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Returns at Risk: Girls’ Education and the Gendered Racial Vernacular of COVID-19

Since COVID-19 closed schools in March 2020, international development experts, politicians, and celebrities across the globe have raised alarm about the pandemic’s impacts on girls’ education, particularly in Africa. These warnings, which link school closures with untimely pregnancy and marriage, reflect belief in the multiplicative power of girls’ schooling and a long-standing concern with the sexual practices of Black and African girls. In this article, we explore English-language reporting on girls’ education from March 2020 to March 2021 to ask: (1) How has COVID-19 been framed as a crisis for girls? (2) How do these discourses relate to a history of anxiety about African girls’ sexuality? and (3) What does this mean for girls’ education as a global endeavor? Drawing on critical feminist and development theories, we argue that discourses of gendered risk and lost returns emphasize sexualized problems and reproduce racialized difference. Specifically, COVID-19 responses deploy and legitimize a gendered “racial vernacular” (Pierre 2020) that underpins and reifies white supremacy. We contend that these framings are both socially and materially consequential.