(ridvan_celik via iStock)

Nearly one in three girls’ education suffered last year because of increased caregiving responsibilities. According to a groundbreaking new report out Tuesday by the Alliance for Girls, the pandemic demolished a delicate support system for girls, including trans girls, nonbinary youth, gender-nonconforming youth, gender-queer youth, and any girl-identified youth (referred to in the report as gender-expansive youth), with girls experiencing more stress than ever before and suffering mostly in isolation. The report, titled Uniting Isolated Voices: Girls and Gender-Expansive Youth During COVID-19, uplifts the experiences of young people during the pandemic, identifying solutions to address what could otherwise be a generation of lost girls and gender-expansive youth. 

“Girls were the unsung heroes of this pandemic, taking on additional caregiving and seeking additional employment, all while trying to stay afloat at school,” said Emma Mayerson, founding executive director for the Alliance for Girls. But even as they’ve stretched themselves to the limit, “girls have been met with a fractured and underfunded system that’s reached a near breaking point. ”

The report offers a glimpse into the lives of more than 1,200 cisgender girls, transgender girls, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, gender queer, or girl-identified young people from March 2020 to January 2021. Fifty-four percent of respondents were between the ages of 15 and 19 years old, but ages ranged from 5 to 24 years old. Six percent of respondents were also parents. All respondents said that COVID-19 was negatively impacting their lives.

“Everything is off balance because of stupid COVID,” one 12-year-old Black girl shared in the report. “At home we don’t have enough alcohol and sanitizer … And our rent went up and we lost our food stamps.”

Girls relayed stories of two intersecting and intensified hardships: Nearly one in two girls took on additional domestic work at home, such as taking care of younger siblings, and girls experienced higher levels of stress because of the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, girls were relied on to support familial caregiving duties, but this was heightened and compounded over the past year as child care centers and schools closed. Adults had to keep working and many expected girls to take on the responsibilities of closing the care gap. At the same time, two out of every three girls felt extreme stress and anxiety because of the pandemic, amplifying mental health issues like depression that are already more commonly diagnosed in girls than boys.

School closures played a significant role in the rise in mental health challenges. More than just classrooms, at school girls find friends and social experiences, alongside support programs like free lunches and sanitary products in bathrooms, and counselors and other health practitioners able to support mental and physical health needs. A 22-year-old trans Black girl explained in her survey response that without school, she suffered from the “lack of quiet and private space for me to work and talk to my therapist and other people’s open support.” 

COVID-19’s impact on adults also reverberated to girls. Adult Black and brown women have been the most impacted by job losses and health issues during the last year, with women of color making up the majority of the 5.4 million women who lost their jobs during the pandemic. In some months, like December 2020, all job losses were Black and brown women, with hundreds of thousands of Black women dropping out of the workforce entirely, all while Indigenous and Black people suffer the highest rates of COVID-19-related deaths. The report reveals that girls and gender-expansive youth, especially trans, Black, brown, and low-income girls, are also suffering a heightened level of crisis and need solutions that directly help them. One in three girls reported an overall lack of financial stability, with 15 % lacking access to a caring adult, or a family member or adult to check on them in a private and confidential manner. Thirty percent of girls were unable to get the educational support they needed, and 18% needed period or hygiene products they couldn’t find at home.

“It’s harder for girls to access basic shelter, hygiene, and the internet,” said Kendra Edwards, the data and evaluation manager at MISSSEY, Inc., an organization that provides services and support to sexually exploited youth. “Girls have higher and different needs, and girls are never centered in policy decisions—they’re basically ignored—especially Black and trans girls.” 

This creates a self perpetuating cycle, in which policy solutions are developed but not centered on those most impacted. 

“Girls are telling us that health and wellness for them requires access to safe spaces and support of adults,” Edwards said. “Health is relational; safety is belonging. This needs to be raised at a policy level. If Black and trans girls were safe, everyone would be safe.”

Experts who developed the report, including girls themselves and advocacy groups like Alliance for Girls and professional development programs like Techbridge Girls and Teen Success, Inc., are calling for solutions that center girls’ needs in the nation’s COVID-19 recovery process and provide dedicated funding to gender and race equity initiatives. They also advocate for adopting community school models that embrace the role of schools as both centers of learning and also hubs for student and family wellness. 

“For decades, there’s been a movement around centering emotional wellness in our schools and communities. Failure to fully embrace that vision decades ago is part of the reason we’ve failed our young people—girls especially—in the past year,” Mayerson said. “Now is the time to leap into that vision to embrace the interconnected nature of schools, communities, and families in a girl’s life and elevate the role of schools as a hub of resources, relationships, and services that reach far beyond the confines of a classroom,” she continued.

Umme Hoque is a writer, editor, and organizer. She's passionate about writing about and investigating issues for low-income workers and communities of color, lifting up the experiences of those who are...