Fortunate Ayomirwoth, a 15-year-old girl in Kampala, Uganda, who says "I miss school"

Editor’s Note: Michelle Obama is the former first lady of the United States and founder of the Girls Opportunity Alliance. Melinda Gates is co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and author of “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.” The views expressed here are those of the authors. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Today should have been a school day for 15-year-old Fortunate Ayomirwoth. But for the past five months, her school has been closed. Fortunate now spends her days at home in a small suburb of Kampala, Uganda, doing chores, caring for her four younger siblings, and hoping there will be enough food to eat. Since her mother lost her job, money has been tight – and for Fortunate, her window of opportunity feels like it, too, is getting tighter.

Michelle Obama
Melinda Gates

“I miss school,” she says. “I miss my friends and my teachers. Sometimes I want to read at night when I’m free, but we have no electricity at home, and I cannot keep the candle burning throughout the night.”

Around the world, life is often more difficult for adolescent girls. During a pandemic, it can be downright dangerous. We know from past crises, like the 2014 Ebola outbreak, that adolescent girls in low and middle-income countries are particularly at risk of being overlooked and left behind.

Even before Covid-19 struck, more than 98 million adolescent girls worldwide were not in school, according to UNESCO. Now, due to ripple effects from the pandemic, the Malala Fund predicts an additional 20 million girls of secondary school age could remain out of school – not just this year, but possibly forever.

It’s not only girls’ education that’s at risk. It’s their safety and security, too. During a crisis like this one, adolescent girls face a heightened threat of physical and sexual violence, early and forced marriage, and unintended pregnancy on top of sustained economic hardship. For all these reasons, even a temporary disruption to girls’ education could have devastating long-term impacts. Unless we act, the pandemic could trap a generation of girls in a cycle of poverty – and shortchange the world of the talents and ideas these girls have to offer.

We believe that government, philanthropic and grassroots leaders around the world must prioritize adolescent girls in any pandemic response. History tells us that when we neglect the education and wellbeing of girls, we all suffer. Data shows it, too. Because when girls are given the chance to learn and thrive, poverty drops, economies grow, families get stronger and babies are born healthier. The world, by every measure, gets better. So as we continue to work together to solve the challenges posed by Covid-19, we must take strong action to make sure girls everywhere have a chance to learn, to stay healthy and to stay safe – not just for their sake, but for all of ours.

To keep girls learning

Even if schools remain physically closed, girls – and all young people – deserve proper resources to continue their education. To that end, we’ve seen remarkable progress across the Girls Opportunity Alliance, a network of grassroots leaders dedicated to empowering adolescent girls through education. Organizations like the Sacred Valley Project in Peru and Kakenya’s Dream in Kenya have developed innovative solutions to this issue, such as delivering lanterns, printed materials and radios to help girls learn by broadcast. Physically Active Youth in Namibia has offered virtual classes and brought worksheets to girls without internet access to ensure that they too can continue to learn from home.

Once it’s safe for schools to physically reopen, countries should work to get as many girls back in the classroom as possible. When household budgets are strained, families often decide that educating their daughters is an expense they can no longer afford, so governments need to find ways to ease the economic impacts of the crisis.

For instance, after the Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone suspended tuition and testing fees for all students for two academic years. Governments should also look at solutions such as supporting cash transfer programs to reach marginalized girls and their families and enacting programs that reduce the unpaid work that adolescent girls do to take care of their families and homes.

Of course, leaders must also address underlying stigma and outright discriminatory policies that stop girls from going to school – such as those preventing girls who are pregnant, raising children or are married from attending school. Without facing these issues, even the most aggressive interventions will fail to reach many girls who need them most.

To keep girls healthy

With health systems strained around the world, services for women and girls are being squeezed, leaving adolescent girls particularly vulnerable during crucial developmental years. The good news is we can take steps now to protect their safety and wellbeing during this difficult time – and into the future.

For example, adolescent sexual and reproductive health services – as well as measures to respond to gender-based violence – should be designated as “essential” health services. Giving women and girls access to family planning information and services is a proven method for reducing rates of unintended pregnancy, increasing the likelihood that girls are able to continue their educations and return to the classroom once it’s safe to do so.

And support for menstrual health and hygiene is essential, too. Since many girls access tampons, sanitary pads and educational resources in schools, organizations like the Footprints Foundation in South Africa are finding other ways to connect girls with pads and menstrual health education during the pandemic.

To keep girls safe and empowered

Finally, we need to recognize that schools offer girls much more than just an education. They can be safe spaces for girls to build connection, their identities, and their dreams for the future.

It’s critical to carve out other safe spaces for girls to come together, whether that be virtually or outdoors (while practicing physical distancing and following public health guidance). That’s always true – but it’s especially true while schools are closed. During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, girls who belonged to girls’ clubs were less likely to get pregnant and more likely to return to school after the outbreak. And over the past few months, the Creative Action Institute and Girl Up Initiative Uganda have been hosting regular calls with students like Fortunate across East Africa to ensure that they remain connected and safe.

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    Raising strong, empowered girls requires strong, deliberate action in normal times – all the more so during a global crisis. And while Covid-19 is forcing the world to do just about everything differently, it’s also an undeniable opportunity to do things better.

    Because there are promising young girls like Fortunate all over the world – girls who are eager to learn and fulfill their potential. To hear Fortunate say it: “My education is very dear to me. I believe it will make me a better person and help me improve the situation of my whole family.”

    It’s up to us to ensure that Fortunate, along with the millions of girls like her, have the resources they need to get through this period. Because what we choose to do now will echo throughout the lives of these girls, their communities, their countries, and our entire world. We owe it to them – to all of us – to support them in this critical moment.

    Visit the Girls Opportunity Alliance Fund to learn more about projects that empower adolescent girls around the world.

    Visit the Gates Foundation to learn more about its work on gender equality.