The experience of growing up as a girl child in several households in India comes mired with challenges, one of them being access to education. Over the decades, the government has designed programmes, slogans and schemes urging parents to send their daughters to school. Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao are some of the flagship schemes targeted towards getting the girl child to school. As the pandemic plays havoc with economies around the world, it also threatens to undo the gains made in female literacy. As job losses become more rampant, young girls are being sent to work to meet the expenses of running households.
Girls have been at a disadvantage as far as access to education is concerned. The bias against educating the girl child has been fuelled by a patriarchal mindset that places more importance to the male members of the household. From nutrition to education, boys tend to take precedence over girls. India has fought this battle determinedly through several policy interventions and sensitisation. However, according to a UNICEF report, the pandemic has severely hurt the prospects of the girl child in terms of access to education and future opportunities, as a consequence.
From providing bicycles to sanitary pads, the state governments have taken steps to ensure girls are sent to school. (Photo: Reuters)
S Thivya Rakini of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU) anxiously talks about the textile factories of Tamil Nadu — specifically the textile belt of the state in Coimbatore, Tirupur and Erode. She says that schoolgirls are going to factories because of the pandemic and many male members of families losing jobs. Textile factories are employing school and college-going girls who might not be allowed to go back to colleges as they start earning and begin to contribute towards family income. She talks about a factory that is employing 93 adolescent girls working in one shift.
One of the many silent casualties of the pandemic has been its onslaught on schoolgoing or college-going young girls. Nearly 89 per cent of schoolgoing children in India are out of school. The progress in closing the gender gap in education, made over several decades, could be drastically altered. India’s female literacy rate has risen from 8.86 per cent in 1951 to 65.46 per cent in 2011. Several schemes including the mid-day meal scheme introduced in 1995, played a role in reducing the cost of schooling and motivating parents to send their girls to schools.
This crucial link was broken with the pandemic and the lockdown that followed, so much so that the Supreme Court issued notices to the states in March 2020 to continue mid-day meals.
Terry Durnnian, Chief Education, UNICEF, India Country office explained, “As families face economic hardships, girls are more likely to be held back to take care of household chores. This could also lead to a rise in early marriages. The longer children are not learning, the less likely they are to return to school.”
According to the UNICEF Report, countries like India and Nepal also face a particular problem, since several hundred schools were designated as quarantine accommodation. This could add to the apprehension of parents to send children back to school. Access to schools was also a detrimental factor when it came to girls going to schools. Chief Ministers like Nitish Kumar and Vasundhra Raje Scindia devised schemes to get girls to schools. Kumar launched a scheme in 2006 to provide bicycles to schoolgoing girls, which has increased the female literacy rate from 33.12 per cent in 2001 to 51.5 per cent in 2011. Raje had announced a slew of schemes for schoolgoing girls — from free sanitary pads to Scootys for high achievers. Over the last few decades, access to schools has improved considerably, increasing enrolment of girls at primary levels.
But with no access to physical classrooms, the gender-based digital divides are further aggravated. A Harvard study in 2018 found that Indian women were denied access to technology — only 33 per cent urban women and 28 per cent rural women have access to the internet. And about 38 per cent of women own mobile phones.
As Kerala, the state with the highest literacy rate, opened up with online classes, a young girl in Malappuram district set herself on fire because she couldn’t attend the online classes. She was the daughter of a daily-wage earner and the family couldn’t afford a TV or a smartphone.
The pandemic poses a unique challenge for the State governments to devise quick and effective interventions to arrest the decline in the education of the girl child. As the economy worsens before it becomes better, young women would be asked to take on household chores or become earning members of the family, and education will take a back seat. Beti Padhao will have to reinvent itself to cope with the challenges of the post-Covid world.