One year into the pandemic, its effects are disproportionately impacting the lives of women and girls: their health, education and access to opportunity around the world.
There is a projected increase in female poverty; a “shadow pandemic” looms, with a marked rise in girls and women facing domestic and gender-based violence; more than 20 million girls may drop out and never return to school; and there will be an expected spike in child marriages.
Teenagers are also contending with missed or delayed milestones such as graduation or college; struggles with mental health; and isolation.
These trends and data points paint a bleak picture for what girls lives look like right now. But I wanted to know: What does life look like for teenage girls around the world, beyond these headlines? How are they spending their days, and how do shifted paths, changing opportunities and these challenges play out in their day-to-day?
Here, I revisit the question in the pandemic with five girls from different countries (including two who are featured in the book), asking them to share what their daily lives look like.
Gomti is a 12th-grader living in Lucknow, India. She left home, a nearby village, and moved to the city when she was 11. She now lives with her grandmother, brothers and sister. Since she moved to Lucknow, Gomti has also worked as a house helper to help pay her school fees and cover expenses.
But last March, when the pandemic started, work stopped.
“Because of the lockdown, neither could I go in, neither could they ask me to go to work,” she said.
As school went online, Gomti’s lost work and wages meant she couldn’t afford to buy Internet on her phone to attend Zoom classes or pay school fees, and she fell a few months behind.
“There was a break in my studies because we had to be able to pay for data on my phone. … I didn’t have money,” she said.
Now, since lockdown and restrictions have lifted, Gomti’s days are returning to normal as she balances work and studies. School reopened in November, and she’s also working at two houses.
Her days generally start at 7 a.m. She does housework, makes some tea and leaves for work by 8 a.m.
After she returns home, she does some more housework, cooks lunch and gets ready for school, which runs from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. After that, she’s back at work. After her second job, her evenings at home are spent doing housework, making dinner and finishing homework.
“I’ve been working since I was 11 years old, so I know how to manage it now,” Gomti said.
Chanleakna’s story was featured in “Girlhood.”
Coronavirus in Cambodia: In February, Cambodia was dealing with its worst outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic, with schools, nightclubs and sporting events facing restrictions and temporary closures. The country, with a population of 16 million, has seen a total of 568 cases.
Chanleakna is in her first year of university and lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She was attending high school on a scholarship in Australia and is currently enrolled in university there, but now attends classes virtually from home.
“This time last year, I was traveling back to Australia for my final year of high school,” she said. “I had a whole journey planned out for me.”
When the pandemic hit Australia, her school shut down. At first, she was all alone, and then moved in with a roommate.
At the time, she would speak to her grandmother in Cambodia three times a day. She was also in touch with friends from home who were in school in the United States and Canada. But it was still difficult.
“I was pretty lonely, I cried to myself a lot,” she said.
At the same time, Chanleakna says she was also dealing with racism from Australian classmates.
“Me and my other Asian friends, we had been bullied by some racist local students at our school,” she said. “We were having lunch at the canteen and they threw bottles of water, paper at us.”
Chanleakna and her friends’ experiences weren’t isolated — there was a surge in anti-Asian racism in Australia last year.
After her final year of high school and many long months of isolation and homesickness, Chanleakna chose to return home to Cambodia about two months ago.
Right now, she spends her days going to the gym, learning to play musical instruments, volunteering online and watching lots of Netflix. Australia has closed its border, so like more than 140,000 other international students, she hasn’t been able to return.
For now, she’s excited to start classes and hopes she’ll be “back on shore” in the next year.
Goldalyn is a high school student attending boarding school in Nairobi. Her family lives in Kakamega, a town in the western part of the country.
Last year, when the pandemic started causing closures, Goldalyn returned home.
She tried to keep up with classmates and friends on WhatsApp, but “maintaining a friendship online isn’t the easiest,” she said. “It got to the point where I wasn’t even talking to anyone online because it got so repetitive.”
“It got so lonely that I realized that people are really important,” she said, adding that she realized “just having contact with people, the outside world, is really important especially for your mental health.”
Schools reopened in October 2020, and Goldalyn returned to Nairobi.
While she's back to in-person learning and her dorm room, boarding school looks different in a pandemic.
Students’ temperatures are taken every morning, at lunch time and in the evenings. Four-person dorm rooms now only have two students per room. At the start of class, desks are sanitized. Meals are eaten at two-person tables. When students go home for breaks or holidays, they must remain in isolation upon return, attending virtual school until they have negative test results.
Many of the mainstays of her boarding experience are all on hold or happening on Zoom right now.
And, “if you’re leaving your room, you have to leave with a mask on,” she said.
Coronavirus in the United States: With a population of 330 million, the U.S. has had nearly 29 million cases and more than 521,000 deaths.
Vivian graduated from high school last summer and decided to take a gap year before starting college. (Vivian spoke to us on the condition that only her first name be used out of concerns for her family’s privacy.)
She decided to put starting university on hold. She knew if she didn’t, her freshman year would be spent taking virtual classes from a table at her parents’ restaurant.
Starting freshman year in person made her and her parents uncomfortable. She’s a first-generation college student, and never had the chance to visit her college in Connecticut.
“My parents were definitely uncomfortable with the idea of me going to a campus that they’ve never seen with their own eyes and having to do school via my computer,” she said.
Instead, her year off has been filled with different kinds of opportunities.
Her days start off with her work as an English tutor, followed potentially by a run and studying for her EMT course. At 3 p.m. every day, she heads to her parents’ restaurant where she helps out for the next few hours.
Despite the fullness of her days, she misses having a sense of community.
“I’ve actually had to delete social media, because I feel like it exacerbates this feeling of loneliness that I experience sometimes,” she said.
Vivian is one of thousands of students taking gap years or time off from college this year — there was a 4 percent decrease in undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. this year, with a 16 percent drop in freshman attendance.
Emma was featured in “Girlhood.”
Coronavirus in Ireland: The country is in strict lockdown restrictions until April, but some students will be allowed to return to school. The country, which has a population of 4.9 million, has had more than 200,000 cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
Emma lives in a village near Dublin and is in her final year of high school.
Her days are spent in virtual school — from around 8:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. In the evening she studies, takes walks and listens to music.
Long days in front of a screen aren’t the same as sitting in class, but she’s adapting as she prepares for important exams.
At the end of the academic year, she will take an exam called the Leaving Certification. “Those exams decide, do we get into college [or] do we not,” she said. “It’s frustrating to see that the U.K. and other European countries have canceled exams, but Ireland hasn’t.”
The government announced on Feb. 18 that students can either sit the traditional exams or opt for teacher estimates of the grades to be used instead.
Until the announcement, Emma has been following updates closely. “I’d be studying, trying to do extra in the evenings, and then I’d get notifications on my phone about [it],” she said.
“I think we’ve all realized we need to take a step back from our phones because it’s a bit draining.”