COVID-19 Response: Give for Girls

by Plan International USA
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COVID-19 Response: Give for Girls
COVID-19 Response: Give for Girls
COVID-19 Response: Give for Girls
COVID-19 Response: Give for Girls
COVID-19 Response: Give for Girls
COVID-19 Response: Give for Girls
COVID-19 Response: Give for Girls
COVID-19 Response: Give for Girls
COVID-19 Response: Give for Girls

Schools in Uganda have finally begun to reopen after two years of closed doors.  Girls are especially vulnerable to permanently losing their education due to COVID-19, but they’re not giving up. Here is the story of one girl – Moreen - who is renewing her hope and excitement for the future.

This story is part of a new series called “In Her Own Words,” where stories are directly from the experts with whom we work: the girls themselves.

Moreen, 19

My first day back at school was January 10, 2022. I feel so excited that school has resumed and I am going to continue with my studies. The first thing I did when I got back into the classroom was notice that there was so much mess, so I swept the classroom, and I was so excited to see my friends back [at] school.

During the lockdown, it was hard. We were so committed to our domestic work, you couldn’t get time to revise.

I missed a lot — school and the teacher’s explanations. At home you couldn’t get anyone to help you. The best thing about going back to school is that I can achieve my dreams, and my dream is to become a lawyer.

It will be easier to study at school than to be at home where you don’t study. There’s no one [at home] to consult or ask to help you out with something that you don’t know. Like the library — we don’t have a library at home, and at school we have them. We can read some stories, and we have games at school like football and volleyball. You can relax and go play and come back.

Not all girls are going to feel good. My classmate didn’t come back to school because she got married and maybe she is not feeling okay about that. Her other friends are coming back to school but for her — she is not coming back. So, I think it’s not equal, that everyone feels the same way. Though I feel good, someone out there might be feeling bad.

All of the students that have been able to go back to school in Uganda are so excited.

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As COVID-19 shut down economies worldwide, more parents were pushed to consider whether forcing their daughters to marry was the only way out. The pandemic lockdowns also prevented community social workers from making their usual home visits to counsel parents on the dangers of child, early and forced marriages and unions (CEFMU), including the fact that they are against the law in many countries. These factors led to a spike in CEFMU. And a new report by Plan International estimates that an additional 13 million girls are now at risk. Yet, the crisis also led to innovations: Plan found that social media can actively reduce child marriages.

According to UNICEF, more than 650 million women and girls are affected by CEFMU, with 12 million girls married each year before the age of 18. However, while face-to-face interaction through school or extracurricular activities has significantly decreased, Plan and other international development organizations began reaching out to women and girls through social media.

How did online campaigns, apps and educational platforms work to reduce CEFMU in low-income countries, where women and girls are known to have less access to the internet? For example:

— Plan Bangladesh created an app so that marriage registrars could confirm a bride-to-be’s age, preventing more than 3,700 underage marriages during its six-month pilot phase.

— Plan India’s CEFMU-focused Facebook campaign videos were viewed more than 700,000 times in only a few weeks.

— Plan Indonesia developed a video about a CEFMU survivor’s story that went viral using well-known Indonesian actors, resulting in more than 740,000 views on YouTube.

Numerous factors drive the high rates of CEFMU, including poverty, education levels, geographic location, gender hierarchies and inadequate policy frameworks and enforcement measures. Families in poverty can look to marry their daughters to relieve their own financial burdens. CEFMU has been found to increase girls’ likelihood of dropping out of school, leaving them dependent upon their husbands for support. The pandemic has aggravated this cycle, with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) citing an estimate that 11 million girls may not return to school after the COVID-19 crisis. Women and girls affected by CEFMU are also more likely to experience domestic violence and early pregnancy. With lower levels of education and few support systems in place, women and girls are placed in a vicious, generational cycle of CEFMU, making Plan’s reduction strategies crucial.

Encouraging women and girls to utilize digital platforms comes with its challenges. For example, Plan’s State of the World’s Girls Report voices concern over the safety of women and girls online. Out of the 14,000 girls Plan surveyed from 22 countries, 58% said they had experienced some form of online harassment. Social media must become a safe environment for women and girls before it can be fully recognized as a sustainable avenue for eliminating CEFMU. There need to be accessible ways to report and hold harassers accountable, as well as the collection of disaggregated data on the phenomenon. While the report from Plan acknowledges these issues, it continues to see the promise in digital technology as a method to reduce CEFMU.

Digital programming does not only consist of awareness-raising and education efforts but can also directly prevent child marriages. Apps provide a platform to list local employment opportunities for women, provide mental health counseling, answer medical questions on reproductive health and provide access to necessary documents like birth certificates. Plan Bangladesh’s creation of a rights-based system that would record births and deaths, called Open Registration and Vital Statistics (OpenCRVS) is a great example. Having access to legal records is often the first step to gaining social safety net benefits, such as health care or education. With the challenges some populations face in having little access to the internet — in particular girls and women — Plan Bangladesh ensured that OpenCRVS could be used offline and with low connectivity.

While USAID and Plan’s own research rightfully acknowledge the harm that women and girls can face online, the high engagement numbers and the prevention of child marriages due to online platforms and digital programming implemented by UNICEF, Plan and other development organizations provide a promising approach for reducing CEFMU. This becomes even more crucial when considering the effects of COVID-19 on women and girls and their increased risk of underage or forced marriage. More relevant and appropriate use of digital tools can help prevent CEMFU and make girls aware of the resources available to them.

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We live in a time when information about nearly everything is at our fingertips. Want to learn how to build a computer or start your own business? Maybe you’re interested in recent legislation the government passed, or how to get help for anxiety. All of the answers are just a few clicks away.

At least, we think it’s that easy.

Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the abundance of YouTube videos, Instagram posts and search results on every topic one could think of, the chances of coming across false information on any search is almost guaranteed. For girls online, this is having a devastating impact.

Every day, girls are bombarded with lies, stereotypes and heavily edited photos dictating to them how they should feel, look and behave. They’re lied to about the severity of COVID-19 and how to protect themselves. They’re deceived by politicians, pundits and online personalities about how the government is or isn’t helping them. And, as we’ve seen time and time again, girls and young women are misled about what they can and can’t do with their own bodies.

Over the past year, Plan International spoke to 26,000 girls and young women across 33 countries and found an alarming trend.

Young people were already spending a significant amount of their time online before the COVID-19 pandemic began, but more than half of girls and young women in the report say they now spend seven or more hours per day online.

For many, it has helped them engage with like-minded individuals on important topics, but for others, it has only led to frustration and confusion to the point where some have disengaged completely from politics and activism in their communities.

Overwhelmingly, girls and young women identified seeing misinformation and disinformation on social media and video sharing platforms. Left unchecked, these sites actively harm young people, and the companies who run them have known it all along - just look at Facebook. With millions of users posting to these sites every day, it can be hard to figure out what’s true and what’s not all on our own.

“You have to read so many articles and … that’s when you get to understand the information much better. And then there are also people who share the information so that they can mislead others. And then there are other people who share the information so that you can have a better view on something. So, I think it’s not easy. It takes a lot of reading and passion.” Mia, 20, Kenya

With support from donors like you, girls around the world are calling on their governments to study rampant mis/disinformation and online violence, and its impacts. Thank you for investing in the power of girls.

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India is coping with multiple crises right now.

A devastating second COVID-19 wave has overwhelmed the health care system. This latest variant is not only highly transmissible, it’s also infecting young people more severely.

The daily death toll in India reached a world record high of 6,000 on June 10.

And while the number of new cases is declining, a third wave could hit the country later this year. There is concern that future variants will affect more children. Vaccination distribution has picked up after a slow start, but it’s unlikely the majority of the population will be vaccinated in time.

Then, in May, two cyclones struck just days apart, washing away homes and flooding communities. More than a million people were displaced, many forced to seek refuge in camps and shelters.

And now, there’s another disease outbreak in India — black fungus.

What is black fungus?

Mucormycosis, commonly known as “black fungus,” is a rare and deadly fungal infection that blocks blood flow, killing infected tissue and turning dead skin black. It spreads rapidly from the nose and sinuses to the jaw, eyes and brain. In some cases, the infection attacks the lungs.

Symptoms include black patches of skin, blurred vision, headaches, breathing difficulties and coughing up blood. Without immediate treatment, it can be fatal, with a high mortality rate of over 50%. Once the infection reaches the brain, the mortality rate spikes to over 80%.

Black fungus spreads through fungal spores in the air. Potential sources of infection in hospitals include linens, ventilation systems, adhesive bandages and contaminated oxygen equipment. It can also enter the skin through a cut, scrape or burn.

What’s the connection between COVID-19 and black fungus?

With over 31,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths reported so far, India is currently experiencing a black fungus epidemic. The vast majority of patients recently recovered from COVID-19, and many are also diabetic.

The steroids used to treat COVID-19 weaken the immune system and increase sugar levels, making diabetics more susceptible to infections, particularly in poorly controlled cases. It’s estimated that more than half of diabetics in India are undiagnosed. Even before the pandemic, India’s black fungus rates were 70 times higher than the rest of the world.

The pandemic has left hospitals overrun and oxygen supplies running out, which means that some hospitals were using older, outdated oxygen equipment to treat COVID-19 patients. It’s believed this may have been another source of infection.

How is black fungus diagnosed and treated?

There are no blood tests to detect black fungus — diagnosis requires a biopsy, often followed by a CT scan, which many do not have access to or can’t afford.

The only effective treatment is an antifungal drug, combined with the removal of dead tissue. But the medication is expensive, and India is currently facing a shortage.

In extreme cases, an eye or part of the jaw must be surgically removed to prevent the infection from spreading.

Is this epidemic affecting children too?

Yes. While most infected patients have been adults, there are several alarming pediatric cases, ranging in age from 1 to 15. Two older children — a 14-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy — each had an eye surgically removed to prevent the infection from spreading to their brain. Both children have acute juvenile diabetes and were recovering from COVID-19.  

The pandemic has already left thousands of orphans in its wake. Now, parents who survived the virus are losing their lives to this deadly infection. On top of the trauma and grief, orphans are extremely vulnerable to neglect, exploitation and trafficking.

The economic impacts of COVID-19 have been devastating. Every day it’s pushing more families into poverty, a key driver of child marriage. India already has the most child brides in the world (about one-third of the global total). Now many more are at risk. The longer COVID-19 and black fungus plagues India, the more children will suffer. And millions of girls' futures will be in jeopardy. 

Will you help India survive these terrifying nightmares?

Children and families in India urgently need support now. Your lifesaving gift will help to deliver PPE and oxygen concentrators, distribute food and raise awareness of the vaccine, which is the best hope of preventing a third wave. You can be there for vulnerable children and families in India, and help to ensure that no girls are left behind.

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Rachel
Rachel

COVID-19 isn't the only threat girls are dealing with right now.

There's another silent, lethal pandemic lurking in the shadows — threatening their dreams, their futures and even their lives. 

It’s the spike in gender-based violence and other harmful practices, like child marriage and trafficking. Decades of progress for girls' equality is at risk.

The economic impacts of COVID-19 are expected to be widespread and devastating, particularly for women and girls. When families are struggling to survive, girls are more likely to be forced to drop out of school, marry at a young age or become victims of human trafficking. And the longer a girl is out of school, the less likely it is that she will return.

Childbirth is the leading cause of death among 15-19-year-old girls worldwide. Increased marriage and pregnancy rates, combined with overburdened health systems, means more girls' lives are on the line.

Gender disparities are greatest in countries dealing with extreme poverty, economic vulnerability and unrest. One of the newest and poorest countries in the world, South Sudan's short history has been plagued by war, floods and food insecurity. Nearly 1.5 million people have been internally displaced, fleeing their homes to escape the violence.

Life was difficult enough for forcibly displaced populations before COVID-19. Now, it's much harder. In overcrowded areas, social distancing is nearly impossible. And access to clean water, soap, sanitation facilities and basic health services is limited.

School closures are even more devastating for refugee and displaced girls, who are already at a disadvantage. But that doesn't mean they're giving up.

Here, three brave young women in South Sudan open up about their struggles, sharing what — and who — inspires them to keep fighting for the future they deserve.

Rachel, 20

“When schools were told to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19, my family stood with me in all that I did. I knew how boring it would be without being busy with school, so I resorted to studying all sorts of books I could find. 

I also started selling small items including charcoal to make some money for my upkeep. This kept me busy and it helped me cope with the impact of the closure of schools. Above all, it helped me stay focused on the bigger things that made sense to me as the girl that I am.

I am a girl of my own principles and have never found pleasure in thinking about pressures from boys. I am glad that the government has decided to let us go back to school.”

Monica, 16

I was depressed for two months following the closure of schools. I did not know what my future would look like. Hours took a long time to pass. Some days, it felt as though darkness would never come and the nights became longer.

I decided to ask my aunt for guidance. She was very supportive and took me through her life story and how she ended up where she is now. I found so much inspiration from her struggles, even though she did not go far with education. I realized that this pandemic is a temporary obstacle which will go someday.

My peers were getting married or falling pregnant and not a month would pass without me hearing this. I stayed strong and resisted all temptations by listening to my aunt and keeping busy with housework and joining my aunt in farming. We spent the day weeding and sometimes gathering crops.

Today, I am back in school. I feel so happy and as if I have pushed a great burden off my back, although I still have three more months before I can take my final exams.”

Ayen, 21

“If I survive the COVID-19 pandemic without falling pregnant or losing hope, it is due to two things: first of all, I am a leader in my school. And secondly, I’m a member of Plan International’s Champions of Change project. So if I need to do anything, I make sure to recall that first.

To me, marriage or settling down with a man is not even in my near thoughts, let alone at this time. I have seen the kind of suffering people go through nowadays. My friends who dropped out of school to get married are finding it difficult to even find anything to eat.

So, really, I feel determined to achieve better things to enable myself to get through the hardship. I am strong and urge every other girl to forget about everything else and concentrate on their books.”

The fight for gender equality cannot take a backseat now.

The inequalities of the most vulnerable are only heightened during emergencies. As the world copes with the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of girls are dealing with a second shadow pandemic. Too many are struggling in silence, alone and invisible.

The determination of young women like Rachel, Monica and Ayen is as inspiring as their circumstances are heartbreaking.  Now, more than ever, we must continue our critical work to advance girls’ rights. The only way forward is together — with no girl left behind.

Monica
Monica
Aven
Aven
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Plan International USA

Location: Providence, RI - USA
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Victoria Barrios
Warwick, RI United States
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