The COVID-19 pandemic has had a far-reaching impact on students everywhere, perhaps nowhere more than the continent of Africa where a majority of children have no internet to make up for closed classrooms.
In a new conversation with CTV National News’ London Bureau Chief Paul Workman, Graça Machel, the award-winning humanitarian and widow of South African president Nelson Mandela, spoke about barriers to education and empowerment in Africa and how the pandemic may have exacerbated the situation.
“The whole year of 2020 — for hundreds of millions of African children — was simply lost,” she said.
The continent that had initially appeared relatively spared from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic has now seen the appearance of a more volatile variant of the coronavirus, resulting in more than three million recorded infections and widespread school closures. For some African children, lessons moved online like much of the world. But for too many others, it has meant a devastating loss of already scant education resources
“Some schools had conditions to put programs online,” said Machel. “But the huge majority of children on this continent, they live in houses where there is no electricity let alone internet.”
On Wednesday, Machel’s organization, the Graça Machel Trust, co-hosted a virtual panel with Children Believe, a Canadian organization that works globally to help children overcome barriers to education. The panel, which featured both African and Canadian perspectives, focused on “overcoming barriers to education for girls in Sub-Saharan Africa in a COVID-19 world” as part of International Development Week 2021.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced and deepened structural inequalities across every sphere — from education and health to the economy and social protection for children,” Children Believe and the Graça Machel Trust said in a news release. “Adolescent girls have disproportionately felt the impacts of the pandemic with far reaching consequences on their life trajectories.”
According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, as many as 80 per cent of African households have radio, but just 34 per cent have the internet. Girls are disproportionately affected by the resource deficit, said UNESCO.
There is now concern that the lost year could have ripple effects that result in even emptier classrooms after the pandemic eases up. Impoverished African countries already face a lack of funding for schools as well as “social norms and attitudes” that put children — particularly girls — at a disadvantage, said Machel. The implications of the pandemic on these pre-existing limitations are still unfolding, she added, but the focus should remain on primary and secondary education and adolescence.
“Before children complete the secondary [education], they do not have the knowledge and skills to walk on their own without regressing in whatever they have learned,” said Machel, adding that she is launching a new initiative focused on inspiring adolescents in Africa.
“We are working together not only to bring all children into the system, but to improve the way we empower adolescence to […] break the cycle of poverty in Africa.”
Watch Paul Workman’s interview wtih Graça Machel this Sunday on CTV National News