Girls Can’t Wait: The Urgency of Prioritizing Girls in COVID-19 Relief

Girls’ futures are at stake during a global pandemic — here’s why it matters and what we can do about it

By Christen Brandt and Tammy Tibbetts

Photo courtesy of Project PIKIN

On Fridays, Margaret Sam and Dereque Davies put on their masks and gloves and load up Davies’ truck with supplies, ready to do all they can to limit the impact of this pandemic. They’re based in Freetown, Sierra Leone, one of the epicenters of the 2014–2016 Ebola epidemic, so they know the havoc a health crisis can wreak. Most of all, they know who will pay the price for this pandemic in the long run: girls.

Davies and Sam lead Project PIKIN, a grassroots organization that mentors 60+ girls around the Freetown area. When Sierra Leone went on lockdown, they knew they had to act quickly. During the Ebola crisis, when governments closed schools and prohibited public gatherings, girls and their families retreated to more rural areas. By the time the country and schools reopened, teenage pregnancy rates had jumped by 65% in some areas; all across the country, girls didn’t return to school.

Imagine what happens when a girl is kept behind closed doors, amid heightened financial and domestic tensions at home. She used to have friends and a teacher or mentor seeing her each day in safe spaces, noticing if she had been hurt, able to protect her. Now, she may be trapped with an abusive relative, or the economic stress will push her guardians into unthinkable decisions: Should we marry her off? Can the women and girls of the family trade their bodies for food or rent?

During the COVID-19 quarantine, Davies and Sam live by two words: Not again. Their idea was to create care packages, consisting of rice, oil, cassava, and soap, and offer it to students’ families — so long as they stay within the limits of Freetown. This enables the Project PIKIN staff to maintain check-ups on girls’ homes, so that they can see on a weekly basis that girls are healthy and build accountability among parents and guardians.

“One way of protecting the girls is by making them ‘important’ individuals to their communities,” says Davies, who knows that girls’ lack of power often puts them in a vulnerable position. “By providing them enough food to feed both them and their families, they contribute to the family and are less likely to be married off as children, and more likely to return to the program when the country re-opens.”

Take a look at how multi-faceted this response is: mitigating the dangers facing girls, addressing the intensifying food insecurity facing their families, providing hygiene supplies to avoid the spread of the virus, and ensuring girls have power within their homes. This is what it means to take a gender-sensitive approach to a health crisis and maximize relief efforts.

And yet, girls have fallen to the bottom of the list when it comes to COVID-19 relief. To let this continue would unwind decades of progress for gender equality and lock families in poverty.

In a recent survey of 33 community-based organizations located in the Global South, published in the Girls Can’t Wait report by She’s the First, local leaders sounded the alarm: 100% of them fear teen pregnancy rates will rise, and in turn, most worry those girls will not restart their educational careers. According to the Malala Fund, 20 million more secondary-school aged girls will be out of school after the COVID-19 crisis passes, if drop-outs increase at the same rate as after Ebola.

To put this into context, before COVID-19, there were already 130 million girls out of school around the world. More than 650 million women and girls in the world today have been forced into child marriage; that’s one girl who becomes a child bride every seven seconds. Globally, more than 15 million teenage girls have reported experiencing forced sex — and we know that number to be low, based on some countries missing data and noted underreporting of sex crimes.

Don’t Let a Global Health Crisis Become a Girl Crisis

This devastation does not have to be the destiny of girls worldwide.

There is a very accessible solution: Turn to the local organizations working with girls.

During a global health crisis, you might immediately think of huge relief organizations, but we can’t forget what an underutilized asset that nimble girls’ organizations are. Girls’ organizations sit at the crossroads of all social justice issues: health, education, employment, and even climate change. In the most vulnerable communities, they are best positioned to be proactive, so that philanthropy doesn’t have to be so reactive, pouring funds into problems that could have been prevented.

Girls’ organizations already have access to the remote communities where girls live, with vast experience in overcoming logistical challenges in order to meet them. Not only do the girls they work with benefit from those services, but so do the wider communities. From The Gambia to Guatemala, educated girls are the ideal advocates to bring their hard-to-reach communities health tips and reliable information. They can translate messages from the national language, which, oftentimes, the poorest people do not speak, into indigenous languages they understand. Educated girls and their parents can model behaviors in the community, like social distancing and hand washing, that otherwise might not be taken seriously.

Many organizations have begun mentorship programs via phone, setting up emergency hotlines for girls to call when they’re in danger. Some are providing phones and credit to make calls, while others produce videos and content for social media to educate about health and hygiene. Girls’ organizations recognize the myriad ways girls need support, during a health crisis and after — because they’ve seen what happens to girls when that safety net fails.

Anyone donating to COVID-19 relief efforts would be strategic to give more to girls’ organizations. All of us with social platforms should be using them to pull this issue into the spotlight, because millions of girls have an unclear path ahead of them to reclaim the progress they’ve made. But by supporting girls’ organizations, we can ease their path back to school and safety.


NOTE: This post was updated on July 14, 2020 to reflect a correction to the Malala Fund’s report, which featured a miscalculated statistic. Malala Fund originally reported that 10 million secondary school-aged girls could be out of school due to COVID-19. The correct estimate is 20 million.

Please visit shesthefirst.org/covid to learn more and contribute to the She’s the First COVID-19 Response Fund.

Christen Brandt and Tammy Tibbetts are the founders of She’s the First, a global nonprofit that teams up with local organizations to ensure girls everywhere are educated, respected, and heard. Their first book, Impact, will be published this November by PublicAffairs.

We team up with local organizations to make sure girls are educated, respected, and heard. 👩‍🎓 Join us at shesthefirst.org.