On World Education Day, let's make girls' schooling our priority

CONCERN: COVID-19 has worsened systemic disadvantage for girls in already vulnerable countries. Picture: Shutterstock
CONCERN: COVID-19 has worsened systemic disadvantage for girls in already vulnerable countries. Picture: Shutterstock

As Australia emerges from the worst impacts of COVID-19, it is easy to forget that in many parts of the world it is still unfolding in devastating fashion.

January 24 was World Education Day, a timely moment to remember that the impacts of the global pandemic have set back progress on children's education worldwide - especially girls' education - perhaps by more than a whole generation.

This is not to underestimate the impacts of the pandemic at home, particularly amongst the elderly, young people and women who were all disproportionately impacted in what was a difficult and traumatic year for many people.

However, the reality is that Australia remains one of the richest countries in the world and will likely emerge less damaged than most parts of the world.

In many other places, even before the pandemic hit it was clear that girls continued to be systematically disadvantaged due to their youth and gender, facing poverty, gender-based violence, child, early and forced marriage and fewer opportunities to complete their education.

It is clear that COVID-19 has deepened that systemic disadvantage.

A recent Gates Foundation report found that 25 years of progress has been lost since COVID hit - that is a devastating blow to girls globally.

Gerry Hueston

Gerry Hueston

In 2020, the scale of global school closures was unprecedented.

It is estimated that up to 20 million secondary school-aged girls were pushed out of school as a result of the pandemic.

However, despite this and other significant impacts the pandemic has had on vulnerable communities around the world, Australia's aid budget remains on a downward trajectory, falling to just over $4 billion for 2019-20.

That means Australia is spending around 20 cents in foreign aid for every $100 the nation earns, which is a historic low.

It is also down from a peak of 33 cents in 2013-14.

Australia, through its international development program, has championed the rights of women and girls.

However, the hard fought-for progress on gender equality in the region is rapidly unravelling as child marriage rates increse and girls struggle to return to school.

Now is the time for Australia to redouble its efforts.

One way the federal government could make a tangible impact is by increasing our investment in the Global Partnership for Education, a fund that has committed to prioritising girls' education in the pandemic response.

Australia's investment in the Global Partnership is at its lowest level in many years, and this year's budget is an opportunity to rebuild the road to gender equality for girls and women.

In these times when parochial nationalism has been on the rise and governments have and continue to focus on issues at home, civil society will increasingly need to step in to fill the gap to try and ensure that low-income countries can catch back up and progress can continue.

Education is the key to unlocking a better, more equal world.

It's a master key that can open multiple doors - allowing anyone to choose a life they want to lead. But it doesn't just lead you down one path, education provides multiple choices for anyone to realise their full potential.

Since I first got involved in Plan International Australia some eight years ago, I have been humbled by the work of our staff and partners around the world.

Today, their work is even more astounding. The reality, however, is that as this work has rarely been more difficult, nor the need greater.

Plan International Australia will remain focused on tackling the challenges to girls' education presented by COVID-19, in particular focusing on how the global pandemic can worsen existing inequalities facing girls and children.

However, we cannot do this work alone. The Australian government and like-minded nations need to work together to ensure that gains for girls' education are not just one more COVID casualty.

Gerry Hueston is chairman of Plan International Australia.

This story On World Education Day, let's make girls' schooling our priority first appeared on The Canberra Times.