Earlier this year, as part of our work with the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative and Human Rights Watch, we spoke to a young woman from rural Bolivar County, Mississippi. She had been planning to attend college this fall, the first in her family.
Then came COVID-19 and she found herself caring for her ailing grandmother and setting up a K-5 classroom in the family’s trailer for her siblings. She had to quit her job for college money at Dollar General.
“I thought I had it all figured out for the first time in my life and then all of this stuff started happening,” the 17-year-old recently told us. “I just want to be happy … to go to school and go back to my job.”
The pandemic has exposed systemic inequalities and structural racism. It has taken a disproportionate toll on Black people, especially in the rural South, where limited access to medical care and high poverty rates lead to some of the country’s worst health outcomes.
Being out of school for months on end, young people — especially in areas without reliable internet or phone services — are cut off from friends, teachers, and school communities. Many struggle with isolation and loneliness. They missed out on milestones, such as class trips and graduations; they fear for their health as they return to classrooms.
Many, like the young woman we spoke with, have taken on caregiver responsibilities. They struggle as jobs and working hours are cut and small businesses close.
In June, we joined almost 100 young Black women and girls from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi at the virtual gathering for the 15th annual Unita Blackwell Young Women’s Leadership Institute, a program of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative. The young women described the pandemic’s effect on their health and lives.
The pandemic is creating new hardships for already overburdened healthcare systems. In the rural South, hospitals in communities that already have restricted services are closing or reducing care at alarming rates.
These young women reinforced key human rights concerns about transportation, limited access to healthcare providers and insurance, and general distrust of the healthcare system that Human Rights Watch has found in our own research.
The pandemic is not only exacerbating many of these existing health barriers, but it’s also underscoring government failures to protect everyone’s fundamental human rights. Instead, structural racism, discrimination, and poverty—which have historically left Black people out of the healthcare system — are leaving leave us more vulnerable to a serious and deadly virus.
But the pandemic is also showing that knowledge is power.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch found that Alabama “is failing to educate young people about their sexual and reproductive health,” despite the impact it could have “on ensuring positive health outcomes into adulthood.”
The young woman from Bolivar County still plans to attend college.
Our youth are powerful and resilient. They will drive the change to dismantle racism and oppression. Our future as a country depends on their success. We need to invest in our young people’s growth, leadership, and health — during this pandemic and beyond.
Amanda Furdge is the youth program coordinator with the Children’s Defense Fund-Southern Regional Office and director of the Unita Blackwell Young Women’s Leadership Institute with the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Social and Economic Justice. Annerieke Daniel is a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.