SWEDD: Responding to the Impact of COVID-19 on Girls in the Sahel

Ian MatthewsNews

The COVID-19 pandemic is having an especially significant impact on women and girls in the Sahel region.

  • Nearly 12 million girls are temporarily out of school in the subregion. Their return to school is crucial if we want to change society.
  • 13.5 million girls were already at risk of gender-based violence, early marriages and pregnancies, and dropping out of school before COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 exacerbates existing inequalities and vulnerabilities due to gender, age, and other socio-economic and cultural factors. The poorest girls are often excluded from support programs, and social isolation increases this exclusion.
  • The protection and promotion of the rights of adolescent girls must be emphasized, especially in areas already weakened by poverty or conflict.

These are just some of the issues that are being addressed as part of a new campaign, launched earlier this month by UNFPA WCARO as a quick response to the rapidly-changing environment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) campaign is titled #StrongerTogether, and aims to raise awareness among communities, parents, teachers and all stakeholders about the specific situation of adolescent girls, the urgent need for continuity of education services, the establishment of safe spaces for young girls, and for the prevention and management of cases of gender-based violence.

Mabingue Ngom, UNFPA Regional Director for West and Central Africa, said, “The health and economic crisis [caused by COVID-19] has exacerbated the vulnerability of adolescent girls and young women at the heart of the SWEDD project. But it also inspired innovations and exemplary mobilization to provide information on the pandemic and [preventive measures] and [to] ensure continuity of services. The making of masks by girls in safe spaces, the involvement of mentors and godmothers [in] information campaigns on COVID-19… the distribution of [informational] kits and hygiene kits, the use of community radios, public and private radios and television channels for mass communication… are all flagship measures that have contributed to the fight against the pandemic.” Ngom recently penned an article on the importance of such communication, which can be found here.

UNFPA and the World Bank, in collaboration with SWEDD countries and WSSCC, are driving advocacy, aware-ness-raising and community mobilization activities. The campaign targets Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal, and is carried out in collaboration with partners including SWEDD national coordinators, Ministries of Health, Promundo, Population Council, CHMP, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council and GBCHealth.

The media campaign raises awareness of the importance of access to water, sanitation, and menstrual hygiene, as well as the positive roles of men in the fight against gender-based violence (e.g. early marriages and pregnancies, female genital mutilation). It is also focused on promoting access to distance education for girls and adolescent girls, the importance of their return to school, and respect for their rights and dignities. Additionally, messages and digital media have been distributed for raising awareness on social networks. Animated films and audio spots are being aired on local channels and radios. The campaign builds on existing partnerships with celebrities, First Ladies, national and regional channels and digital media.

In addition to community-based awareness and actions, the project will be installing handwashing devices, and distributing dignity kits reinforced with hygienic protections, personal protective equipment and related items (e.g. information kits, hydroalcoholic gels, handwashing tools, hygiene kits and reproductive health products such as modern contraceptive methods). The project is also working to build the capacities of the main community stakeholders.

A deeper look at some of the issues

The COVID-19 crisis affects everyone, but adolescent girls deserve special attention. The Sahel is one of the regions with the fastest growing populations in the world, with women and young people under the age of 15 each representing more than half of the population. From the age of 12, girls are at risk of dropping out of school and not realizing their full potential. Nearly 12 million girls are temporarily outside the school system in the sub-region. Their return to school is crucial if we are to change society. The project supports girls’ access to online courses, and provides school kits, food and scholarships to support their retention in school.

As schools are closed, social isolation leads to all kinds of dangers. If containment continues for a period of months and major services are stopped due to COVID-19, millions of unintended pregnancies are likely to occur worldwide.

The end of early marriage programs due to the pandemic and social isolation could increase the number of early marriages. It is important to put in place protective instruments to ensure adolescent girls have a safe transition to adulthood.

During the crisis, there is greater risk for unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic also increases the domestic burden of adolescent girls and increases their share of household chores.

In addition, women are particularly hard hit by the negative impact of the crisis as the majority of them work in severely affected sectors, such as the informal economy. The closure of schools is also impacting women who have to take care of children at home, as they struggle to provide for their families.

Finally, millions of people in the Sahel cannot afford to wash their hands at home or do not have clean toilets and handwashing facilities at school. It is difficult to contain the virus without access to these basic hygiene services.

SWEDD has and will continue to partner with civil society and the private sector to scale up, intensify and replicate successful experiences in combating the pandemic, addressing the vulnerability of girls and young women, and economic reconstruction and women’s empowerment.

SWEDD aims to empower women and adolescent girls, and reduce gender inequality by improving access to education, quality maternal and child health and family planning services. GBCHealth has partnered with the UNFPA to encourage smart health system strengthening investments in reproductive health, women’s empowerment, basic literacy and financial education as well as entrepreneurship.

For more information on how you can get involved, to amplify and disseminate messages, donate commodities, support youth incubators and more, please contact Nancy Wildfeir-Field or Ghislaine Ouedraogo-Ametchie.

Ian MatthewsSWEDD: Responding to the Impact of COVID-19 on Girls in the Sahel