Girls Are Quitting School to Work in Virus-Battered Rural Asia

Girls Are Quitting School to Work in Virus-Battered Rural Asia

  • School gender parity in countries like Cambodia risks setback
  •  Extra year of secondary school can boost earnings by up to 20%

One of the first cutbacks that many poor families consider during tough financial times is education for their daughters. During the pandemic with in-class learning shuttered, some girls in rural areas of Asia countries are being pushed to drop out.

Lina, an 11th-grade student in Cambodia who dreamed of obtaining an accounting degree, is among them. Her parents want her to leave school and find work to help the family pay down its debt. Lina’s story was shared with Bloomberg by Room to Read, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy and gender equality in developing countries. The group changed her name to shield her identity.

To determine the impact of the virus outbreak on girls’ education, Room to Read conducted a survey of 28,000 girls in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Vietnam. It found that 42% of girls surveyed reported a decline in their family’s income during the Covid-19 pandemic and that one in two girls surveyed was at risk of dropping out.

“When families can’t afford school and have to choose, they will often send boys,” said John Wood, founder of Room to Read. Financial hardships and cultural stereotypes about gender roles play a major part in keeping girls in less-developed countries from completing their education, he said.

Although the full scope of the problem isn’t yet clear because many schools remain closed for in-person classes, groups that promote girls’ education including the World Bank and the United Nations’ agency UNICEF are closely monitoring the situation worldwide.

“More disadvantaged families are going to have particular struggles because of the economic impact. This will make it particularly difficult for them to send their children to school,” said Toby Linden, the World Bank’s education practice manager for East Asia and Pacific. “One of the lessons from the pandemic is the important role the families have in supporting their children’s education.”

The pandemic has decimated jobs and reduced household income, threatening to drag as many as 100 million people into extreme poverty. As many as 20 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school globally, according to the Malala Fund, a non-profit organization that promotes girls’ education. In the Asia Pacific region, that would add to the 35 million girls and boys already not in school.

This is expected to exacerbate the education deficit for girls in poorer countries, where the rate of female secondary school enrollment was low before the pandemic. It risks setting back years of progress for girls’ education and gender equality in some of the world’s poorest nations.