Of the 1.5 billion children forced out of school by lockdowns around the globe, 700 million are in developing countries. Like pupils in rich countries, their education is suffering. But the consequences in poor places will be far worse. Before the pandemic, more children were in school than ever before, according to Robert Jenkins, head of education at UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s fund. In its aftermath nearly 10 million children in 40 countries might never return to formal education, estimates Save the Children, the well-known charity.
The economic impact of the pandemic has forced many to abandon their studies in favour of work. Between 2000 and 2020 the number of children in work around the world fell by 40 percent, mostly because more were going to school. Covid-19 is undoing that progress. In the Democratic Republic of Congo growing numbers are helping their parents in mines, says Stephanie Shumsky of Pact, an aid group. Others are being recruited into militias. In Jordan young Syrian refugees are toiling on farms.
Experts are most worried about the effect on girls. In the handful of places that have reopened schools, such as Vietnam and the Ivory Coast, teachers say girls are notably absent. Some are getting married — or being married off. Snehalaya, an Indian NGO, says its emergency hotline has been inundated with reports of this since schools closed in March. Handing a daughter over to a new husband means one fewer mouth to feed. With schools closed, idle daughters may strike up a romance or fall prey to sexual assault. Working parents forced to leave their daughters at home all day alone would rather marry them off than risk the shame of premarital sex, says Girish Kulkarni, Snehalaya’s founder.
The economic damage from children dropping out of school will be vast. The World Bank estimates that, if schools remain closed for five months, pupils will forgo $10 trillion (Rs.750 lakh crore) of future earnings in today’s money. That could rise if Covid-19 is not curbed and schools stay closed for longer.
Some governments have failed even to try to help children learn from home. Others have been slow to get going. Ghana’s government only launched its distance learning radio programme on June 15, three months after schools closed. Reopening schools is hard, too. In June only about half of poor countries said they had a plan for doing so, according to a survey by the UN and World Bank. Social distancing is tricky where 50-60 pupils are often packed into a single classroom. In sub-Saharan Africa less than 30 schools have hand washing facilities.
Moreover, getting schools up and running will require money, which is tight. Just 8 percent of the poorest countries report that they are recruiting new teachers to help with reopening, compared with almost 40 percent of rich ones, according to the same survey by the UN and World Bank. Cash-strapped governments are more worried about boosting their already overstretched health systems.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist)