“Uncertain about your fall semester?
So are these girls–but for a different reason.”
by Samantha Maroshick
If your friend group is anything like mine, you have probably found your conversations constantly circling back to one thing–your fall semester. I am positive that when we are older and have a better perspective on these times, these concerns will seem silly–but to a 19-year-old rising college sophomore like me, watching my country, city, and family face this seemingly endless period of uncertainty and tension makes me yearn for the security blanket of my dorm room. What I would give for the normalcy of having my friends just a few steps–rather than a Zoom link–away.
The end of the 2019-2020 school year saw American education change drastically, with most colleges and K-12 schools shifting to online formats. Students who previously lived on college campuses often balanced household responsibilities and jobs along with their now online schoolwork. Parents and educators adjusted to working at home while oftentimes playing a larger role in their own children’s education. Inconsistent internet and technology access was a frequent frustration for many. This pandemic forced the American education system to rapidly adapt to vastly different learning environments–and this is on top of stressors families may be facing with losing loved ones to the virus, losing jobs, or working tirelessly as essential workers.
Yet, as much as America is struggling to reconfigure its education system for all of its students, already-marginalized female students in developing countries may not be able to recover from these setbacks. These girls are facing the same problems as American students, coupled with ones specifically facing the developing world. Girls in developing countries are also facing situations like child marriage, child labor, gender-based violence, and female genital mutilation while at home, and these things can prevent girls from returning to school. Furthermore, COVID-19 has disrupted national exam schedules that girls rely on to be able to attend secondary school, and girls may be forced to drop out to support their household incomes–a pattern seen after other crises like the 2014-15 Ebola pandemic and the 2008 financial crash.
Girls Education Collaborative (GEC), a nonprofit based out of Buffalo, New York, is just one of the organizations working to combat gender inequities with quality education in developing countries. Through its partnership with the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa, GEC fulfills this mission by supporting the Sisters’ Kitenga School for Girls in rural Tanzania. In the Mara region where the Kitenga school is located, most income earned by families is tied to subsistence farming. If girls in this region are not provided with a consistent and realistic option to continue their schooling, many may simply switch to helping their families farm full time. While my classmates and I yearn to go back to school in the fall for the sake of educational normalcy and interaction with each other, if girls don’t go back to school in Tanzania, or in Kenya, or in any developing country, what will their alternative be? Will they ever be able to return to school? Will this pandemic change the course of their entire future?
GEC’s collaboration is ultimately focused on providing an academic education to Kitenga’s students, where the very act of being in school opens an incredible amount of doors for them–as does education for all marginalized girls. Every year that these young women stay in school is another year that their families do not barter them into child marriage for cattle (a prevalent practice in places including Tanzania), or work full-time as child laborers. Additionally, education can decrease early pregnancy rates and provide young women with the confidence to pursue more equal relationships. At school, girls focus on building friendships with peers who also have big dreams, working with teachers who can help them to find their passions, and navigating the challenges of adolescence in a supportive environment that sees their value. However, with COVID-19, these connections are threatened–and roughly 10 million girls are expected to not return to school (1).
With these uncertainties in mind, schools worldwide have been scrambling to put together fall plans. Many American K-12 schools have been struggling to make concrete decisions. Colleges, as well, have slowly been making decisions. Some, like Notre Dame University, have decided to start and end the fall semester early, with frequent testing of students on campus and limited group functions. Stanford took this a step further by using a four-quarter system to accommodate a roughly 50% on-campus capacity model. Others, like UMass Boston, have decided to remain completely online–decisions often tied to having large commuter populations, widespread use of public transport, or an inability to logistically house students safely off-campus. In the developing world, similar adjustments need to be made, but with the added challenge of an oftentimes more limited resource supply to fulfill the social distancing, testing, and overall safety measures that would make returning to in-person learning safe again. The Kitenga School, for example, plans to increase food security measures for its students, improve road access, and create an infirmary on-campus, among other measures.
No matter the location, schools are finding it extremely difficult to develop the “correct” plan for reopening–if there even is one. By relying on remote learning, schools may be providing a safer education, but run the risk of impairing students’ learning experiences and equally beneficial social opportunities (plus leading to potentially life-long consequences for some female students). By resuming in-person learning, schools can regain normalcy and these aforementioned benefits, but risk exposing more people to the virus. How can schools in developing countries choose between remote and in-person learning if either could compromise the lives of their female students? Furthermore, what happens when schools don’t have these options? Many students don’t have consistent WiFi and electricity access–so for them, virtual learning isn’t a realistic possibility. Girls may also re-prioritize their time, owing more focus to caring for siblings, working to support family income, etc, and less focus on schooling (both in-person and remote). As students everywhere restructure the way they learn, it is the most marginalized students that continue to face the greatest threats.
Through my own education, I have learned as much about myself as my academic interests. The independence, connections, and community I have found are invaluable, and being surrounded by resources and peers that push me to proactively pursue my goals rather than simply dream about them has made a world of difference in my life. But these experiences are not unique to me. If young women like me can learn this much about ourselves and life in one school year, what more could we learn in two years? Three? Furthermore, if girls in Kitenga and beyond continue to have these experiences, could they become the next leaders, entrepreneurs, and role models for their communities? Could educating this generation of girls turn the tides of education towards a more equitable landscape for female empowerment?
About the Author:
Samantha Maroshick is a rising sophomore studying Sociology at Harvard University. She is passionate about girls education, and hopes to eventually work with global development! Instagram: @samantha_maroshick