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The COVID-19 threat to Generation Equality: Harnessing data insights to protect the most vulnerable girls

2020 will be remembered in the history books as the year of coronavirus. However, before COVID-19 eclipsed virtually every other policy issue, 2020 was supposed to be the year of the girl, celebrating the 25th anniversary since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action to deliver gender equality – and the progress made so far. Instead, the current pandemic risks turning 2020 into a debacle for progress in women and girls’ wellbeing.

Projections are piling up that the current pandemic will reverse progress in development across the board, from child poverty to infant mortality to malnutrition. This applies to gender equality as well, especially since women and girls, for a variety of reasons, often bear the greatest brunt of crises. On the one hand, they experience structural vulnerabilities (eg, weaker safety nets to protect them from economic shocks). On the other hand, they face specific challenges – such as gender-based violence (GBV), child marriage, and teenage pregnancy. All these are proven to rise during and in the aftermath of pandemics – notably, fearful spikes in GBV have prompted the UN Secretary-General to call for a domestic violence ‘ceasefire.’ UNFPA projections estimate that the pandemic could lead to an extra 2 million cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) and 13 million more child marriages over the next decade, while 6 months of lockdown could lead to an additional 7 million unintended pregnancies.

As previous crises teach us, this will have particularly egregious consequences for the furthest-behind children, living in some of the world’s poorest countries already struggling to make progress in less adverse circumstances. Monitoring progress of the most deprived children has always been important. Now, at a time when targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goals’ Agenda 2030 risk drifting irrevocably out of reach for the most marginalised girls, monitoring their outcomes is more vital than ever.

GRID, Save the Children’s Child Inequality Tracker does just that. By pooling together data from more than 400 household surveys for more than 100 low- and middle-income countries, GRID monitors progress in key child wellbeing outcomes across health and nutrition, education, and child protection. Furthermore, by disaggregating data by wealth, gender and location, GRID exposes inequalities among child groups, providing insights for the formulation of targeted policies and programmes. Recent additions to the tracker, including maps and interactive graphs, paint a stark and compelling picture of the depth and impact of inequalities.

Take child marriage. As GRID’s global map shows (Figure 1 below), even before the pandemic, only a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa were achieving inclusive progress (in other words, making progress as a whole while at the same time as reducing child inequalities). External shocks can easily shatter such fragile progress: for example, during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, a positive correlation existed between the severity of the outbreak in a county and the prevalence of child marriage.

Figure 1. Inequalities among different children’s groups are not narrowing in most sub-Saharan African countries (as displayed on the GRID child inequality tracker)

Adolescent pregnancy is another pertinent example. We know that girls who are out of school are twice as likely to be pregnant, so it is reasonable to expect that prolonged school closures – like the current one, keeping 1.5 billion children out of their classroom – will have a detrimental impact on girls. During the Ebola outbreak, teenage pregnancies increased by 65% in some areas of Sierra Leone.

Some girls are even more at risk than others. For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 20% of urban girls experience teenage pregnancy compared with 33% of girls in rural settings. And if we compound more than one layer of disadvantage (or advantage), inequality rises even more: the teenage pregnancy rate for the richest urban girls falls to 15%, whereas it jumps to 44% for the poorest girls living in the countryside (Figure 2). Not even wealth is enough to counterbalance the disadvantage of living in remote areas: the poorest girls in cities still fare better than their richer peers in the countryside. A public health emergency could exacerbate existing gaps, pushing the most deprived girls further behind.

While bad enough per se, a heightened risk of teenage pregnancy has wider negative repercussions. For one, it could boost drop-out rates post-crisis: after the Ebola outbreak, the government of Sierra Leone forbade pregnant girls to return to school, a ban that was lifted only in March this year. Second, it would increase maternal mortality, as pregnancy- and childbirth-related complications are the number one cause of death for girls age 15–19 globally.

Figure 2. The poorest urban girls are three times more likely to become pregnant than their urban, rich counterparts

Paired with thematic knowledge, GRID datapoints offer valuable insights on sub-national inequalities to inform programmatic interventions and recovery responses. For example, we know that, during the Ebola outbreak, child marriage was more likely and adolescent girls’ school enrolment rate dropped by one-third in the worst-affected areas of Liberia and Sierra Leone. At the same time, research by Save the Children shows that being in school offers a strong protection against child marriage.

In light of this, the two maps of Côte d’Ivoire below (Figure 3) suggest that, in the event of an epidemic, girls in the north-west of the country are particularly vulnerable. the crisis would aggravate the already high prevalence of child marriage and low rates of primary school completion. This would set girls in that region further behind the rest of the country, jeopardising overall progress and violating the pledge underpinning the Sustainable Development Goals to Leave No One Behind.

Fig 3. Girls in the north-west of Côte d’Ivoire face a higher risk of teenage pregnancy and of not completing primary school

It would be a vicious irony if 2020 turned from a year of celebration of women’s and girls’ rights into the year when not only progress towards gender equality comes to a halt, but hard-won gains are reversed. Save the Children’s Agenda for Action outlines what is needed globally to #ProtectAGeneration from the catastrophic impacts of COVID-19. GRID’s insights can give a meaningful contribution to future recovery efforts, ensuring that the response is firmly rooted in a sound evidence base, reaches the most deprived children, and addresses inequalities that have significant and long-lasting impact on children’s lives.

 

The latest version of the GRID child inequality tracker includes new and updated tools to power the equity angle between and within countries.

All data in the GRID child inequality tracker is publicly available, free to use, and presented in accessible infographics.

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Chiara Orlassino

Chiara Orlassino

Chiara Orlassino