Generation of girls could be lost because of Covid unless funding stepped up

UK envoy urges global community to raise its game to avoid ‘mammoth education crisis’

Helen Grant MP on a visit to a primary school on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria. Courtesy Office of Helen Grant

A lost generation of girls could be a legacy of the pandemic as a result of a funding crisis in education that is looming ahead of a summit for the world’s poorest countries in July.

Helen Grant, the UK's Special Envoy for Girls' Education, told The National a "mammoth education crisis" was on the horizon unless the global community steps up to support children's learning.

The envoy said there was already a learning crisis before the Covid-19 pandemic, but the spread of the virus has exacerbated it.

Furthermore, there was the real prospect of girls never returning to or starting school, she said, putting them at increased risk of violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Britain, Kenya and the Global Partnership for Education are co-hosting the summit in July, aiming to raise at least $5 billion to bolster education in up to 90 countries and territories.

But it comes at a time when governments and donors are dealing with the financial pressures of Covid-19 and the ensuing economic hardship.

“I feel that we've all got to step up, we've got to raise our game,” said Ms Grant, who is also UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trade envoy to Nigeria.

“We're in the middle of a global pandemic, at the moment, with Covid. We will deal with that – we will come through it, I know we will.

“But if we're not careful, we're going to be left with an absolutely mammoth education crisis. And, you know, if you want to change the world, girls’ education is a great place to start. It's totally transformative,” she said.

Gaps in years of schooling among women and men. Think Global Health

As Mr Johnson's envoy, Ms Grant is responsible for leading efforts to ensure that girls around the world get 12 years of good quality education.

The pandemic, described by Ms Grant as one of the "biggest educational disrupters in our history", meant about 1.6 billion children were out of school at its peak.

This is likely to disproportionately affect poorer countries and, in particular, females.

“Many of these children who've been affected are girls, many of them will never return to school, or even start school,” Ms Grant said.

“We know, too, that out-of-school girls are more at risk of and more vulnerable to issues like FGM, forced marriage, early marriage, pregnancy, sometimes violence and human trafficking. All of this, of course, creates a very real risk of a lost generation of girls.

“We cannot wait and we've got to act now and we've got to act together,” she said.

Ms Grant has been an MP since 2010 for the ruling Conservative Party. Before entering parliament she was a family solicitor, specialising in child abuse and domestic violence.

In government, she served as minister for women and equalities, and talks of her love and understanding for the African continent, as the daughter of a Nigerian father and English mother.

As a former sports minister, Ms Grant also wants to see greater participation by women, noting the positive effect sport had on her as a child.

She was born in Carlisle, not far from the Scottish border, and says her experiences helped to prepare her for the role of envoy.

“I think the whole of my life actually has informed how I'm carrying out this role. From when I was a little girl, growing up on a pretty tough council estate in Carlisle, to then going through school, working hard, becoming a solicitor and then getting into politics.

“So I've had an interesting journey, which has informed me right the way through. The ups and downs, the struggles, the successes, the failures, it's all part of it really,” she said.

Ms Grant is optimistic but says the international community needs to "up its game" and adopt a more co-ordinated approach.

“There also needs to be more focus, I believe, on quality education and secondary education. We know that girls who are able to read or gain those basic reading skills in primary school are more likely to go on and flourish in secondary school.

"I think as well that we need to listen much more to girls and what they say they want and need," Ms Grant said.

For example, it could be safer roads to get to school, or free sanitary products.

“So I am optimistic. I believe in this. But we do have to step up and we need to step up together.”