Over 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools were affected by the school closure due to India’s COVID lockdown, according to a UNESCO report. While many schools have moved to online classes, this has not been a feasible solution for a large portion of the population who still live with limited access to devices and the internet. But of the children impacted, it has been girls who have borne the brunt of these changes far more than boys.
“We’re still fundamentally a patriarchy affected country where girls’ education does tend to be deprioritised,” says Anjela Taneja, a policy expert who focuses on education and inequality at Oxfam India. She observed that at a time like this when schools are closed and access is restricted, girls tend to be put into household work. Other research also supports that unpaid care work has gone up during lockdown and it is women and girls who are left to tackle the majority of it in families.
“There is no shortage of evidence to show that the digital divide is a gender divide,” she says. Data from the Internet and Mobile Association of India has shown that many families, especially in rural India, often only have one device. “If you’re sharing a device, the girl is likely to have less time with restricted single mobile phones that might be shared between the parents and the children,” Taneja says. The probability of completion of education is much lower for girls especially in these circumstances, she stresses.
Long-term impact of disrupted education
“It’s not like homes are safe for girls,” remarks Taneja, pointing out the various issues that they may face when their access to safe spaces to schools are closed. Many studies have revealed that domestic violence and abuse have been on the rise during the pandemic. Since families are restricted to their homes, women and girls have no one to turn to and are closed off from their communities and support systems. A rise in unemployment and problems like alcohol withdrawal due to lockdown further contribute to conflicts within the household. Involvement in paid child labour across genders has also been noted as families struggle with loss of income.
She adds that researchers are also looking into the rise of child marriages. An earlier push for education for girls and improvement in supporting infrastructure had led to a drop in these rates but that could be seeing a downturn with girls now being forced to stay home due to lockdowns. “It is a period of collective trauma,” Taneja points, for many girls, school was the only time they would be allowed to venture out of the house and the psychological impact of being cooped up inside the house for over a year is immeasurable. “Children need to be sheltered at this time, they need psychological support,” she remarks.
Adequate nutrition is another major challenge for large parts of the population. In their capacity, the government used to provide mid-day meals to many low-income school children which is no longer possible with schools closed. With a major dip in rural and migrant population income, access to food once again comes into question. “If food availability at home is restricted, once again girls have to compromise,” says Taneja.
Schools are also the site of incentives schemes like scholarships that have been delayed across the country, she pointed out. Given the vulnerability of girls, she noted that this has hit them hard especially those who live at the intersection of multiple levels of marginalisation such as disabilities.
The lost generation
While the pandemic has already made an indelible impact on the country’s economy, its impact is likely to exceed given the magnitude of the second wave we are currently facing. With over three lakh new COVID-19 cases every day, there is a looming sense of death and despair in the air and many families have lost key breadwinners, the future of their children is as hazy as the skies filled with plumes of the continually burning pyres.
“In the long run, it is a lost generation in terms of skill acquisition, learning, social skills,” says Taneja. For girls who have had their education disrupted, she points to evidence that shows there will be a lifelong loss of earning. Looking at future employment as well, preference may be given to men who are seen as primary breadwinners when there is a dearth of jobs. During the course of the pandemic, there has already been a disproportionate number of women who have lost their jobs and the trend is likely to continue in the future as well as the pandemic continues to decimate economic growth.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)