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Council on Foreign Relations

This piece was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations and authored by Anne-Marie Grey, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of USA for UNHCR, and Sherrie Westin, President of Global Impact and Philanthropy at the Sesame Workshop and Concordia Senior Advisor. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest education emergency in history, impacting nearly 1.6 billion learners worldwide. While this disruption will have far-reaching effects for all, we know the consequences will be most severe for those who were already most disadvantaged, especially girls in humanitarian crises and conflicts.

Even before the pandemic, more than 130 million girls – particularly adolescents – were out of school due to poverty, conflict and fragility, and cultural discrimination. The largest gender gaps in access to education are in low-income countries and humanitarian settings, where girls are almost two and a half times more likely to be out of school than their counterparts in countries not affected by crisis or conflict.

Refugee girls often face particularly challenging barriers to education, including lack of safe transport, inability to afford school fees, harmful gender norms, and heavy burdens of domestic duties such as collecting water or caring for younger siblings. And this is a vicious cycle. Particularly as they get older, refugee girls who are out of school also face increased marginalization and risk of violence, sexual exploitation, and early marriage and pregnancy.  

Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis has compounded these already very high barriers to girls’ education, increasing the likelihood of marginalized girls dropping out of school altogether following pandemic-related school closures. The Malala Fund estimates that approximately 20 million secondary school-aged girls may never return to the classroom after the pandemic if dropouts increase at the same rate as in the aftermath of the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak. 


Ensuring Continuity of Education amid COVID-19: Innovations in Remote Learning  

During this period of disruption, educators around the world, along with partners like UNHCR and Sesame Workshop, are working tirelessly to maintain continuity of education for all refugee children and youth, with equal opportunities for girls and boys. Now, more than ever, we see the power of digital and broadcast platforms to expand the reach of education beyond classrooms and promote learning at home.   

In the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, for example, where more than 67,000 primary- and secondary-level students are receiving a certified Kenyan education, educators like Somali refugee teacher Amina Hasan have taken to radio airwaves to broadcast their lessons on a community station called Radio Gargaar (“Help” in Somali) with support from UNHCR.  

In the Middle East, Sesame Workshop and our partner the International Rescue Committee developed a WhatsApp-based adaptation of our program called Ahlan Simsim (“Welcome Sesame” in Arabic) to reach young children and families affected by the Syrian refugee crisis with key COVID-19 awareness messages and resources to promote playful learning at home.  

While developing digital and broadcast remote learning solutions, we are also finding new ways to reach children in low-resource contexts where devices and connectivity are not readily available. For example, in areas of Uganda where internet connectivity is limited, UNHCR and partners are enabling access to an open-source learning platform called Kolibri. Once learning content has been installed on local hardware, it can be shared over an offline local network. A focus of this project has been providing preloaded tablets for secondary-level students who are studying for national exams.  

In the Rohingya refugee camps and host community in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Sesame Workshop is adapting our Play to Learn program in partnership with BRAC, IRC, and the LEGO Foundation to continue to reach families through weekly phone calls to offer caregivers practical support to facilitate play-based learning at home – as play is not only essential to young children’s physical and cognitive development, but is also a powerful way to build resilience and mitigate the impact of trauma.   

Finally, especially in times of crisis, USA for UNHCR and Sesame Workshop recognize the pivotal role of caregivers in fostering children’s learning and well-being, which led to our new partnership to provide research-based early learning materials to caregivers of young children across the Middle East. By supporting caregivers to enrich their children’s home learning environments – particularly when access to early childhood education services is disrupted, whether due to COVID-19 or future crises – we will help young girls and boys build a strong foundation for success in school and in life.


A Call for Collective Action to Educate and Empower Girls: Everyone Has a Role to Play  

In December 2019, at the first-ever Global Refugee Forum held in Geneva, there was a tremendous outpouring of solidarity for the world’s refugees and the countries that host them, along with collective recognition that “everyone has a role to play” in supporting refugees. Education emerged as a key priority as governments, international organizations, foundations, and private sector companies announced over 140 pledges to expand access to education at all levels for refugees and host communities. Today, across all sectors, we must redouble our efforts to overcome the damage wrought by the pandemic and fulfill our collective commitment to educate and empower the next generation – especially girls and young women.  

We applaud those governments that are integrating refugees into their national systems and services, and we encourage all refugee-hosting governments to ensure that policies and budgets are designed to include refugee education, while also benefitting host communities. Currently less than three percent of the global humanitarian aid budget is dedicated to education, and only a fraction of that is for early education, leaving a critical gap in learning opportunities for young girls and boys in their most formative years of life – this must change. It is also critical to ensure that refugee girls have equal access to education at all levels by working with refugee communities to boost enrollment of refugee girls in school.  

The private sector is often at the cutting edge of technology and can play a critical role in contributing this expertise to forge solutions, especially as we develop and test new approaches to remote education amid the COVID-19 crisis – an excellent example is Microsoft Philanthropy’s partnership with UNHCR in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.  

Thirdly, donors can also make a lasting difference in refugee education by investing in digital capacity and remote learning innovations to help create more open, inclusive, and accessible learning opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. There is a great opportunity to leverage the solutions we are developing during this crisis to expand access to learning for future generations. However, we must also commit to increasing connectivity and closing the digital divide, which is exacerbated for girls, as harmful gender norms and perceptions of risk to girls’ safety or reputation make parents reluctant to allow girls access to devices.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a devastating blow to the limited progress that has been made on gender equality in education in recent years – and progress lost takes years to regain. We must stem the tide immediately. Now is the time to step up for girls – especially the most vulnerable – to invest in finding new solutions and to leverage all that we are testing and learning during this crisis to ensure equal access to quality education for generations to come. These investments will not only empower individual girls to dream big and build a brighter future for themselves and their families, but they will pave the way toward more equitable, peaceful, and prosperous societies for all.