The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kids around the world are out of school. Millions of girls might not go back.

People stand outside a school in Conakry in 2015 as students resume classes after four months off because of Ebola. (Cellou Binani/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
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She was 13 when the Ebola virus struck her country, shuttering schools across Sierra Leone. The closures lasted nine months, but Mari Kalokoh could not return to the classroom for years.

“I felt like nobody,” she recalled of her time on the street, begging for food. Now a radio has replaced her teacher in the era of the coronavirus.

The previous epidemic in West Africa forced more girls than boys to halt their studies in the ensuing years, from 2014 to 2016, researchers say, dimming economic prospects for a generation of young women. Educators fear the coronavirus pandemic could trigger another wave of dropouts.

Global shutdowns have pushed about 1.5 billion students out of school since March, according to a United Nations Children’s Fund report citing data from UNESCO, including 111 million girls in the world’s least developed countries.

The disruptions are projected to end or seriously delay the education of 20 million secondary-school-age girls, according to an April report from the Malala Fund, which analyzed data from Sierra Leone’s Ebola crisis.

Girls in Nigeria and Liberia said in phone interviews that they are worried about falling behind or having to quit altogether, citing distractions at home and financial hits from the lockdowns.

Parents in more traditionally conservative nations tend to prioritize the education of their sons, experts say. In West and Central Africa, 73 percent of boys older than 15 can read, compared with 60 percent of girls in the same age group.

So when families lose income, they’re more likely to stretch the budget on schooling for boys, said Laila Gad, UNICEF’s representative in Liberia, a former Ebola hot spot.

Remote learning, she added, is especially burdensome for girls, who are frequently expected to shoulder more cooking, cleaning and babysitting. They’re also more vulnerable to sexual abuse, pregnancy and child marriage during unsupervised downtime.

“Schools are much more than a learning environment,” Gad said. “They provide a protective environment for girls.”

Before the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, 8 percent of girls did not attend grade school, according to the Malala Fund report. That share nearly tripled in the aftermath.

In Guinea, another hot spot, girls were 25 percent less likely than boys to re-enroll when life settled back to normal.

And in Sierra Leone, teen pregnancy jumped as much as 65 percent in some areas. School attendance fell by 16 percent among 4,800 teenage girls tracked in another study.

Kalokoh, who is now 18, didn’t plan to drop out during the Ebola crisis, but the closures removed a crucial structure from her days.

She passed the afternoons with her boyfriend and got pregnant. Her parents kicked her out of the house.

“They said, ‘You’re a big girl. Go find money for yourself,’ ” she said.

At the time, Sierra Leone banned expectant mothers from school. Kalokoh survived on scraps from strangers. She lost her baby in childbirth.

“Four years like that — I wasn’t doing anything,” she said. “Just walking up and down, up and down the street.”

Grief clouded everything. Then she found a charity that helped her enroll again. This lockdown, she’s learning English with the help of radio classes. Kalokoh aims to graduate in four years and eventually study law.

“I want to help other girls,” she said.

Eric Tahé, a grade school teacher in northern Ivory Coast, shares that mission.

When his classroom reopened last month, one of his students, a 14-year-old girl, returned pregnant. He visited her parents at home, urging them: Keep her in school.

“Most of the time with the girls, their parents think their place is at home — doing chores, getting ready for a family,” Tahé said. “We worried they’d use the pandemic as an excuse not to send girls back to school.”

During two months of lockdown this spring, the teachers met with moms and dads, explaining the importance of remote homework. Too many chores could throw their daughters off the academic track.

The campaign seemed to work.

“Seventy of seventy-four kids came back,” he said. Two boys and two girls are missing, he said, but only because their families moved to bigger cities.

Class has yet to resume in northeast Nigeria, where 14-year-old Halima Lado must sweep between lessons. It’s hard, she said, to juggle the responsibilities.

“I get distracted at home due to some house chores,” she said, “and I don’t get a better understanding. I get a better understanding in school.”

Halima wants to return as quickly as possible, she said, but the coronavirus is on the rise in her country, which had recorded more than 15,000 cases as of Saturday.

Even if classes start again soon, her parents might keep her at home.

“My family is afraid of me going back to school,” she said, “because of the spread of the disease.”

Money is a barrier for Rita Meateh, 16, who lives near the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

She has tried to sell water on the street every day since the country’s schools closed. The work used to cover the fees for her private school, but now it barely pays for her rice lunch. The pandemic has sabotaged it all, she said: her family’s income, her education, her sense of safety.

On a recent morning, a man posing as a customer grabbed her by the skirt and tried to pull her into a house. She broke away, screaming so everyone could hear, “Why are you doing this to me?”

“Men, guys, they come around me,” Rita said. “They tell me they will give me things. I try to avoid them. I don’t want to get pregnant. I want to focus on my education.”

Before the coronavirus, she was an honor-roll student, pouring hours into math, science and geography. She dreamed of becoming a civil engineer.

That vision collapsed when social distancing became law, the already struggling economy took another hit and even her most loyal buyers ran out of cash.

School is supposed to reopen this week, she said, but it doesn’t seem like an option anymore.

Rita works just to eat.

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited an April report from the Malala Fund that said disruptions could end or seriously delay the education of 10 million secondary-school-age girls. The correct figure is 20 million, according to a statement issued in July from the Malala Fund, which said the figure in its report was a miscalculation. This story has been updated.

Sabato Neufville in Monrovia, Liberia, contributed to this report.

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