COVID-19, and the measures taken by governments worldwide to prevent its further spread, have a major impact on the lives of the girls and their families we work with. Now schools have been closed almost everywhere and meetings and travel are forbidden, can we still carry out our programme and are we still able to work towards our goal using our six programme strategies? What about, for example, the second programma strategy during lockdown: the access to education?
In the communities where Her Choice operates, girls and women are already in a vulnerable position, but now, in addition to the health risk of COVID-19, they are at great risk of becoming victims of poverty, which is rapidly worsening as a result of the crisis, and increasing domestic violence. Therefore, all ten Her Choice countries have developed an adapted plan for the Her Choice programme. These plans are based upon the recommendations from Girls Not Brides. In the adapted plan, Her Choice will focus on activities that strengthen the safety and well-being of our target group, while continue to use the six programme strategies. This approach enables Her Choice to continue to contribute to the results of the programme.
School holiday packages
Regarding strategy 2 (access to education) the main focus of Her Choice in these times, is to continue to make education possible for girls, even during lockdown. Equally important, Miet Chielens, coordinator of Her Choice at The Hunger Project Nederland, tells us, is the focus on making people aware of the importance of girls going back to school when schools reopen: ‘There are serious concerns about the period after the lockdown. There is a great risk that parents will then not let their daughters go back to school because their financial situation, for example, does not allow it.’
To make people aware of the importance of education, local Her Choice partners are conducting awareness raising activities in the communities -whenever it’s safe- on the benefits of the girl child to use the lockdown time productively by engaging in reading books and completing school holiday packages.
Chielens welcomes the work of peer educators: ‘They sensitize their peers on the effects of, for example, teenage pregnancy in the wake of pupils not attending school and they encourage their peers to report to parents or community leaders about any act of sexual assaults or violence. Local partners are leading this process and club patrons of Youth Clubs and Girls Clubs are being engaged through WhatsApp platforms, and SRHR educational materials are shared with them.’
To facilitate communication between local partners, peer educators and pupils, and systematize reporting (photos, videos, audio, etc.) in some countries mobile phones are being made available, like The Hunger Project did in Benin, handing out mobile phones to animators and project staff.
In most Her Choice countries, schools are experimenting with distance learning. For children without access to online classes, local Her Choice partners in Burkina Faso and Senegal have found an alternative, namely education through community radio in cooperation with trained teachers and youth clubs. On the one hand lessons are given to children with a learning disadvantage and to those who are preparing their final exams. On the other hand, information about Her Choice related themes is continued. This was necessary after observing that COVID-19 makes vulnerable children and young people even more vulnerable.
Also, local partners are preparing to shift their activities to the time that schools re-open and vulnerable girls need support to return to school, for example through catch-up courses and accelerating learning opportunities. Work is also being made of the realization and installation of hand washing devices in schools. In Mali, schools are now opening for exam classes, says Lies Kieboom, country coordinator for Mali and Ethiopia for Her Choice Alliance member Stichting Kinderpostzegels Nederland: ‘That’s a step forward. However, there are major learning disadvantages in Mali because an educational strike almost immediately followed by a lockdown.’
In the four Her Choice countries where Her Choice alliance member ICDI is active, Rutger van Oudenhoven, Senior Programme Manager at ICDI is worried about permanent school drop-out: ‘In times of stress and poverty, governments often fall away in poor countries: then many people fall back to traditional ways and coping mechanisms. Child marriages are an example of this. In Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Ethiopia there are worries about girls who don’t go back to school, even if they are allowed to, and that they have to marry too early.’
In many countries, the government collaborates with local NGOs in offering distance learning. Her Choice partners are also actively involved in this, says Van Oudenhoven: ‘In the cities a lot of education goes via the internet, in the villages often via radio programmes. In general, in the countries where we are active, the more rural the internet, and therefore the less education, is the rule.’
Local partners play an important role in making and maintaining as much contact as possible with the girls in the communities: ‘The strong networks that have developed between the girls over the years are very useful in this day and age. The stronger the Girls Clubs, the better it is for the girls. Girls keep an eye on each other so that girls cannot disappear unseen in a child marriage and inform each other about certain radio programmes or upcoming exams.’
 Research has taught us that the number of child marriages increases explosively in times of crisis and pandemics. We are therefore concerned about the consequences of this crisis on the wellbeing of our main target group: girls and women.
 Girls not Brides has developed a brief on child marriage and COVID-19 for all their development partners, including civil society and governments. It provides insights, recommendations and resources for responding to the needs of adolescent girls during and after this crisis, including those at risk of early marriage, married girls, and those in informal unions.