The voices and views of teenage girls are, for various reasons, seldom heard during disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The research reported in this article focused on their voices and views during the recent pandemic and the accompanying lockdown. Five themes were investigated: (i) teenage girls’ emotions, (ii) their fears, (iii) their views on education, (iv) their views on human rights and democracy, and (v) their resilience. The empirical study focused on the changes within these themes.
According to Bronfenbrenner (1979), all individuals live within certain environments or ecosystems. The interactions between an individual and her ecosystem plays an important role in a teenager’s development (Härkönen 2007:11). This interaction can theoretically be viewed from two different, yet mutually supportive, angles: firstly, a combination of structuration theory and ubuntu, and secondly, the disaster phase model. From a mainly western perspective, Giddens (1991:201) sees society as a “structuration process”, where individuals, social agents, simultaneously form and are shaped by social structures. Within the African context, ubuntu is used to articulate the relationships and interdependence between individuals and their communities. The combination of structuration theory and ubuntu emphasises that teenage girls are social agents who are able to change and reform their environments, rather than mere objects who must slavishly follow societal norms. The second theoretical lens, the disaster phase model (Flynn 1997:613; Flynn and Norwood 2004:599), provides a perspective on the different phases through which people − and their emotions − move during a disaster.
Using these lenses, the background for the research was briefly considered. The lockdown has been described as “arguably the most formidable challenge that humanity has had to face in the last 100 years” (One South Africa par. 1), and has influenced the political, economic and social spheres of civil society. It has also highlighted the uneasiness with regard to human rights and democracy caused by regulations and state actions, the inequity in education, and gender violence. Regarding teenage girls’ voices during the lockdown, the research firstly indicated that their views are generally ignored due to cultural and gender prejudices. Secondly, research on the impact of disasters on children in general and teenage girls in particular is limited, and they are often overlooked when considering the effects of disasters. A number of international studies and articles have, however, been able to break this silence, whilst the empirical study provides information from a South African perspective. The empirical study was conducted in two phases during April 2020 and May 2020. Eleven teenage girls (aged 12−16), from grades 7 to 11, participated in both phases. The results of the empirical study and the international sources are discussed within the five aforementioned themes.
The teenage girls’ emotions during the lockdown are discussed within five groups: (i) frustration, (ii) anxiety, worry, sadness and depression, (iii) disconnectedness and confusion, (iv) boredom, loneliness and imprisonment, and (v) joy and happiness. Although frustration is not often associated with the first phase of the disaster phase model (Flynn 1997:613; Flynn and Norwood 2004:599), the research indicated that teenage girls were already experiencing the emotion during the lockdown. The results from the empirical study indicated that participants’ frustration became more pronounced, and that their feelings of anxiety, worry, sadness and depression also increased as the lockdown dragged on.
A significant percentage of teenage girls felt disconnected and confused. They were also bored, although the incidence of boredom was lower in the empirical study than in other sources. Participants in the empirical study also differed from their USA and Australian counterparts with regard to loneliness: None of the participants referred to it, although some indicated that they felt “imprisoned”.
Despite the grim circumstances of the lockdown, some teenage girls still felt joy and happiness, although the empirical study indicated that the number of participants who experienced these emotions decreased marginally from April to May. The research further indicated that teenage girls were more stressed out, worried and confused than boys, but were also more inclined to discuss their circumstances with family members.
The teenage girls’ fears revolved mainly around the corona virus, the economic consequences of the lockdown, and gender-based violence. Teenage girls were afraid that they, or their families, would be infected with the COVID-19 virus, and that it would continue to spread. They were also concerned that that the pandemic would continue indefinitely and that a cure would not be found. Their fears about the economy centred around economic recovery and employment. As with negative emotions, the empirical study indicated that more participants were worried in May about the corona virus and economy than in April. However, gender-based violence was not often mentioned, which, one hopes, indicates that the teenage girls were not exposed to such violence, rather than that they were too scared to talk about it.
The research confirms that school and education is very important to teenage girls. They missed their schools and education during the lockdown and were worried about their schoolwork. They were also concerned that they were falling behind or would have to repeat the academic year. Their views on online and distance education were, however, at odds with the perception that online education is the “new normal” in education. Although, as expected, they referred to the lack of electronic resources as a hindrance, the research indicated that even those who had access to online learning were not in favour of it. This is evident from the following remarks: “Online schooling is mostly a joke, just to say that we ‘did school’” and: “Being teached [sic] by a teacher is much better than trying on your own”.
Teenage girls’ views on human rights and democracy include a lack of support for the government, and their concerns that decision makers do not take cognisance of them. Participants in the empirical study were mostly of the opinion that the lockdown had a negative effect on human rights. They referred to police brutality, corruption and the restrictions on funerals. Most of them were also of the view that the lockdown had a negative effect on democracy, with one participant complaining: “I thought we were supposed to be living in a democracy but we are prohibited.” The participants were also less satisfied with the state of democracy and human rights as the lockdown continued, which supports the tendency that they became more negative as the lockdown dragged on.
The research indicated that, although negativity and loss were still evident, there were emerging signs of the teenage girls’ resilience, e.g. in their actions as social agents and caring for their families. Participants in the empirical study indicated that they were, despite their negative emotions, fears and pessimistic views on human rights and democracy, able to cope through positive actions like educational programmes, games, positive self-talk, and “drinking hot chocolate”. Participants often referred to their families in their responses. This could indicate that South African teenage girls are, due to ubuntu, emotionally better protected against the negative effects of the lockdown than their international counterparts.
Six important implications arise from the research. Firstly, teenage girls are, subject to differences in context, a homogenous group with shared emotions and views − which sometimes differ from those of boys. Thus, any decisions about teenage girls should be taken with their gender and cultural contexts in mind. Secondly, the lockdown is an exception to the rule. Therefore, teenage girls should be equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to manage its uncertainty. Thirdly, it is important to take note of and provide methods to curb and manage the increase in negative emotions and feelings which was clearly evident in the empirical study. It is also important to take note of teenage girls’ views on online and distance education, as it seems that they prefer classrooms and educators. This implies that educators must be empowered and supported when learners eventually return to school. The fifth implication is that the views of teenage girls are important and should not be ignored, whether it be about education, democracy or even funerals. They are not just “stats and facts” (UNICEF 2020:13), even though their views were seemingly not taken into account in any of the important decisions taken about them during the lockdown. Finally, teenage girls showed, despite their situation, signs of resilience. Thus, even if they were merely “stats and facts” to the authorities, the research indicated that they will, in the spirit of ubuntu, ensure their and their families’ survival during the lockdown.
Keywords: COVID-19; democracy; education; emotions; fear; human rights; lockdown; online education; resilience; teenage girls