Over the past decade, we have made great strides in advancing gender equity for girls globally: 131 countries have added gender-related reforms to laws and regulations; the #MeToo movement became a global phenomenon, allowing women and girls a mechanism through which they can speak out about sexual harassment and abuse; girls’ secondary school enrollment rates increased from 69% to 75%, and movements to decrease the stigma and improve access to menstrual health supplies have taken the world by storm.
But amid this progress, COVID-19’s devastating impact over the last year has revealed an earth-shattering truth: This pandemic has set girls back. As we navigate the new frontier that is 2021, it is up to all of us to ensure that our girls are not forgotten.
When crises occur, it is well known that the most vulnerable populations suffer disproportionately, and COVID-19 is no different in its impact on girls across the world. At Global G.L.O.W., an international nonprofit working to advance gender equity worldwide, we are acutely aware of these repercussions. Our partners have shared with us the daily impact of COVID-19 on their communities. It has become increasingly statistically evident that there will be a long road to recovery in the fight for girls’ holistic progress.
Our partners in Peru and Kenya reported soaring rates of teen pregnancy, early marriage, and gender-based violence. In Kenya, specifically, food insecurity has been dramatically exacerbated, with program leaders reporting that three to four of their girls did not eat regularly this year. Our programs in Detroit, Southern California, and the rural American South have said that their girls feel increased loneliness and hopelessness for their futures, which only increases the weight and impact of the virus. Programming in Afghanistan, Thailand, and Kenya reveals that girls were unable to access standard education in 2020, leaving them an entire academic year behind their peers. As Shamim Jawad, Founder and President of the Ayenda Foundation, so poignantly stated: “The girls feel like they didn’t accomplish anything last year,  like the whole year was lost and a waste.”
To be clear, these inequities existed far before the pandemic. But the immense impact COVID-19 has had on girls this year leaves us at serious risk of erasing worldwide advancements in gender equity made over the last decade.
Despite the challenges this virus created, Global G.L.O.W. partners stepped up this year to provide supplemental support to girls in unique ways. They understood a key fact: girls know what girls need. As we move forward into 2021, we must use international discourse and effective programming to move the needle on gender equity, add visibility to girls’ voices and combat the negative impact experienced by girls worldwide due to COVID-19.
One of the most powerful ways to begin this process is by providing girls with trusted mentorship. When support systems are stretched so thin, it is of the utmost importance that girls are surrounded by role models who reflect their lived experiences and believe in girls’ endless potential. As Global G.L.O.W. program coordinator and mentor from ETIV in Brazil mentioned, “[Girls] normally have volunteers come to town and then leave after a couple of years, and the girls don't trust the people that put on these programs. But, now [with G.L.O.W. programs] they see the mentors are not going anywhere, and they trust them.”
In addition to mentoring, creative programming for girls will be imperative to curbing the social-emotional effects of the pandemic. There are many simple ways to implement such programming, such as asking girls to create videos or write stories that spark joy or tell a story, or use this time to brainstorm new ideas to serve the community together, now and once the pandemic subsides.
We must meet local communities where they are, using alternative forms of communication accessible and effective in each location. In Nigeria and Sierra Leone, for example, G.L.O.W. programming has expanded to incorporate a girl-led radio show, through which participants disseminate COVID-19 health-related information to members of their community.
On top of this, taking the time to educate girls about COVID-19 and all of its risks—whether they be physical, social-emotional, economic, health and/or menstrual health-related—is critical in ensuring girls have the tools to advocate for themselves, stay informed, curb the spread of COVID-19 and continue the advancement of their communities.
Above all else, we must engage in discussions—with our colleagues, friends, families, and beyond—about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on girls. If there is one thing our work has taught us, it’s that we have the power to move and progress our communities in pursuit of gender equity together.
The trauma that has come from the pandemic will not fade quickly. It will only expand as our world continues to fight this virus unless we address it openly. As world governments decide where to allocate funding for educational and programmatic work this new year, we urge you not to let them forget girls’ voices. Understand that helping one girl creates an upward spiral of mobility and positively impacts local communities. If girls’ needs today are not a priority in forthcoming interventions, an entire generation of future women leaders may be lost.