University of Wisconsin–Madison

Women’s History Month Blog Series #7 – Returns at Risk: COVID-19 and Girls’ Education in Global Perspective

Guest Contribution from Rachel Silver and Alyssa Morley

In the Spring of 2020, as governments around the world began to close schools to stop the spread of COVID-19, we shared an observation with each other: that countless articles, press releases, and news stories were being published decrying the negative effects of COVID-19 on girls’ education, particularly in the global South. 

These daily publications came from a variety of expected sources in the field of international development: multilateral organizations like the World Bank and UNESCO, international NGOs and foundations like Save the Children and Malala Fund, and governments. Yet they emerged in mainstream sources, too. From major news outlets like the Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN to prominent figures like Meghan Markle, Melinda Gates, and Michelle Obama, people raised alarm about the consequences of COVID-19 for girls.

Figure 1: Screenshot of Malala Yousafzai discussing girls’ education and COVID-19 with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry (Sky News, October 2020)


We decided to begin to collect these documents, and to analyze: (1) how, exactly, they described the risks that COVID-19 poses to girls’ education; and (2) and how they envisioned girls’ education to fit into plans for post-pandemic recovery. We wanted to do so because we suspect that the ways girls’ education is being understood at this critical moment will direct international aid resources imagined to improve girls’ lives. Here, we want to share some initial observations made from our ever-expanding archive of more than 800 news stories, international development reports, policy briefs, and government statements. 

When scanning documents, what becomes immediately apparent is a tone of danger and risk that COVID-19 poses specifically to girls, and to their education. Publications reflect overwhelming anxiety that the coronavirus will “exacerbate vulnerabilities” and imperil decades of progress toward gender equitable education. Here’s a sample of what this sounds like from a 2020 Save the Children Report, entitled Progress in Peril:

2020 was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for women and girls..Then COVID-19 struck. Now, 2020 risks being a year of irreversible setbacks and lost progress for girls (p. ii).



Figure 2: Cover of Save the Children Report from October 2020


Other reports tackle the scale of the crisis with statistics. A Malala Fund report, for instance, cautions that 20 million girls may never return to school after lockdowns. In contexts of forced migration, the situation is worse: half of refugee girls may have left school for good. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that the pandemic could result in seven million unintended pregnancies, with refugee and non-refugee girls alike “pulled out of school and pushed into marriage” (Bose, 2020).

Considerable attention is paid to gender-based violence and sexualized outcomes, including early marriage, pregnancy, and female circumcision. Here is an example from a CNN report that features the story of a girl in Mombasa, Kenya:


Bella [a pseudonym] says her unplanned pregnancy made her mother so furious that she beat her. She had no idea that the 19-year-old had begun exchanging sex for cash in order to help pay for food for her three younger siblings and two cousins, who live together in a one-room house in a waterfront slum community.. “The pandemic broke down the economy, especially for my area. So I had to help in one way or another with expenses,” said Bella over WhatsApp. 


Bella’s story, and the hundreds of others like it, point to the very real risks of poverty, and to the reality that pandemic situations can amplify girls’ pre-existing vulnerabilities. Following Ebola in West Africa, for instance, girls’ home responsibilities intensified; many girls became pregnant; and many did not return to school. 

We have also noticed that the fear of sexualized risk is disproportionately emphasized in spaces across the Global South, while concerns about lost sports seasons or declining mental health from isolation more commonly emerge in writing about girls in Canada and the US, particularly white girls. Discourse of sexualized risk, in other words, are racialized both across and within contexts. By focusing so heavily on outcomes like pregnancy, these discourses can detract from our understanding of social contexts that include livelihood insecurity or new migratory pressures. Barriers to girls’ schooling during a pandemic should be read in relationship to larger social, economic, and political systems that disenfranchise women and the rural poor. In Dadaab, for instance, this includes insufficient aid funding, made worse by austerity measures.


Figures 3 and 4: Zambia Daily Mail Article on Student Pregnancy and Lansing State Journal Report on “Let Them Play” Rally


Feminist scholars have long looked critically at the construction of racialized Third world women and girls [e.g., Mohanty, 2003]. They have also warned against the related idea that girls’ schooling can catalyze positive economic, demographic, and social change. This kind of thinking positions individual young people as responsible for familial, communal, and national development, obscuring  attention to inequitable systems and structures [e.g., Khoja-Moolji, 2018; Moeller, 2018; Switzer, 2018]. In our data, we’re noticing this logic not only in discourse that decries girls’ education as a lost investment, but also in the call for further investment in girls to ensure global stability and profitability post pandemic. These calls reflect well-worn neoliberal education reforms that emphasize education (or affordable childcare) as investments in women that deliver desired “returns” to society. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, is brings an urgency to these claims for girls.

For instance, a co-authored report by the British Foreign Policy Group & the Global Partnership for Education, states,  


One of the most effective ways to achieve desired sustainability outcomes is, therefore, through investment in a systems approach to girls’ education. By March 2020, COVID-19 closures had forced 290 million children out of school, and many of the most vulnerable girls may never return, as the pressures of poverty, child marriage, gendered violence and domestic expectations keep them out of school. By investing in education systems that meet the needs of all girls and boys, the UK can prevent a lost generation of children whilst at the same time paving the way for a more sustainable future.


Thus, we are seeing that discourses of risk meet with those of reward and responsibility. Both visions of girls—as at risk, and as redeemers—construct one-dimensional portraits that may obscure the complexity of girls’ lives. 

To find out if the discourses described here reflect girls’ lived experiences, and if and how they shape them through aid interventions, we have launched a longitudinal study in two spaces: Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps and Southern Malawi, each of which has been the site of past ethnographic research. We are eager to learn more what the specificities of young women’s lives in these contexts can teach us both about how the pandemic has highlighted or exacerbated gender and other interlocking inequalities, and about the politics of representation in aid.



Alyssa Morley ( works at Michigan State University, where she is a post-doctoral research associate in the College of Education and a research fellow with the Center in Global Context. She received her PhD in Educational Policy from MSU in 2019.  

Rachel Silver ( is an assistant professor of education at York University in Toronto and co-director of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees Project. She received her PhD in Educational Policy Studies and Anthropology from UW-Madison in 2019. 



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