The pandemic risks creating a lost generation of girls unless the world steps up its efforts to support their schooling, a UK government minister said.
James Cleverly was speaking ahead of a summit being hosted by Britain and Kenya this week, a which officials hope to raise billions of dollars for education.
Mr Cleverly, minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said progress on educating girls was in danger of being undone by the fallout from Covid-19.
More than 1.6 billion children around the world had their schooling disrupted at the height of the crisis and there are concerns that some girls will never go back to school once the pandemic eases.
Other barriers to girls’ education, such as child marriage and human trafficking, were compounded by the public health crisis, Mr Cleverly said.
Charities say the risk of child marriage and unwanted pregnancy is on the rise as girls struggle to access health care during the pandemic.
“Even before the pandemic, we were facing a global education crisis,” Mr Cleverly said. “Now, with the impact of Covid-19 and its knock-on effect on learning, we are at a critical juncture.
“We know that girls have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. We risk having a lost generation of girls. And the UK is determined not to let this happen.”
Schooling for girls is considered a top priority of the UK’s presidency of the G7 this year.
The UN Human Rights Council recently adopted a UK-UAE initiative which calls on governments to remove barriers to schooling.
But critics say Britain is undermining its pledges by cutting its foreign aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of national income.
Former prime minister Theresa May said during a debate on the foreign aid cut that the reduction would lead to fewer girls being educated.
The government says it will still spend 400 million ($551m) on girls’ education over the next 12 months.
The two-day summit starting on Wednesday is part of a wider global push to raise $5 billion for children in 90 disadvantaged countries.
UK officials hope that $4bn of the target can be raised during or shortly after this week's summit, government sources said.
Pakistani education campaigner Malala Yousafzai — who has criticised the UK’s aid cuts — will be among the speakers at the summit.
Helen Grant, Mr Johnson’s special envoy for girls’ education, said investing in it could help to tackle wider crises such as poverty and climate change.
“If we want to change the world for the better, girls’ education is definitely the best place to start,” she said.
Mr Cleverly promised to use the UK’s diplomatic clout to push for global action but said donors such as the World Bank needed to “play their part” along with governments and private philanthropists.
He said funds raised at the summit could give new opportunities to 175 million children.
“We need to see other donor countries dig deep, in fact deeper than ever before,” he said. “Developing countries need to prioritise education spending in their national budgets, and work towards full access for every child.”