Girls in Uganda missed out on celebrating International Women’s Day: why that matters

The negative economic and social effects of COVID-19 have severely impacted Ugandan girls as many have been exposed to increased sexual exploitation and abuse and forced into child marriages. As we come together for the 65th UN Commission on the Status of Women, the development community must take urgent action to secure gender equality and stand up for girls everywhere.

As the world celebrated International Women’s Day on 8th March with public holidays, social media campaigns, and virtual events with well-deserved attention on women’s issues, many teenage girls in Uganda had less to celebrate as COVID-19 took their childhoods away.

Although the global pandemic has affected everyone around the world, the crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities. In particular, the pandemic exposed girls to specific risks due to their age and gender, and those who should have been there to offer protection neglected their duties and left the girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse. This increased abuse has undermined Uganda’s progress towards Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. As SDG 5 is not only a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world, the Ugandan government and the development community must understand how the pandemic has impacted girls and work to regain and build upon progress previously made towards gender equality. 

Times of crisis are more likely to expose adolescent girls to sexual exploitation in exchange for money or goods. School closures, the impact of lockdowns, and other restrictions on the economic situation of vulnerable families left girls in particular at risk of exploitation and abuse. Because COVID-19 pushed many households into extreme poverty and hunger, women and girls had to undertake hazardous and exploitative work to support their families. In many parts of the country, the economic hardship has increasingly caused the sexual exploitation of girls and forced them into child marriage. Ugandan news outlets have also reported increased rates of violence against girls and exploitation and abuse of children as some of the most concerning secondary effects of COVID-19. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns and school closures, Joy for Children - Uganda has reported sexual exploitation in all districts of Uganda, with the highest incidents reported in the eastern region where early marriages and pregnancies were on the rise. Eastern Uganda (Busoga) has the highest reported cases, with the Luuka district alone reporting more than 600 cases, while the West Nile and Ankole regions also reporting several cases. Ugandan police also reported 4,442 cases of defilement between January and April 2020, while the Sauti, Uganda’s child helpline, reported 800 cases of sexual abuse between January and May 2020, including increased cases of teenage pregnancy.

Uganda has made strides in managing the pandemic, and the government has recently started to lift some restrictions enforced during lockdowns that contributed to girls’ vulnerability. For example, schools have opened in phases and candidate classes have gone back to schools as students prepare to sit for their final examinations. Additionally, several measures have been implemented to make progress on SDG 5. For instance, in July 2020, the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors approved a $150 million project to enable greater access to higher-quality secondary education among Ugandan children in safer and better-equipped learning environments that are also supportive of girls’ education. Given the severe impacts COVID-19 has had on girls in Uganda, it is questionable how much value girls will obtain from this project if so many have lost access to education due to child marriage, sexual exploitation and teen pregnancy.

If Ugandan girls are to join the rest of the world to celebrate International Women’s Day in the future, the World Bank, African Development Bank, and other development actors must work with the Ugandan government to prioritize girls in their plans to “build back better.” Through a concerted effort by the development community working closely with civil society, affected communities, and girls themselves, we can create a post COVID society that is more equal and inclusive, enabling girls to thrive.