COVID-19 putting millions of girls at risk of never returning to school

Global children’s rights organization Plan International Canada is calling on Canadians to stop the setback to gender equality and girls’ right to education

TORONTO, August 4, 2020– During a time typically dedicated to back-to-school preparations, many girls around the world are left wondering whether they will ever return to school. School closures due to COVID-19 have impacted more than 90 per cent of students around the world – including 743 million girls. More than 111 million are in the least developed countries, where accessing education is already difficult.

As Canadians prepare for the start of the school year, Plan International Canada is calling on donors, governments and all Canadians to help stop a setback that is violating girls’ rights and could further derail the future of a generation.

“The longer girls remain cut off from education, the greater the risks of their fundamental rights being violated and the less likely they will return to school – acting like a domino effect in toppling progress made in global poverty eradication and gender equality goals,” said Saadya Hamdani, Director, Gender Equality at Plan International Canada.

“COVID-19 responses must prioritize education, including the unique needs of adolescent girls who face increased risks and disadvantages, increased expectations around home childcare, and lower value accorded to their education relative to boys linked to harmful gender norms,” added Hamdani.

School closures and barriers to education in all crises have impacts that go beyond the direct loss of learning. When school stops, children lose a protective environment. This includes the loss of social contact, the support of peers and teachers, the opportunity to build networks for the future and access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information, as well as meal programs to stave off malnutrition.

Plan International found that during the Ebola crisis, girls in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were less likely to study at home compared to boys while schools were closed. In Sierra Leone, where schools were closed for months, there was an increase in adolescent pregnancy – an insight into what we might expect in the coming months.

Research from the Ebola pandemic also demonstrates that multiple forms of violence are exacerbated within crisis contexts, including trafficking, child marriage, sexual exploitation and abuse.

Before COVID-19, there was progress being made, particularly with girls’ education. In March 2020, UNICEF’s research showed that nearly 67 per cent of girls were enrolled in secondary school compared to 50 per cent in 1998. Fewer girls were getting married or becoming mothers, and more were in school and literate – acquiring key foundational skills for lifelong success. But setbacks to this progress are happening with COVID-19 causing the closure of schools, lockdowns that have isolated girls at home, and economic pressures that may force families and girls to take dangerous and desperate action.

“I’ve witnessed first-hand the achievements made when we invest in girls’ education and how, among many benefits, it increases a girl’s confidence and decision-making power within her home and her community,” said Dr. Tanjina Mirza, Plan International Canada’s chief programs officer.

“The direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 are threatening to unravel decades of progress and cause irrevocable damage – but together we can stop it by tackling the root causes of gender inequality and prioritizing girls’ rights now, as we build back a better post-pandemic world,” adds Mirza.

Plan International Canada is calling on governments and decision-makers to be flexible in their approach to education, ensuring equal rights for all children and taking their unique gendered needs into account. For example, learning is moving online, and it has strong potential to increase access to education but when access to technology and the internet is unequal, and girls are less likely than boys to have access, it will expand – not reduce – inequalities. Girls must be provided with equal access to free, low-cost mobile internet and digital literacy training. Low-tech learning options must be provided as well, such as radio and television broadcasts or take-home learning materials coupled with regular information and guidance for caregivers to support at-home learning.

About Plan International Canada’s Stop the Setback Campaign

Plan International is working to stop the setback COVID-19 is causing for vulnerable people worldwide, and directly helping 20 million people – especially girls and young women – across more than 50 countries. This past year, Plan International’s work reached more than 73 million people thanks to our donors. But, six months of COVID-19’s effects can undo up to 20 years of development work. With the current global crisis, these communities need our help more than ever before.

Plan International Canada is encouraging Canadians to help spread awareness and donate today at Canadians can download free, branded meeting backgrounds for Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other video chat platforms that feature projects and countries around the globe where Plan International is working to support children, especially girls impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

About Plan International Canada

Plan International Canada is a global organization dedicated to advancing children’s rights and equality for girls. We have been building powerful partnerships for children for over 80 years and are now active in more than 70 countries.

Visit for more information and follow @PlanCanada on social media to join the conversation.

Media contact:

Plan International Canada's Public Relations department

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Alex Shinnan