as we generate action plans on how we can better serve adolescent girls and answer their call to action. Please email to join the movement.