COVID-19: Inequalities widen for poorest young people in Ethiopia

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News Release 

According to the latest Oxford-led Young Lives research published today, COVID-19 could reverse important gains in education attainment and future life chances for young people in developing countries – particularly the poorest and most vulnerable.

Despite many young people in developing countries now returning to education or employment, interrupted learning, less reliable work, food shortages, and significant mental health issues are widening inequalities, according to a COVID-19 phone survey from the long-standing Young Lives research team that has followed 3000 children in Ethiopia since 2001. This latest research shows that despite encouraging signs that many young people are getting their lives back on track, a complex and uneven picture is unfolding.

On the surface, things are improving for many, following the initial shock of the pandemic, but beneath that, inequalities are clearly widening. COVID-19 could not only halt progress but could reverse important gains in educational attainment and future life changes,” said Dr. Marta Favara, Deputy Director, Young Lives at Work.

 The Uk’s Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Girls’ Education, Helen Grant said:

“Coronavirus has made girls’ education an even more urgent priority, with 1.6 billion children around the world out of education at the peak of school closures. For the world’s poorest girls, being out of school puts them at even greater risk of early marriage, forced labour, and violence.

“The UK is backing research by Young Lives to better understand how to overcome the barriers stopping girls from realizing their full potential. We are determined to get 40 million more girls in school in low and middle-income countries by 2025 and a third more girls reading by the age of 10.

“That is why UK and Kenya are co-hosting a Global Education Summit in July to urge world leaders to invest in getting children into school and learning - to help economies grow, tackle poverty and empower women everywhere.”

Headline Findings in Ethiopia

EDUCATION: Encouraging signs of a return to education, but very uneven and interrupted learning persists

A majority of students are now returning to their studies, but many classes remain on-line and quality is uneven. A persistent digital divide has made learning almost impossible for young people without internet access and a device to learn, resulting in a lost year of learning. There is a worrying risk that many poorer students will be left behind and may never return to education: 32% of 19-year-old students were still waiting for schools to reopen. Besides, girls in the poorest households are more likely to have stopped attending classes than boys.

The poorest girls and young women may find it particularly hard to return to education

Many of the poorest girls may find it particularly hard to restart their education, especially those studying at a relatively low level: 39% of 19-year-old girls had not engaged in any form of learning since school closures; more than a third of 19-year-old girls in the Young Lives sample are still at primary school, with only 15% in higher education.  Amongst those most likely to have been disadvantaged by interruptions in education, girls from the poorest most vulnerable households have been hardest hit.Across the studies, girls and young women are bearing the greatest burden of increased household duties and childcare during the pandemic. Even where this does not result in dropping out of school, it is likely to significantly reduce the time girls can spend keeping up with schoolwork.  

EMPLOYMENT: Returning to work, but employment crisis continues and clear gender gap emerging

Whilst the majority of young people have been able to return to work, job recovery has been significantly slower for26-year-old women. Despite an overall recovery of jobs after initial COVID-19 restrictions, only57% of 26-year-old women are back to work compared to 63% pre-pandemic. The shift to agriculture and self-employment has persisted too, which may signal an increase in more informal, poorer-quality jobs.

FOOD SECURITY: The poorest households are most likely to go hungry – newly poor in urban areas also affected

Many young people reported that they had run out of food at least once over the last year, with the poorest households hardest hit. The proportion of 19-year-olds whose households ran out of food in the last 12 months increased threefold since 2016 (18% compared to 5% in 2016) with considerable regional variation: the Amhara region saw a staggering 24 percentage points increase where the situation has been compounded by conflict, drought, and locusts.

MENTAL HEALTH: The pandemic is taking a heavy toll on mental health.

Whilst there have been improvements in young peoples’ reported mental health issues as countries have lifted lockdowns and restrictions. The mental health of young women was worse than that of young men across all four study countries, with the exception of Ethiopia where young men reported marginally higher anxiety in the latest phone survey

Dr Alula Pankhurst the Young Lives Country Director stated: ‘‘Our findings show that the poorest, most vulnerable young people are struggling to recover from the pandemic. Additional stress caused by interruptions in their education, increased food insecurity and increased household duties may be directly contributing to worsening mental health.