Adapting Right To Play education programs to address gender inequalities during COVID-19

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Social and Emotional Learning

This article is part of the Committing to Change: Girls’ EiE from Charlevoix to COVID-19 blog series. 

At the onset of COVID-19, many of us hoped the pandemic would end in a few weeks and that school closures would be a minor disruption both at home and in the countries where we work. But we quickly realized that the pandemic would have a lasting impact and exacerbate the challenges facing vulnerable children. School closures have put girls’ ability to continue learning at risk, and have cut off girls' access to peer support, menstrual hygiene support, school feeding programs, and safe recreational facilities. 20 million girls may drop out of school as a result of the pandemic. Lockdowns have also greatly increased the risk of gender-based violence, early and forced marriage, and teenage pregnancies

Right To Play’s ‘GREAT’ Response

Right To Play is working to ensure that hard won gains for girls – including their rights to education and protection – are not permanently reversed. In Mozambique, Rwanda and Ghana, Right To Play implements the Gender Responsive Education and Transformation (GREAT) project, which seeks to improve girls’ learning outcomes and leadership skills through play-based, gender-responsive teaching and learning.  

A Right To Play survey conducted by teachers in three regions in Ghana found that 62% of girls had taken on additional household responsibilities, compared to only 18% of boys. Mozambique and Rwanda had similar findings. Discussions with partners and teachers also showed that it was a very real fear that many of these girls would never return to school, because their time had been redirected into chores or income-earning activities.   

In response to these concerns, Right To Play developed mental health and well-being games that could be implemented by parents or by children themselves. These games build in gender-responsive messages like  “Household chores should be shared by all household members,” and “Men and women have equal abilities to make decisions about household chores.” Play-based activities are engaging for children; enabling learning, and creating normalcy and routine. 

We also used direct community outreach through radio, megaphones, SMS, and WhatsApp to disseminate messages about the importance of schooling for girls and prevention of gender-based violence, using messages like “Let girls study”, and “Take me to school and not marriage”.  

“We have cases of children who left school and did not know how to read or write. Now, thanks to the work of the club, the children have greatly improved their reading and writing skills.” – Teacher in Mozambique

To ensure continuity of learning for girls and boys, Right To Play staff partnered with the Ministry of Education and teachers trained in play-based learning to create ‘learning through play’ activities on literacy and gender equality for grades 1-3 that were broadcast on national television. These gender-responsive, play-based distance learning segments were engaging and encouraged children to continue learning while schools were closed. 

Additionally, girls’ clubs provided life skills lessons, and information about child-protection laws and pathways for the prevention of violence against women.  Girls were able to express their feelings and get support for their learning and mental and physical well-being in a safe environment. Girls clubs had female coaches and met in person twice a week, following COVID-19 guidelines. Group sizes were kept small and social distancing was maintained. All children wore masks, soap, water, and informative materials on COVID were provided.

“I like to study at the club because the aunt [learning promoter] teaches us well and also plays with us when she is teaching us.” – Female Grade 2 Student in Mozambique 

A core element of Right To Play’s work is strengthening the learning environment through training and mentoring of teachers and coaches, parents and caregivers in gender-responsive, play-based methodologies. Our continuous engagement with parents and school management committees created an opportunity for us to intensify our discussions on how to help girls to overcome the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. Community-rooted initiatives like child rights clubs and girls clubs helped prevent learning loss during school closures, and sought to promote physical and mental well-being. They also communicated key messages on child protection and empowerment of girls, and encouraged policy makers to use gender-responsive play-based methodologies in tele school lessons

“The clubs are good because my daughter didn't know how to read well and I was sad when they closed schools because she only stayed at home...Since she started studying there at the club, she is showing signs of improvement on her reading and writing." – Female caregiver in Mozambique

Overcoming obstacles

Right To Play experienced and addressed a number of challenges in adapting programming during the COVID-19 pandemic, including:

  • Determining how to safely reach out to children and teachers during the pandemic: Prior to the pandemic, Right To Play had been working with the Ministry of Education and Human Development in Mozambique and training teachers in gender-responsive, play-based methodologies to improve learning outcomes for vulnerable children. Right To Play used these existing communities of practice to reach out to teachers over SMS and WhatsApp and provide additional resources and support during the pandemic. Teachers received mobile data plans to support their outreach and connectivity.
  • Preventing learning loss during school closures: To prevent learning loss, our trained learning promoters organized socially distant reading clubs. Because they had been involved in Right To Play programs prior to the pandemic, learning promoters were already familiar with the children and their families, which made parents and caregivers feel that it was safe to send their children to the reading clubs. The boys and girls were not only able to build their reading and writing skills, they were also provided information on referral pathways for child protection and violence against women, and information on laws pertaining to child protection. They also received gender-responsive mental and physical wellbeing support.
  • Ensuring that the social dimensions of learning are addressed: The increased stress and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the mental health and well-being of children - especially girls - and has resulted in increased rates of domestic violence. To ensure that childrens’ psychosocial needs are being met, Right To Play’s response included in-person support from teachers through home visits and children’s clubs.

Looking forward

Even though this project was quickly adapted to reach primary school children in their homes, Right To Play remains concerned that many girls may not return to school after the pandemic. The GREAT project will continue to focus on empowering girls as well as engaging boys as allies. We will advocate to increase the number of female teachers and adopt flexible policies to facilitate girls’ return to school and prevent dropout. We will continue to consult with community members, particularly women and girls in all their diversity, to give them a voice in shaping education policy and delivery and support their ability to advocate for their rights. COVID-19 can set us back or it can serve as the catalyst to finally address those long-ignored inequalities. We are hopeful for the future. 

The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.