Council Commentary

BANGLADESH: Perspectives on Inequalities Magnified by COVID-19

This past year, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted every country, every community, and every person in this world – but not equally nor in the same ways. For communities who experience vulnerability and marginalization, because of structural barriers such as economic inequality, racism, harmful gender norms, and numerous other intertwining factors, these challenges have been exacerbated and inequalities even further exposed by the pandemic. 

As our epidemiologists, laboratory scientists, public health specialists and researchers have worked to produce relevant and timely evidence to support national health ministries and other government agencies around the world in their COVID-19 response strategies, they have seen first-hand the effects and impacts of COVID-19 on populations and communities experiencing the most marginalization and poverty. 

Many of our colleagues, especially those conducting research in the communities in which they live and work, see their work as key to addressing many of the historical inequities that are familiar to them. As part of a series we are sharing throughout this week, we asked a few of them to reflect on their work and how they hope, through research and evidence generation, that they will help address the various inequities that are being magnified by the pandemic.  

Learn more about work from our colleagues in Bangladesh, the first in the series: 

Sigma Ainul, Senior Program Officer 

As different regions around the world struggle to mitigate waves of COVID-19 and access preventive vaccines, adolescent girls have remained nearly invisible in narratives of and discourse around the pandemic.  Adolescent girls were presumed to not be as vulnerable at the outset, focus was on disease burden of elders, financial disruptions and economic crises. However, our research documents disruptions in critical dimensions of the lives of adolescent girls living in low-income countries and communities during the pandemic. It shows that COVID-19-related impacts on girls’ lives may completely change their life paths steering it in undesirable directions. 

For instance, in Bangladesh, schools have been closed for over a year (from March 2020 to the present), and families are unable to compensate for the loss of learning opportunities due to the digital divide and limitations in online access for rural and urban communities. We have also observed a decline in school engagement; for example, fewer girls are attending their digital coursework – as part of an initiative undertaken the Government to telecast digital classes on national television – and results from our survey indicated that self-study efforts have dropped too. Our findings echo much of what our colleagues in Kenya and Pakistan found in related studies on the effects of school closures, underscoring the universality of these damaging educational disruptions for adolescents and young people. 

In a conservative society like Bangladesh where girls’ mobility is restricted, school closure has also had much broader implications for adolescent girls. It has not only meant disruption to their education: it has also meant girls are confined in their homes and isolated from their peers and social safety nets. Our research clearly documents that COVID-19 has taken an emotional toll on adolescent girls, with girls reporting feeling lonely and sad and experiencing increases in unrest and chaos in their homes and crime in their neighborhoods. Adolescent girls reported that they fear not going back to school altogether, and cases of child marriage were also reported. 

 I hope our work gains the attention of policy makers, development partners and advocates and helps them to renew and continue investments in this most vulnerable and largely invisible group of the population. 

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Read additional contributions addressing this topic from Council colleagues in Mexico, Pakistan, Kenya and India in the coming days.  

Learn more about the research collected worldwide by the Population Council to address the populations at the greatest disadvantage and inform responses to the COVID-19 pandemic on the new Humanitarian Task Force site.