COVID-19 has ravaged not just the health sector and the economy, but even social institutions. Worldwide, nearly 89 percent of children are missing out on their education. In India alone, millions of young students, especially girls, are out of school - leading to an increased gender gap in education.
Girls’ education in the country has seen tremendous growth in the last few decades. Female literacy and school enrollments have been climbing up due to the mid-day meal schemes, better access to schools, funding, etc. But the pandemic has disrupted all of it with the unpredictable lockdowns, increasing unemployment, and putting the girls at risk of being forced into child marriage, child labour, poverty, and more.
COVID-19 has reportedly hampered the mid-day meals that ensured girls were in school and provided with nutrition. This has caused families to withdraw their daughters, leading to a higher dropout rate and lesser enrollments. Even though the Supreme Court had issued notices to all States to continue the meals during the lockdown, very few seem to have implemented it. In July, the Nation Education Policy 2020, even proposed breakfast for school children. But none of this amounts to anything till the girls can go to school.
Girls are also less likely to have the means to afford or access digital technology for remote learning. In fact, according to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), only 28 percent of rural women have access to the internet. The lack of digital infrastructure in these areas is a cause for concern. In the absence of physical classrooms, this is bound to add to the hike in the gender gap.
The unemployment rate is also rising. According to statistics, 17 million women have lost their jobs since March 2020. Given India’s already low female workforce participation (less than 27%, according to a 2019 study), this hits their chances of returning to education. Families that have been hit by the pandemic tend to put their daughters to work because extra income trumps the need for education.
It is this fear of going back to square one that is a concern. Girls, especially from lower-income households are likely to be kept at home for unpaid work, married off, or be pushed into doing domestic chores so that returning to school in the future (once schools open up) will not be an option for them.
“Since the beginning of the lockdown, there have been an alarming number of stories of girls being sent early to their marital homes and straight into domestic servitude and sexual abuse,” Safeena Husein, the founder of Educate Girls, has said. Her organisation strives to make education more accessible to girls in India. They have been helping families meet their basic nutrition and sanitation needs, hoping it allows girls to go back to school.
According to UNESCO's recent policy brief on the pandemic’s impact on education, 24 million children are at the risk of not returning to schools - most of them in south and west Asia. The global body has also said that girls and young women are likely to be disproportionately affected as school closures make them more vulnerable to child marriage, early pregnancy and gender-based violence.
Not only will this kill the progress that has been made in India over the decades, but it’ll also rob millions of girls of their dreams and future. The spillover will affect even the coming generation of women. It has been proven time and again that educating women leads to greater gender equality. That’s also why a gender lens needs to be adopted while restructuring curriculum and addressing the digital divide.
(Edited by Athira Nair)