Hunger, Safety, and Aspirations: New Data on Student Well-Being During COVID-19 from Liberia

Hunger, Safety, and Aspirations: New Data on Student Well-Being During COVID-19 from Liberia

In the past year, COVID-19 has highlighted enormous gaps in our understanding of how best to support learners affected by a health emergency, especially the most vulnerable children. What we know from the Ebola epidemic and emerging evidence from COVID-19 suggests that children living through health emergencies face unique risks to their well-being. Given what we know about the importance of psychosocial well-being as a precursor to learning (especially for children impacted by crisis), what specific well-being risks do children in Liberia face? And how can the Luminos Fund best support students to manage these risks?

To explore these questions and support the Liberian Ministry of Education’s COVID-19 response,  Luminos worked with the Ministry in the fall of 2020 to conduct a needs assessment to better understand the psychosocial needs of vulnerable children living through COVID-19 in Liberia. The assessment included in-depth interviews (conducted in November during the school closures) with approximately 300 Luminos Second Chance students and 100 parents across 26 communities in three counties (Bomi, Montserrado, Grand Cape Mount). Survey instruments were designed in collaboration with the Ministry of Education to collect data across the three major domains of psychosocial well-being: human capacity, social ecology, and culture and values (INEE, 2016). Given that hunger and malnutrition are threats to well-being in the Liberian context, data on children’s physical health was also collected. Below are a few of our learnings from the assessment.

In Liberia, hunger was a problem before the pandemic. Since COVID-19, the situation has gotten a bit worse.

Prior to COVID-19, an estimated 1.6 million Liberians were food insecure, and nearly 1 in 3 children suffered from chronic malnutrition. Estimates from the World Food Program suggest that food insecurity has risen by over 80% since the start of the pandemic due to compounding effects of COVID-19.

Since the start of the pandemic, 54% of Luminos students in Liberia eat just one meal per day (an increase of 16 percentage points compared to pre-COVID-19).

When we spoke with Luminos parents on the topic, the majority (63%) shared that since COVID-19, their family was eating less food (though the vast majority described the change as small). 22% said their family was eating the same amount of food as before COVID-19. When we probed further, we heard that just 13% of Luminos students ate three meals per day prior to the pandemic, and since COVID-19 this has dropped to 5% (Figure 1). Since the start of the pandemic, 54% of Luminos students in Liberia eat just one meal per day (an increase of 16 percentage points compared to pre-COVID-19). The data suggests that the situation may be slightly worse for boys than girls (more girls appear to eat three meals/day as compared to boys, both before and during COVID-19).

Given that COVID-19 has disrupted school meals programs (including ours in Liberia, during the period of school closures), it makes sense that there is a direct link between being out of school and being hungrier. Moreover, given that household income has contracted (80% of Luminos families say they have lost income during COVID-19), the above data suggesting that our students and their families are a bit hungrier since COVID-19 is, sadly, not surprising. To support families through this challenging period, Luminos provided food support (bags of rice) to our students and their families during the school closures. While by no means comprehensive to tackle the challenge of hunger that our families face, we aimed to support Luminos students’ well-being through the pandemic in lieu of school meals. In the wake of COVID-19, the need for holistic learning models that meet students’ academic and broader needs, like our proven Second Chance program, is greater than ever. School feeding programs will play an important role as well. 

Both boys and girls express having felt unsafe during COVID-19 school closures. The data suggest that this manifests differently for boys as compared to girls.

Given that children spent the greater part of the past year at home (as opposed to at school), we were interested to understand student experiences and feelings regarding safety at home and within the community during COVID-19 school closures. When we spoke to Liberian students, 22% reported feeling unsafe at home in the past one month (while schools were closed). Depending on who you spoke to, the degree to which the community was perceived as a safe space for students varied dramatically: nearly all students reported having felt unsafe in the community, while just 20% of parents shared the same view regarding their child’s feeling of safety (nearly 75% of parents said that their child “always felt safe in the community”). This suggests there is a gap between children’s experiences and parental perceptions of safety.

When we asked students why they felt unsafe, 54% shared that it was due to COVID-19 and social distancing. In students’ own words this was expressed as: “Because it’s possible someone has the virus and I don’t know”, and “Most of the time my friends and I are playing, so if they get the Coronavirus, it is possible that I get it too”. Other reasons for feeling unsafe included physical or verbal abuse, traditional and cultural practices in the community (including female genital mutilation, or FGM), and school closures (Figure 2). 

It is worth noting that the data suggests that boys’ and girls’ feelings around safety during the school closures do not appear equal. Of the children who answered our question about safety, six boys and one girl reported physical or verbal abuse, which conveys a disproportionate impact on boys’ feelings of safety in the home. On the other hand, six out of seven students who reported feeling unsafe due to traditional and cultural practices in the community were girls. This is consistent with our understanding of the disproportionate impact of such practices on women, children and the poorest, and supports research on the increased prevalence of violence against girls and women during the pandemic, and the increase in teenage pregnancies we saw following Ebola school closures. Given the small sample size, these points of course merit further study. As a side note, while students did not explicitly reference FGM when describing traditional and ritualistic practices, given that Liberia is one of four countries in Africa where FGM remains legal, the data could provide an early proof point for the anticipated increase in cases of FGM as a result of COVID-19.

Despite living through Ebola and now COVID-19, Luminos students have high aspirations for their future selves, which supports their overall well-being despite the adversities they face.

Based on external evidence from the Second Chance program in Ethiopia, we know that the Second Chance pedagogy is effective in building learners’ confidence in their abilities and capacity to learn. Given the importance of self-concept (the ability to express personal preferences, feelings, thoughts and abilities) to social and emotional development and well-being, we were eager to explore students’ aspirations for their future possible selves. When asked to share one thing they hope or wish will happen in their life in the future, nearly every single student was able to share a hope or aspiration (“I want to travel to America so I can live better and support my family”; “I want to be able to help my mom and make her ok”; “I want to be a business woman”; “I want to finish high school and go to college”). Seventy-nine percent of students surveyed named a specific career or profession they aspired to (doctor, teacher, president, pilot, police officer, entrepreneur, etc.), while 21% named other things, the main themes of which were being educated, financial security, helping others (especially one’s parents), and traveling abroad for a better quality of life. Based on student responses, education was often recognized as the means to achieving other things like becoming a nurse or helping one’s community. It is interesting to note, that when we asked parents about their child’s hopes/aspirations for their futures, 69% of parents were able to identify an aspiration (27% were unsure). This may suggest that parents are less optimistic about their child’s future prospects, as compared to children’s own outlooks.

When asked to share one thing they hope or wish will happen in their life in the future, nearly every single student was able to share a hope or aspiration

64% of students (roughly equal number of girls and boys) were able to name a realistic barrier that could stop them from achieving their aspiration. The main barriers identified by students were not going to school or lack of education (62%) and financial barriers (22%). See Figure 3. Of students that named financial barriers, more often than not this was closely linked to the child’s ability to access education, and in particular, the ability to pay school fees (“If there’s no money to send me to school anymore”; “If my parents don’t have money to pay for my school fees”). It is worth pointing out that girls were 9 percentage points more likely to identify financial barriers as prohibitive to achieving their future self (Figure 3). Given that household education spending may fall as incomes contract in the wake of the pandemic, we may see more girls than boys dropping out of school. At Luminos, we are deeply aware of these constraints on families and our Second Chance program remains free for all students. In addition, each program graduate receives a stipend, which supports their transition into the government school system at the end of our program.

Final thoughts

During COVID-19 school closures, which ran from March to November 2020 in Liberia, the Luminos team, partners, and facilitators worked hard – through food support, physically-distanced home visits, and micro-classes – to ensure that student well-being was our top priority. Now that schools have reopened and Luminos continues to help the most vulnerable children return to school in Liberia and beyond, ensuring that we meet students’ broader well-being needs will be critical to getting children caught up on learning quickly. Our hope is that the data and insights generated through this assessment are useful not only for Liberia’s Ministry of Education as they navigate the return to learning for the country’s two million learners, but for the broader global education community in responding to COVID-19 and future crises.

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The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

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