COVID, an unfolding global health crisis, is revealing a grim impact on millions of adolescent girls across Africa. COVID is emerging as not only a health crisis but a significant protection crisis for adolescent girls across the continent. Measures adopted by most African governments to curb the spread of COVID in countries have included the closure of schools and other learning institutions, movement restrictions, curfews, lockdowns, and widespread social restrictions. While these measures contributed to delaying an immediate health crisis and were aimed at protecting children and their communities from COVID infections, they have interrupted an already precarious learning and protection context for millions of children. This is especially the case for girls, who are often disproportionately affected by crises impacting the continent.
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The combination of school closures due to COVID, and policies and practices in some countries across sub-Saharan Africa that do not allow pregnant girls or young mothers to continue their education, are putting many countries on a collision course in which an estimated one million girls in the region may not be allowed back into schools once they reopen. During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, more than 14, teenage girls became pregnant, including 11, who were in school before the outbreak, according to a UNFPA study. Another study conducted at that time showed that girls and young women living in areas that were highly disrupted by Ebola were twice as likely to become pregnant than before. While high teenage pregnancy rates are not new, recent headlines out of Kenya, such as that from Machakos County where nearly 4, school-aged girls have become pregnant in five months, have put concerns of increased adolescent pregnancy into the spotlight—and similar headlines will likely follow.
The COVID pandemic has signaled the start of a crisis impacting health, education, the economy and as well as food security in the region. All public and private schools and other learning institutions have been closed since March in most African countries and there is a realization that the region has neglected to adequately invest in both health and education. If schools continue to remain closed for a long time, children will not only miss crucial opportunities for learning but will more likely fall into forced labor or have poor nutritional outcomes as they are missing out on a daily meal usually provided at school. For girls, the consequences are more devastating, particularly for the most vulnerable and marginalized.