Covid-19 could scupper global drive to educate girls

Minister for overseas aid Colm Brophy says pandemic could see girls as young as 12 forced into early marriages as funds for schooling dry up

Colm Brophy: ‘If a family has become poorer, there is a real risk that the person who will lose out will be a young girl’

Increasing numbers of young girls in sub-Saharan Africa are at risk of being forced into marriages at as young as 12 years of age due to the economic pressures unleashed by Covid-19, government minister Colm Brophy has warned.

Irish Aid, the government’s overseas development programme, has placed an emphasis in recent years on boosting girls’ participation in education, helping to fund a series of international programmes to improve learning opportunities for marginalised and vulnerable children.

Ireland has committed €250 million to global education by 2024, with much of this money going towards programmes aimed at boosting girls’ education in countries such as Zambia, Malawi, Uganda and Sierra Leone.

It pledged a further €6 million last year to Education Cannot Wait, a global fund hosted by Unicef which provides education in crisis settings such as refugee camps.

More than 130 million school-age girls are estimated not to be in education worldwide, with girls two and half times more likely to be out of school than boys. In the Sahel region of Africa, girls on average complete only four years of education.

Brophy, the Minister of State for Overseas Development Aid and Diaspora, said the economic pressures on families caused by the Covid-19 pandemic meant that girls in particular are in danger of being pulled out of education.

“In poorer societies in sub-Saharan Africa and in countries which we would work with, all the research shows that education primarily goes to boys over girls,” he said.

“So if a family has become poorer due to the pandemic and has less access to work, then there is a real risk that the person who will lose out will be a young girl whose education will be cut short because she will either to be sent out to work or she’ll be forced into an early marriage.”

Girls as young as 12 can be forced into marriages, he said. “When you have a situation where education ends, then the pressure comes very quickly on young women who are still girls, they’re children, and they are forced into marriages.”

The government is examining how it can invest extra money to address the issue.

Brophy’s comments come in the same month that the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a global think tank, once again ranked Ireland as the number one donor for delivering what it terms “principled aid”.

ODI’s annual index examines how 29 donor countries spend their foreign aid to pursue their long-term strategic interests. Ireland has ranked number one since the index began in 2013.

Brophy said Ireland’s top ranking was a considerable source of satisfaction as it showed the country’s overseas aid was being spent in the right way.

“We’re not a huge country like the United States or China,” he said. “We are a small country but we are now a small wealthy country, and it is really important that we use the money we have in a targeted way to deliver the most benefit. Through the work we’ve done on gender, I think we’ve really done something we can be proud of.”

Ireland’s overseas aid budget increased by €30 million in the recent budget which will see it reach €868 million next year.

Although this represents 0.32 per cent of Ireland’s Gross National Income (GNI), it remains well short of the aim in the programme for the government of reaching the United Nations’ target of 0.7 per cent of GNI by 2030.

Brophy said he believed Ireland could realistically reach the UN target but cautioned that the economic challenges the country was facing would have to be borne in mind.

“I think what’s important is we’ve given a commitment in the current economic situation, in the next few years from when the government was formed, not to see a reduction in our development aid. And I think we’ll look at it on a year-by-year basis depending on economic circumstances.”

Last year, Ireland made 33 deployments of humanitarian experts from its Rapid Response Corps to support UN crisis operations in 16 countries, including Bangladesh, Cameroon, Colombia, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Palestine, South Sudan, Venezuela, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The experts tend to be in areas such as engineering, construction, sanitation and other professions which are vital for helping in the aftermath of a disaster.

“It’s the exact opposite to the hero in a cape sort of thing. This is the quiet unsung hero who works away ,quietly delivering,” Brophy said.

“But you know, bridges don’t get rebuilt after a disaster and roads don’t get reconstructed to allow access for food convoys without having people on the ground who have the necessary engineering skills to deliver that.”

Ireland also deployed five consignments of emergency relief supplies from its stockpiles around the world last year, providing 261 metric tonnes of supplies such as emergency shelter, cooking and hygiene supplies to more than 30,000 households displaced by natural disasters, conflict and violence in Nigeria, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso.

Irish Aid recently established a new unit to put climate change at the centre of all its decision making processes.

“We’ve put dealing with climate change issues at the heart of development aid. They shouldn’t be separate, they should be linked, because in the real world, they’re completely linked,” Brophy said. “Everything is being climate proofed.”