Girl-Led Solutions and Adaptations to Programs in the Time of COVID-19 in Bangladesh (Part 1, Covid-19 Response Series)

by Sigma Ainul, Senior Program Officer, Population Council Bangladesh, and Sajeda Amin, SeniorAssociate, Population Council HQ

Introduction
In Bangladesh, the Covid-19 pandemic entailed nationwide lockdown coupled with school closures, social distancing and economic slowdown; as a result, avenues of opportunity for adolescent girls are at risk of further limitations and, like any other crisis situation, the pandemic is likely to exacerbate and increase isolation, school dropout, child marriage, gender-based violence, and sexual exploitation in adolescent girls’ lives.

In late April, rapid assessment phone surveys among adolescent girls were conducted in the Population Council’s existent project areas to assess the impact of pandemic on adolescents’ lives, their knowledge, awareness and prevention practices during COVID-19, their need, and methods for how best programs can respond to support adolescents during and after the crisis. We did our first COVID-19 KAP survey with adolescent girls with approximately 1000 adolescent girls in five districts of rural Bangladesh.

 

Survey Findings
The survey findings show that awareness about the pandemic was widespread and girls’ knowledge on symptoms of the virus, transmission and prevention were overall high. Girls also reported good practices in terms of wearing masks and washing hands, although maintaining social distancing was reported to be a challenge and not followed very seriously. Clearly, COVID-19 has taken an evident emotional toll in the community. In addition to deep anxiety about the

Bangladeshi adolescent girls in school pre-Covid. Photo Credit: Mehnaz Manzur.

spread of the disease – particularly the presence of migrants who have returned from urban areas of the country and outside the country who might spread contagion – three out of four respondents reported feeling lonely and sad. There was also widespread anxiety about food insecurity and the abrupt loss of livelihoods:

  • Almost half (45%) of the respondents said the household had only enough food stockpiled to last two weeks or less.
  • Nearly 85% of the respondents listed food (rice and pulses) among the items most urgently needed followed by soap, sanitizers and medication for illness. 

Results of KAP Round 1 Survey on experiences of domestic violence.

Additionally, respondents reported incidents of violence, with nearly one out of five respondents having experienced some form of violence in the past two weeks and nearly 30% witnessing some form of increased violence in the community. For married adolescents, they are significantly vulnerable in terms of violence exposure. These indicators of elevated distress are undoubtedly related both to stress related to the pandemic itself as well as to the economic

repercussion of containment measures. Adolescent girls also reported of increased household chores and patient care responsibilities and decreased time to study (see details from the Round 1 survey here.)

In the second-round repeat survey, conducted in mid-June, respondents from three districts showed a similar pattern in terms of Covid-19 awareness and confirmed that girls are well-informed about symptoms, contagion, and appropriate measures that need to be taken.

The economic impact in terms of loss of income and scarcity persists but the situation seems slightly better as lockdown has been withdrawn. The data from second round survey, however, shows further isolation and depression among the girls and girls also reported increased chaos in home and crime in neighborhood. We observe a decline in school engagement; for example, fewer girls are attending their digital coursework (an initiative taken the Government to telecast digital classes on national television) and results from the survey indicated self-study had dropped too. All of this has resulted in a decline of the education system, with adolescents and families doing very little to compensate for the loss of learning opportunities due to school closure. Moreover, adolescent girls reported they are at risk of dropping out of school completely and a few cases of child marriage were also reported.

Adaptation to Phone-Based Remote Learning Sessions and the Creation of Virtual Safe Spaces for Girls
Since 2018, the Council’s Bangladesh team was implementing an ongoing intervention project “Keeping Girls in Schools to Reduce Child Marriage in Rural Bangladesh” but it was brought abruptly to a halt in its 2nd cycle this year due to the pandemic. The project provides life-skills and a tutoring support model to reduce school dropout among secondary-school girls and life and livelihood skills to unmarried girls who have dropped out of school. Due to pandemic, and consequential social distancing measures and school closures, in-person after-school sessions with adolescent girls are not being held and girls are confined in their home, isolated not only from the program but also their friends and peers.

Considering the heightened risk of adolescent girls’ disruption in education, exacerbated risk of child marriage, and increased dropout from school during this time, an alternative modality of providing program activities was explored and its feasibility assessed by field-based implementers (mentors and school teachers) and discussed with the project’s donor.

After much discussion, and assessment of girls’ access to household phones, the first phone-based remote learning sessions for enrolled participants (in- and out-of-school girls) were started in July 2020.  Girl-led adaptations are being implemented in the time of COVID-19 to reach adolescent girls.

In this new girl-led adaptation, older girls (mentors) living in the same community connect to the participating adolescent girls (in groups of approximately three) twice a week for 15 minutes for each learning session over a conference line. To support their adaptation to mobile-based and remote sessions, the mentors were given a thorough training in using the Zoom platform. Session materials were also adapted to be not only more succinct but to also promote more discussion and interaction among the girls. A real-time monitoring system is currently in place where mentors can enter attendance data for the girls who joined phone sessions, thereby making effective monitoring still possible. Finally, a secure screenshot of the conference calls is being entered by the mentors along with bar code for the adolescent girls present in the sessions.

It is our plan the girls who can be contacted through Facebook or WhatsApp receive soft versions of learning material (flipchart/illustration-based material).  Those who cannot be reached through internet will be given a similar printed material as supplementary learning material through courier service and then local distribution with help of local staff or mentor.

Overall, this method has proven successful thus far, enabling the girls to interact with not only her mentor but her peers as well and fostering a virtual safe space for program participants.

Our thanks to: Ubaidur Rob, Associate II & Country Director; Forhana Noor, Program Officer; Surojit Kundu, Program Officer; Masuma Billah, Senior Program Officer; Iqbal Ehsan, Program Officer; Eashita Farzana Haque, Assistant Program Officer; Irfan Hossain, Senior Program Officer; Saddam Hossain, Research Officer; Mehnaz Manzur, Research Officer; and all other members of the Bangladesh office for their continued support of this effort and leadership in this assessment.

 

For more information about Population Council Bangladesh’s work, please visit: https://www.popcouncil.org/research/bangladesh

For more information about Population Council Covid-19-related research, please visit: https://www.popcouncil.org/research/responding-to-the-COVID-19-pandemic

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