As different regions around the world struggle to mitigate waves of COVID-19 and access preventive vaccines, adolescent girls have remained nearly invisible in narratives of and discourse around the pandemic. Adolescent girls were presumed to not be as vulnerable at the outset, focus was on disease burden of elders, financial disruptions and economic crises. However, our research documents disruptions in critical dimensions of the lives of adolescent girls living in low-income countries and communities during the pandemic. It shows that COVID-19-related impacts on girls’ lives may completely change their life paths steering it in undesirable directions.
For instance, in Bangladesh, schools have been closed for over a year (from March 2020 to the present), and families are unable to compensate for the loss of learning opportunities due to the digital divide and limitations in online access for rural and urban communities. We have also observed a decline in school engagement; for example, fewer girls are attending their digital coursework—as part of an initiative undertaken the Government to telecast digital classes on national television—and results from our survey indicated that self-study efforts have dropped too. Our findings echo much of what our colleagues in Kenya and Pakistan found in related studies on the effects of school closures, underscoring the universality of these damaging educational disruptions for adolescents and young people.
In a conservative society like Bangladesh where girls’ mobility is restricted, school closure has also had much broader implications for adolescent girls. It has not only meant disruption to their education: it has also meant girls are confined in their homes and isolated from their peers and social safety nets. Our research clearly documents that COVID-19 has taken an emotional toll on adolescent girls, with girls reporting feeling lonely and sad and experiencing increases in unrest and chaos in their homes and crime in their neighborhoods. Adolescent girls reported that they fear not going back to school altogether, and cases of child marriage were also reported.
I hope our work gains the attention of policy makers, development partners and advocates and helps them to renew and continue investments in this most vulnerable and largely invisible group of the population.