COVID-19: Inequalities widen for poorest young people in developing countries

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, according to new research involving Lancaster University Management School.

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. 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.

Lancaster University Management School’s Dr Cath Porter (Economics) is one of the researchers for Young Lives– an international study of childhood poverty, following the lives of 12,000 children in Ethiopia, Peru, India and Vietnam.

She said: “The pandemic has impacts around the world, but there has been less focus on young people given their lower risk of serious illness and death from Covid-19. However, our research shows that the economic and social effects of the pandemic are continuing for young people in low and middle income countries. Many have seen interruption to their education, stress in the household due to lack of food, and increased responsibilities – especially for young women.

“In the UK we have been concerned about young people spending too much time on their screens. For young people in poor families however, it is the opposite issue – many do not have access to their own device, or an internet connection in order to keep up with their studies, which has led to almost a full year of lost learning.”

The 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 realising 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.”

Young Lives’ researchers asked over 9,000 young people in two cohorts aged 19 and 26 years old in, India (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Peru and Vietnam about their education, employment, access to food, mental health and well-being. They found:

EDUCATION: Encouraging signs of 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.

  • In Ethiopia, 32% of 19-year-old students were still waiting for schools to reopen.
  • In India, around one in five 19-year-old students were not engaged in any sort of learning, largely those from the poorest households, in rural areas and whose parents have no formal education.
  • Girls in the poorest households are more likely to have stopped attending classes than boys.
  • In Peru, 18% of 19-year-olds were still not back in classes, with young men and those from the poorest households affected most.

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.

  • In Ethiopia, 39% of 19-year-old of 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.
  • In India, girls from all vulnerable groups are relatively more likely to have stopped attending classes than boys, particularly those from the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes.
  • Across all four study countries, 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 in Peru and clear gender gap emerging

Whilst the majority of young people have been able to return to work, job recovery has been significantly slower for 26-year-old women.

  • In Peru, the gender employment gap has increased from 17% pre-pandemic to 25%.
  • In Ethiopia, despite an overall recovery of jobs after initial COVID-19 restrictions, only 57% of 26 year-old women are back to work compared to 63% pre-pandemic.
  • In Peru, access to remote working means only 7% of those in employment are able to work from home, primarily those from urban areas.
  • The shift to agriculture and self-employment has persisted in India, Peru and Ethiopia, 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.

  • In Ethiopia, 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.
  • In Peru, 12% of the poorest households reported running out of food in the past 12 months, compared to 9% in 2016.

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, most notably in Vietnam, the pandemic continues to take a heavy toll, at a time when access to mental health services is likely to have been significantly disrupted.

  • In Peru where 30% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety and 24% reported symptoms of depression (well above the 18% 2019 Demographic and Health Survey benchmark).
  • 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.

‘‘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 amongst the poorest young women,’’ added Dr Favara.

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