The pandemic disrupted education. And female students suffered more
The dreams and aspirations of thousands of girls took a backseat after their families income levels dropped amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of them may not return to classes again
Seventeen-year-old Rani was taking her class 12 board exams in Haryana’s Nuh district when the nationwide lockdown was announced to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in India in March 2020. Just like all the other activities came to a standstill, her exams were first postponed, and later, cancelled. Little did she know that the pandemic will put her dream to join a college and become a teacher on hold.
Three months into the lockdown, Rani’s father, who was working as a security guard at a private firm in Gurugram, lost his job. The family exhausted all their savings in the next few months. “We had no money to even buy food on some days forget about getting into a college. Although I passed the class 12 exams [under an alternate assessment method adopted by the state government], I was told by my parents that I would not be able to continue studies, and whatever money they had was required for my brothers’ education,” said Rani, who goes by her first name.
While Rani’s two brothers returned to schools after the state government allowed educational institutions to reopen in July, she has joined free stitching classes being offered by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in her neighbourhood. Expressing her helplessness over the situation, Rani’s mother, Lakshmi said, “We also wanted her to study further but our hands are tied. Her father got a job after 11 months. He is earning half the amount he was getting earlier. Getting our sons proper education is our priority right now. If things get better we will enrol her in a college next year.”
Like Rani, the dreams and aspirations of thousands of girls took a backseat after their families income levels dropped amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of them may not return to classes again. According to a policy brief issued by the Right to Education Forum in January, 10 million girls in India could drop out of secondary school due to Covid-19.
Gender-based digital divide
The sudden shift from classroom learning to virtual learning was like a bolt for students from marginalised communities due to the existing digital divide among students. However, anecdotal evidence and some recent studies show that there existed a “gender-based digital divide” that made the situation even worse for female students.
According to a report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in September, based on a survey conducted across six states, the use of the most commonly used platforms for online studies such as WhatsApp and Youtube among girls was 8% lower than that of boys.
A Delhi-based NGO, Protsahan, conducted a survey on the occasion of International Day of the Girl Child, October 11, among 766 girls aged between 7-21 from 64 slum clusters across the Capital to understand the impact that schools and colleges have had since shifting their classes online. As per the survey findings, 33.6% of girls do not have access to digital devices, and 15.7% of them said that they have very limited access to the devices owned by their families. “64% of girls said that in their communities, boys have more access to digital devices and the internet,” the survey report stated. It added that the majority of the girls said that their families think that it is more important for the boys to study and get an education.
A 13-year-old class 8 student at a government senior secondary girls school in Dwarka said that she hardly studied anything in the last 18 months. “We have only one smartphone at home and I have to share it with my younger brother and a cousin brother who stays with us. By the time my turn comes the daily limit of mobile data gets exhausted. I am just waiting for my school to reopen,” she said.
Several other students share similar experiences. “The only smartphone we own stays with my father during the day while he is at work. When he returns home, he gives it to my brother. I hardly get an opportunity to use it, and that’s why I barely studied anything in the last one and a half years. I was so happy when my school reopened in August but I feel I have missed a lot over these 16-17 months,” said a class 10 student at a government high school in Uttar Pradesh’s Etawah district.
Domestic burden, lack of menstrual hygiene
According to the NGO Protsahan survey, 56.1% of girls said that their responsibility of doing domestic chores increased during the pandemic, leaving less time to focus on their education.
The stories of many girls backed the survey findings. A 13-year-old class sixth student at a government girls senior secondary school in Mustafabad, said, “In the last one and a half years I not only did all the household chores but also took care of my two younger siblings while both my parents were at work. Earlier, when I would get spared during the school hours and do only evening chores.”
School officials also received such complaints from their female students. “When I observed that many girls in my class were not submitting their homework regularly, I reached out to them. The girls told me that they were forced to do domestic chores by their family members and therefore they were not being able to complete their work. I had to visit some parents to personally counsel them,” said the principal of a government school in east Delhi, who wished not to be named.
In June 2020, Unesco also raised concerns over the heightened risk of domestic violence and sexual abuse among girls during the lockdown. “The health risks for girls who can no longer attend school are not limited to the virus itself. Without school — a place of safety as well as education — as a lifeline, home confinement means there is a heightened risk of domestic violence and sexual abuse,” it had said in a statement.
Several thousands of girls across the country are also dependent on
schools for the supply of sanitary napkins and it had completely halted for months amid the lockdown. The female students of classes 6 to 12, studying in government schools across the country, are given sanitary napkin packets every month under the central government’s Kishori Shakti Yojna. Schools also did not distribute sanitary napkins during the initial months of the lockdown period.
According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-2016, only 36% of the women use sanitary napkins out of the 336 million menstruating women in India. The pandemic further deprived them of basic menstrual hygiene.
Guddi, 16, whose family like thousands of other migrant families had to return to their hometown in Bihar during the lockdown, said that she could not afford a sanitary napkin for almost nine months. “Both my parents, father, a mason, and mother, who works as domestic help, could not find work for months. We were even struggling to arrange meals and that’s why we decided to go back to our hometown in June last year. We had no means to buy sanitary napkins for more than 8-9 months. Both my sister (14) and I were using clothes. It was in April this year when we returned to Delhi I got napkins from my school,” she said.
Fear of child marriage
In March this year, almost a year after the Covid-19 pandemic shook the world, Unicef released an analysis saying that an additional 10 million child marriages may occur before the end of the decade. It warned that school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage.
“Covid-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse. Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out. But we can and we must extinguish child marriage,” said Unicef executive director, Henrietta Fore.
According to the Maharashtra government, as many as 790 child marriages were prevented during the Covid-19 pandemic across the state. In Madhya Pradesh, 710 cases of child marriages were prevented between 2020-21 against 196 cases during the previous year.
Sanjay Gupta, director of Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action (Chetna), an NGO, that operates the government’s helpline for children in distress (1098) in Mathura and Agra, said, “We have received exceptionally more calls regarding incidents of child marriages during the pandemic. When we talked to the families and communities we got to know that they planned to get their young daughters married to avoid excessive expenditure that they would have to spend in normal times. Some of them also said that they were sure that their girls would never go back to school due to the financial situation wrought by the pandemic. Also, they were carefree thinking that the system was busy managing Covid situation,” he said.
Get Updates on India News, Farmers Protest Live alongwith the Latest News and Top Headlines from India and around the the world.