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MoS Cannon, Building Back Better - Virtual Meeting on Education for Adolescent Girls After COVID-19

Fellow Girls’ Education Champions,

Thank you for your participation today in this inspiring exploration of how we might Build Girls’ Education back better after COVID-19. I want particularly to thank each contributor for their rich involvement in our discussion and, also, for championing the case of Girls’ Education.

My life’s journey, from son of a subsistence farmer married to a teacher to becoming a Minister for Education myself, has given me a deep appreciation of the power of education in unlocking the potential of individuals and societies. I was part of the first generation to benefit from universal access to free secondary schooling in Ireland. My son and his friends, collectively, have the highest level of third level attainment in Europe.

As we in Ireland educated ourselves our country was transformed. Transformed economically. Transformed socially. Ireland today is a much better place to be a woman than the Ireland of my childhood.

That’s why I listened when Executive Director Phumzile spoke of the importance of education for adolescent girls as a driving force for gender equality. It echoed my own experience - barriers to girls’ education are also barriers to gender equality.

In this 25th Anniversary Year of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, let us commit to building momentum behind adolescent girls’ education as the catalyst to delivering on the Beijing commitments.

Earlier this year, Ireland along with our valued partners the Global Partnership for Education, UN Women, the Malala Fund, and ONE, launched the Call for Action for the Education of Adolescent Girls – the Drive for Five. Just three months on, that call to action is urgent today more than ever.

We have heard today evidence from previous public health outbreaks showing that school closures exacerbate existing inequalities, including gender inequalities, within education. This is even more so in low-income settings. The consequences of COVID-19 for marginalised adolescent girls will last long beyond temporary school closures.

We need to tackle barriers to girls’ education. This requires us to be advocates for change and for new ways for working. But not just advocates - we need to work effectively together to strengthen and equip needed systemic responses if we are to achieve gender equality in and through education.

Today’s clear commitments and recommendations, based on lessons learned and past experience of what works, offer important solutions to the unique challenges facing education for adolescent girls worldwide. Thank you for sharing your insights and wisdom.

Some of the key messages we have heard today include:

On Continuity of Education: Action is needed to ensure adolescent girls continue in education. We can design and deliver gender sensitive distance education approaches which respond to their needs and circumstances, including the particular challenges faced by vulnerable girls. This will involve technology but also communities - we must work with girls, women, families, schools and communities to build cultures of education and to maintain essential services associated with school – including, for example, school feeding, sanitary supplies, psychological support. Maintaining supportive social networks for vulnerable girls and integrating life skills and social and emotional learning into distance learning is critical.

On Returning to School: Deliberate and targeted actions are required to make sure the most marginalised girls return to school after COVID-19. This requires the establishment of clear timelines for the reopening of schools and engagement with communities in advance. No polices or practices should be in place that would deter girls from re-enrolling. Flexible learning approaches will help students catch-up on what they missed, while clever use of social cash transfers and other targeted supports can help reduce the risk of girls dropping out of school permanently.

On Building Back Better: To build back better, we need to create resilient education systems. We must strengthen monitoring, evaluation, and documentation of education responses so that we are learning what does and doesn’t work. This work should have a particular focus on the most marginalised and on girls in particular. This will help us learn lessons in advance of a future epidemic or other crisis that disrupts education.

We should also look at how we can leverage the education responses to the virus to build more inclusive and equitable education systems. For example, how might the distance education tools be used or adapted to enable provide flexible access to education and learning for those permanently out of school. I am conscious too that adolescent girls are often pressurised to prioritise domestic and care duties rather than studying. Many countries have made great use of online platforms to continue the connection between teachers and students; can we expand access to technology and connectivity so that disadvantaged students in remote locations can access quality teaching and interactive learning?

However, the COVID crisis has also put a spotlight on the digital divide both within and between countries, and on the gender digital divide. In very many countries the lack of ICT infrastructure, erratic electricity supplies and low computer ownership are huge limiting factors. In households where digital resources exist girls may not have access or sufficient digital skills. That is why other forms of remote learning, including learning by radio, continue to be important.

As we build for the future, we need to address the digital divide, increasing access to digital resources for all children and increasing digital literacy. Initiatives such as Africa Code Week, which Irish Aid is proud to support, or Girls Code Week are excellent ways of introducing digital skills to girls. These need to be backed by a scaling up of gender-responsive ICT and STEM education in national curricula – and ways must be found of supporting the teachers that take the lead.

We need to ensure that the voices of adolescent girls are heard at every step of the path to building back better.

As a Political Champion for Education in Emergencies and a Champion for Generation Unlimited, I was particularly happy to hear from Mariam in Nigeria, who is a Malala Fund Youth Activist. Mariam’s words leave us in no doubt about the impact that school closures are having on the lives of girls’ around the world. I was also delighted to hear Mariam speak on how to best support education for adolescent girls in responding to and recovering from COVID-19.

Thank you, Mariam. It is vital that the voices of girls like you are heard, the voices of today and of tomorrow, the voices of a new generation, a generation of equality.

We have all become familiar with the term ‘reproductive number’ in relation to the Coronavirus with all our efforts focused on reducing it below one. Girls’ education also has a ‘reproductive number’ but one that is much more positive. Every girl who receives a quality education and is given the opportunity to reach her full potential has a positive impact on the lives of many, many more people.

The global community made bold and ambitious commitments in Beijing twenty-five years ago and in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda in 2015. Girls’ education is the catalyst that can deliver on those global commitments for advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment, building peace and security, and achieving the sustainable development goals.

So in the midst of this global pandemic and indeed because of it, we need to continue to Call to Action for the Education of Adolescent Girls.

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