Africa Defense Forum
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COVID-19 Set Back South African Girls’ Education

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From early childhood development to primary and secondary education, the impact of COVID-19 on the basic education system will be felt for years to come.

In South Africa, the pandemic has reversed 20 years of gains made by the Department of Basic Education (DBE), which said a year’s worth of learning has been lost.

Girls in particular were hit hard by school closures.

One recent study involved 565 girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24.

“More than half of the young women who had been enrolled in education were not able to continue with their studies,” Zoe Duby, lead author of the study, wrote in a recent article for The Conversation Africa. “Reasons for this included lacking cellphones or reliable internet access, and households struggling with food insecurity.

“The girls who were most likely to experience educational disruption were those in the poorest families.”

Tens of thousands of South African girls did not return when schools reopened.

Home to more than 15 million people, the Gauteng province has seen 60% more teen pregnancies since the start of the pandemic.

The United Nations estimates that 23% of girls on the continent are not in primary school, compared to 19% of boys. World Bank data shows that almost four in 10 girls marry before turning 18.

School closures also have left girls susceptible to sexual violence from family, neighbors and community members.

A 2021 study showed school dropouts in South Africa tripled from about 230,000 before the pandemic to approximately 750,000.

UNICEF attributed the increase to the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 on families, saying children living in rural and informal urban settings were most affected, with household poverty playing a key role.

“When children are not able to interact with their teachers and their peers directly, their learning suffers,” UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said in a May 2022 statement. “When they are not able to interact with their teachers and peers at all, their learning loss may become permanent.

“This rising inequality in access to learning means that education risks becoming the greatest divider, not the greatest equalizer. When the world fails to educate its children, we all suffer.”

Duby, a sociobehavioral public health researcher with the South African Medical Research Council, said some participants in her 2022 study showed educational resilience.

“It wasn’t all doom and gloom,” she wrote. “There were some rays of light in young women’s stories.

“Some girls spoke of how they had found ways to cope, and with resourcefulness and creativity, had remained motivated and focused. This helped them to reduce disruptions to their education.”

Martin Gustafsson, a researcher with the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University who also advises the DBE, is looking for answers in the results of the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy study, which assesses the reading ability of children worldwide and will be released at the end of 2022.

“This is going to be very important to understand the impact of the pandemic,” he said in a presentation during the Early Grade Reading Studies Indaba (meeting) on June 9. “I think if our results are the same as they were back in 2016, we should be pretty happy.

“Almost certainly, we’re not going to see [South Africa’s education] improvement trajectory continue, because of the pandemic.”

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