By Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, and Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, Chief Executive Officer, Plan International.
As COVID-19 forces school closures in 185 countries, Plan International and UNESCO warn of the potential for increased drop-out rates which will disproportionately affect adolescent girls, further entrench gender gaps in education and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and early and forced marriage.
Out of the total population of students enrolled in education globally, UNESCO estimates that over 89% are currently out of school because of COVID-19 closures. This represents 1.54 billion children and youth enrolled in school or university, including nearly 743 million girls.
Over 111 million of these girls are living in the worlds least developed countries where getting an education is already a struggle. These are contexts of extreme poverty, economic vulnerability and crisis where gender disparities in education are highest. In Mali, Niger and South Sudan — 3 countries with some of the lowest enrolment and completion rates for girls — closures have forced over 4 million girls out of school.
For girls living in refugee camps or who are internally displaced, school closures will be most devastating as they are already at a disadvantage. Refugee girls at secondary level are only half as likely to enrol as their male peers.
We are only beginning to understand the economic impacts of COVID-19, but they are expected to be widespread and devastating, particularly for women and girls. In the Global South, where limited social protection measures are in place, economic hardships caused by the crisis will have spill-over effects as families consider the financial and opportunity costs of educating their daughters.
While many girls will continue with their education once the school gates reopen, others will never return to school. Education responses must prioritize the needs of adolescent girls’ at the risk of reversing 20 years of gains made for girls education.
Lessons from the Ebola crisis
“Schools are left empty as an abandoned nest. I am so sad. Being at school can help to protect girls from pregnancy and marriage. Many of my friends are getting pregnant and I realised some have been forced into early marriage.”
Christiana, 17, Sierra Leone (during the Ebola Crisis of 2014)
While the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, we can look to the lessons learnt from the Ebola epidemic in Africa. At the height of the epidemic, 5 million children were affected by school closures across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, countries hardest hit by the outbreak. And poverty levels rose significantly as education was interrupted.
In many cases, school drop-outs were caused by an increase in domestic and caring responsibilities and a shift towards income generation. This means that girls learning at home was limited, as shown by Plan Internationals analysis. In villages with established “girls clubs” and existing sensitization efforts to promote girls education, fewer girls experienced adverse effects and were more likely to continue their learning.
Several studies found that the closure of schools increased girls vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse both by their peers and by older men, as girls were often are at home alone and unsupervised. Transactional sex was also widely reported as vulnerable girls and their families struggled to cover basic needs. As family breadwinners perished from Ebola and livelihoods were destroyed, many families chose to marry their daughters off, falsely hoping this would offer them protection.
In Sierra Leone, adolescent pregnancy increased by up to 65% in some communities during the Ebola crisis. In one study, most girls reported this increase was a direct result of being outside the protective environment provided by schools. Many of these girls never returned to the classroom, largely due to a recently revoked policy preventing pregnant girls from attending school.
Applying lessons learnt from Ebola to COVID-19
For girls like Christiana, who have lived or are living through a crisis, education is a lifeline, offering protection from violence and exploitation and providing them with skills and hope for a brighter future.
As governments prepare for indefinite school closures, policy makers and practitioners can look to lessons from past crises to address the specific challenges faced by girls. We therefore call on governments to protect progress made in favour of girls education through these six gender-responsive, evidence-based and context-specific actions:
- Leverage teachers and communities: Work closely with teachers, school staff and communities to ensure inclusive methods of distance learning are adopted and communicated to call for continued investments in girls learning. Community sensitization on the importance of girls education should continue as part of any distance learning programme.
- Adopt appropriate distance learning practices: In contexts where digital solutions are less accessible, consider low-tech and gender-responsive approaches. Send reading and writing materials home and use radio and television broadcasts to reach the most marginalised. Ensure programme scheduling and learning structures are flexible and allow self-paced learning so as not to deter girls who often disproportionately shoulder the burden of care.
- Consider the gender digital divide: In contexts where digital solutions to distance learning and internet is accessible, ensure that girls are trained with the necessary digital skills, including the knowledge and skills they need to stay safe online.
- Safeguard vital services: Girls and the most vulnerable children and youth miss out on vital services when schools are closed, specifically school meals and social protection. Make schools access points for psychosocial support and food distribution, work across sectors to ensure alternative social services and deliver support over the phone, text or other forms of media.
- Engage young people: Give space to youth, particularly girls, to shape the decisions made about their education. Include them in the development of strategies and policies around school closures and distance learning based on their experiences and needs.
- Ensure return to school: Provide flexible learning approaches so that girls are not deterred from returning to school when they re-open. This includes pregnant girls and young mothers who often face stigma and discriminatory school re-entry laws that prevent them from accessing education. Allow automatic promotion and appropriate opportunities in admissions processes that recognise the particular challenges faced by girls. Catch-up courses and accelerated learning may be necessary for girls who return to school.
Nuclear annihilation just one miscalculation away, UN chief warns
The world is one misstep from devastating nuclear war and in peril not seen since the Cold War, the UN Secretary General has warned.
“We have been extraordinarily lucky so far,” Antonio Guterres said.
Amid rising global tensions, “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”, he added.
His remarks came at the opening of a conference for countries signed up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The 1968 deal was introduced after the Cuban missile crisis, an event often portrayed as the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. The treaty was designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries, and to pursue the ultimate goal of complete nuclear disarmament.
Almost every nation on Earth is signed up to the NPT, including the five biggest nuclear powers. But among the handful of states never to sign are four known or suspected to have nuclear weapons: India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.
Secretary General Guterres said the “luck” the world had enjoyed so far in avoiding a nuclear catastrophe may not last – and urged the world to renew a push towards eliminating all such weapons.
“Luck is not a strategy. Nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict,” he said.
And he warned that those international tensions were “reaching new highs” – pointing specifically to the invasion of Ukraine, tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the Middle East as examples.
Russia was widely accused of escalating tensions when days after his invasion of Ukraine in February, President Vladimir Putin put Russia’s substantial nuclear forces on high alert.
He also threatened anyone standing in Russia’s way with consequences “you have never seen in your history”. Russia’s nuclear strategy includes the use of nuclear weapons if the state’s existence is under threat.
On Monday, Mr Putin wrote to the same non-proliferation conference Mr Guterres opened, declaring that “there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed”.
But Russia still found itself criticised at the NPT conference.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned what he called Russia’s sabre-rattling – and pointed out that Ukraine had handed over its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in 1994, after receiving assurances of its future security from Russia and others.
“What message does this send to any country around the world that may think that it needs to have nuclear weapons – to protect, to defend, to deter aggression against its sovereignty and independence?” he asked. “The worst possible message”.
Today, some 13,000 nuclear weapons are thought to remain in service in the arsenals of the nine nuclear-armed states – far lower than the estimated 60,000 stockpiled during the peak of the mid-1980s.
Read from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-62381425
Australia election: Why is Australia’s parliament so white?
With this year’s election, political parties did have a window to slightly improve this. But they chose not to in most cases, critics say.
Tu Le grew up the child of Vietnamese refugees in Fowler, a south-west Sydney electorate far from the city’s beaches, and one of the poorest urban areas in the country.
The 30-year-old works as a community lawyer for refugees and migrants newly arrived to the area.
Last year, she was pre-selected by the Labor Party to run in the nation’s most multicultural seat. But then party bosses side-lined her for a white woman.
It would take Kristina Kenneally four hours on public transport – ferry, train, bus, and another bus – to get to Fowler from her home in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, where she lived on an island.
Furious locals questioned what ties she had to the area, but as one of Labor’s most prominent politicians, she was granted the traditionally Labor-voting seat.
Ms Le only learned she’d been replaced on the night newspapers went to print with the story.
“I was conveniently left off the invitation to the party meeting the next day,” she told the BBC.
Despite backlash – including a Facebook group where locals campaigned to stop Ms Kenneally’s appointment – Labor pushed through the deal.
“If this scenario had played out in Britain or the United States, it would not be acceptable,” says Dr Tim Soutphomassane, director of the Sydney Policy Lab and Australia’s former Race Discrimination Commissioner.
“But in Australia, there is a sense that you can still maintain the status quo with very limited social and political consequences.”
An insiders’ game
At least one in five Australians have a non-European background and speak a language at home other than English, according to the last census in 2016.
Some 49% of the population was born or has a parent who was born overseas. In the past 20 years, migrants from Australia’s Asian neighbours have eclipsed those from the UK.
But the parliament looks almost as white as it did in the days of the “White Australia” policy – when from 1901 to the 1970s, the nation banned non-white immigrants.
“We simply do not see our multicultural character represented in anything remotely close to proportionate form in our political institutions,” says Dr Soutphomassane.
Compared to other Western multicultural democracies, Australia also lags far behind.
The numbers below include Indigenous Australians, who did not gain suffrage until the 1960s, and only saw their first lower house MP elected in 2010. Non-white candidates often acknowledge that any progress was first made by Aboriginal Australians.
Two decades ago, Australia and the UK had comparably low representation. But UK political parties – responding to campaigns from diverse members – pledged to act on the problem.
“The British Conservative Party is currently light years ahead of either of the major Australian political parties when it comes to race and representation,” says Dr Soutphomassane.
So why hasn’t Australia changed?
Observers say Australia’s political system is more closed-door than other democracies. Nearly all candidates chosen by the major parties tend to be members who’ve risen through the ranks. Often they’ve worked as staffers to existing MPs.
Ms Le said she’d have no way into the political class if she hadn’t been sponsored by Fowler’s retiring MP – a white, older male.
Labor has taken small structural steps recently – passing commitments in a state caucus last year, and selecting two Chinese-Australian candidates for winnable seats in Sydney.
But it was “one step forward and two steps back”, says party member and activist Osmond Chiu, when just weeks after the backlash to Ms Le’s case, Labor “parachuted in” another white candidate to a multicultural heartland.
Andrew Charlton, a former adviser to ex-PM Kevin Rudd, lived in a harbour mansion in Sydney’s east where he ran a consultancy.
His selection scuppered the anticipated races of at least three diverse candidates from the area which has large Indian and Chinese diasporas.
Party seniors argued that Ms Kenneally and Mr Charlton – as popular and respected party figures – would be able to promote their electorates’ concerns better than newcomers.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese also hailed Ms Kenneally as a “great Australian success story” as a migrant from the US herself.
But Mr Chiu says: “A lot of the frustration that people expressed wasn’t about these specific individuals.
“It was about the fact that these were two of the most multicultural seats in Australia and these opportunities – which come by so rarely – to select culturally diverse candidates were squandered.”
He adds this has long-term effects because the average MP stays in office for about 10 years.
The frustration on this issue has centred on Labor – because the centre-left party calls itself the “party of multiculturalism”.
But the Liberal-National government doesn’t even have diversity as a platform issue.
One of its MPs up for re-election recently appeared to confuse her Labor rival for Tu Le, sparking accusations that she’d mixed up the two Asian-Australian women – something she later denied. But as one opponent said: “How is this still happening in 2022?”
Some experts like Dr Soutphommasane have concluded that Australia’s complacency on areas like representation stems from how the nation embraced multiculturalism as official policy after its White Australia days.
The government of the 1970s, somewhat embarrassed by the past policy, passed racial discrimination laws and “a seat at the table” was granted to migrants and Indigenous Australians.
But critics say this has led to an Australia where multiculturalism is celebrated but racial inequality is not interrogated.
“Multiculturalism is almost apolitical in how it’s viewed in Australia,” Dr Soutphommasane says, in contrast to the “fight” for rights that other Western countries have seen from minority groups.
What is the impact?
A lack of representation in parliament can also lead to failures in policy.
During Sydney’s Covid outbreak in August 2021, Fowler and Parramatta electorates – where most of the city’s multicultural communities reside – were subject to harsher lockdowns as a result of a higher number of cases.
How will things change?
Liberal MP Dave Sharma, the only lawmaker of Indian heritage, has said all parties – including his own – should better recruit people with different backgrounds. He called it a “pretty laissez-faire attitude” currently.
Mr Albanese has urged Ms Le to “hang in there”, insisting she has a future.
But more people like Ms Le are choosing to speak out.
“I think I surprised a lot of people by not staying quiet,” she told the BBC.
“People acted like it was the end of my political career that I didn’t toe the party line. But… none of that means anything to me if it means I’m sacrificing my own values.”
She and other second-generation Australians – raised in a country which prides itself on “a fair go” – are agitating for the rights and access their migrant parents may not have felt entitled to.
“Many of those from diverse backgrounds were saying they felt like they didn’t have a voice – and that my case was a clear demonstration of their suppression, and their wider participation in our political system.”
She and others have noted the “growing distrust” in the major parties. Polls are predicting record voter support for independent candidates.
“This issue…. matters for everyone in Australian society that cares about democracy,” says Mr Soutphommasane.
“If democratic institutions are not representative, their legitimacy will suffer.
US military leader warns Chinese security deal with Solomon Islands sounds ‘too good to be true’
A senior US military general has warned during a visit to Australia that China’s offer to deepen security ties with Solomon Islands will come with strings attached, suggesting the Pacific island country may come to regret the planned deal.
“My parents told me if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” the commandant of the United States Marine Corps, general David Berger, said on Wednesday.
Berger was cautious when asked about longstanding US concerns relating to a Chinese company’s lease over the port of Darwin, stressing it was a sovereign decision for Australia as part of its yet-to-be-completed national security review.
Ahead of a trip to Darwin, the site of increasing rotations of US Marines, Berger said: “If it’s not of concern to Australia, then it’s not of concern to me.”
Berger’s visit comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity by the US and Australia attempting to head off a proposed security agreement between China and Solomon Islands, which could allow regular visits by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
A leaked draft from last month raised the possibility China could “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”, while Chinese forces could also be used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.
The prime minister of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, has sought to allay concerns, saying his country has no intention of allowing a Chinese naval base. But Sogavare has also said it is “very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs”.
Speaking in Canberra on Wednesday, Berger said the US needed to show humility in its outreach to Pacific nations, but also needed to be open about the potential long-term consequences.
Berger reflected on the fight for control of Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands during the second world war, when the US and allies sought to prevent Japanese forces from gaining a foothold in the strategically important location.
“A lot of things change in warfare. Not geography. Where … Solomon Islands are matters. It did then and it does now,” Berger said at the Australian Strategic Policy
He said the proposed agreement was “just another example” of China seeking to broaden and expand its influence. He raised concerns about “the way that [it] happens and the consequences for the nations” involved.
Sogavare has argued Solomon Islands pursues a “friends to all and enemies to none” foreign policy, but Berger implied countries making agreements with Beijing might regret it down the track.
“We should illuminate, we should draw out into the open what this means long term,” Berger said.
“This is, in other words, an extension of ‘hey we’re here with a cheque, we’re here with money, we’d like to improve your port or your airfield or your bus station’. And that just sounds so great, until a year later or six months later.”
The US plans to reopen its embassy in Solomon Islands, a move the nominee for US ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, has said “can’t come soon enough”.
Berger acknowledged there were limits to US insights in Pacific island countries, so the US needed to rely on allies such as Australia.
“We’re not going to have always the best view, the clearest picture,” he said.
“We have to understand the neighbourhood and we’re never going to understand it as well as Australia.”
Earlier, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, denied that the US had conveyed any concerns that Australia had dropped the ball in the region.
Morrison said the Australian government was continuing to raise concerns with Solomon Islands without acting in a “heavy-handed” way.
Australia’s minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, met with Sogavare in Honiara on Wednesday and “asked Solomon Islands respectfully to consider not signing the agreement” with China.
Seselja suggested Solomon Islands “consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency”. Australia would work with Solomon Islands “swiftly, transparently and with full respect for its sovereignty”.
“We welcome recent statements from prime minister Sogavare that Australia remains Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice, and his commitment that Solomon Islands will never be used for military bases or other military institutions of foreign powers,” Seselja said.
Sogavare has previously said Solomon Islands welcomed “any country that is willing to support us in our security space”.
But Matthew Wale, the leader of the opposition, has argued the deal “would make the Solomons a geopolitical playing field” and “further threaten the nation’s fragile unity”.
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