The human rights of school-aged girls in Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic: what makes school closure an issue beyond learning?

By Izabela Souza

[5 min read]

As of November 17, 2020, Brazil has had almost 7 million coronavirus cases, being the third in the World Health Organization’s global confirmed cases dashboard. Following the World Health Organization recommendations, governments worldwide have closed schools, and it was not different in Brazil. Online learning, classes through the radio, and many more innovative teaching and learning methods have emerged during these ten months of the pandemic in one of the world’s most important economies. But was it enough to make up for school closure?

The guidance of the World Health Organization and the increase in the cases of coronavirus have led several countries to maintain schools closed, impacting, according to UNICEF, 320 million classrooms across the world. Still, it can be worse for school-aged girls. Scholars, International Organizations, and local Nongovernmental Organizations have alerted the international community to how school closure and the pandemic’s impacts on girls can increase the number of dropouts and yield other alarming aspects such as food insecurity and health and security concerns that are tied to what schools provide to learners in order to guarantee a safe and adequate space for learning. Schools, for many children, are a safety net.

These implications are based on evidence* found by scholars and international organizations when analyzing the current situation of the pandemic and also the impacts of a previous epidemic, the Ebola, in Africa, that lasted until 2016, which shows an increase in the number of girls engaged in unpaid care work, pregnancy, and dropouts. This situation makes visible the risks for school-aged girls and the possibilities of the violation of their human rights. Human rights are a collection of civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and group rights to which all individuals are entitled. In Brazil, human rights are incorporated into its Constitution, as the country ratified international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Brazil also enacted the Child and Adolescent Statute in 1990, which determines the state’s responsibility to protect all children from exploitation and discrimination and guarantee their right to dignity in different environments, including schools and with their families.

But what puts school-aged girls in this situation? To begin with, poverty and inequity. For many children in Brazil, the only opportunity to have daily meals is at school, as every basic education student enrolled in public schools has access to nutritional and balanced meals through PNAE, the National School Feeding Program. With school closure and the impact of the lockdown and social distancing measures in the economy, vulnerable girls are more at risk of being involved in child labor and sexual exploitation to support their families economically. Besides, being out of school can increase the number of girls forced into early marriages, as usually, after the wedding, they leave their parents’ home to live with their husbands. Another lesson learned from the Ebola epidemic is that parents tend to rethink sending girls back to school after a long time of school closure, especially in regions where girls’ education is not a priority or essential. According to scholars and international organizations, this is a known cause for high dropout rates, along with unpaid care work and girls looking after younger siblings, a gendered issue in Brazilian patriarchal society’s roots. 

The Campanha Nacional pelo Direito à Educação (National Campaign for the Right to Education), in a document sent to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, stated that most victims of sexual violence are school-aged girls and that the violations usually occur inside their houses. Therefore, school closure becomes an aggravation for the risks this specific group faces – children are closer to aggressors and cannot report their situation with the school community. Another danger to them is, according to Interpol, that children under others’ care or uncared during the coronavirus pandemic are easy targets for abuse. Since they do not have schools to attend anymore, they become more vulnerable and exposed to these multiple scenarios. Menstrual hygiene, sex education, and psychosocial care were also concerns that schools previously addressed, which left a gap in these past ten months.

In practice, the federal government, through direct payments as a relief response to the pandemic, supported many vulnerable families in the country. Funds from PNAE were also used to ensure nutrition during remote learning, but both measures did not reach all. Problems with the government’s digital platform’s registration process, inaccuracies in individual data in the government database are some of the issues that prevented many vulnerable families from accessing these direct payments. Although the government’s goal for PNAE was to distribute food for the families of public school students in basic education, there is no government agency to monitor how the money is being used and if food is indeed being delivered. Economic losses and food insecurity continue to hit a significant proportion of Brazilian families and prevent girls from having a safe and appropriate space for learning, exposing them to risks that have not been addressed yet.

The document handed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by the National Campaign for the Right to Education contains recommendations for the federal government, which are linked to all children’s rights that are part of Brazil’s Constitution since the country ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. After ten months of a pandemic that seems far from ending, the actions are few, while the problems are many. If issues that are open in the air and affect children, in general, are not addressed, what can we expect as a solution for the gendered dangers school-aged girls have been going through due to school closure? We see theaters open, but schools and the lives that most need them functioning are far from the joy we see on big screens.

*UNICEF, UNESCO, UNDP, the Center for Global Development, Sheila Ramaswamy and Shekhar Seshadr, and José Newton Garcia de Araújo are a few of the names that approached the Ebola crisis while working on the impacts of COVID-19 and school closure in children/school-aged girls.

Izabela Souza is a Master’s candidate in the International Educational Development program at the Teacher’s College | Columbia University. From São Paulo, Brazil, Izabela has acted in different roles and countries in the Education field, and currently focuses on Peace and Human Rights Education and Conflict Resolution both as a practitioner and as a scholar.