Girl child at risk of dropout

INDIA, RAJASTHAN - NOVEMBER 24 : Small school in a village of shepherds and farmers near Bikaner in Rajasthan on November 24, 2018 in India. (Photo by Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images)

With online classes hardly viable in poor families with two or three school going children, their education is bound to suffer. The risk of them being put to labour or married off is real  

Manisha Tiwari lives in a village of Jharkhand’s Koderma district. Since March, when the lockdown was imposed to fight the spread of Covid-19, the 9th graders’ academic year was disrupted, as were those of others in her village. The idea to have online classes take learning forward is not possible in her village. Even to speak with this reporter, she had to make her way to a mobile tower, her parents in tow; internet connectivity is another ball game altogether.

In its report ‘Strategy for New India @ 75’, Niti Aayog said that the government found 55,619 villages with no mobile coverage in the country. This means there will be several like Tiwari, the difference in her case is that they have found an alternative – though nothing close to real schooling – with a teacher from their village teaching kids, of all age groups for two hours each day in the school which is about a 10 minutes walk for Tiwari. The students are also provided with worksheets by Bal Mitra Gram (BMG) under Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundations (KSCF).

What also places her in a better spot than the millions of girls in villages across the country is that her village is covered by the BMG, and she also happens to be a part of the Bal Panchayat. But her life may have turned out to be different, with her parent’s planning to get her married off this March, a plan which was interrupted by the Bal Panchayat and intervention of BMG. But children in other villages of the country may not be so lucky.

A report prepared by UNICEF has revealed that the Covid-19 pandemic in India and the lockdown has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary education, besides 28 million children who were undergoing pre-school education in Anganwadi centres.

Furthermore, what puts these children at risk is the high unemployment rate, which according to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), as of September 9, saw an overall unemployment rate at 7.8%. During the lockdown it grew to a whopping 22.89% in April and 21.11% in May. This places families in an extremely precarious position where they may put their child to work, or even marry them off, which would especially be true in cases of the girl child, seen by many as a burden.

Rakesh Sengar, Executive Director, KSCF, says that children of both rural and urban areas have been impacted. While in urban areas like in Delhi’s slums, a family would consist of two to three children with only one phone, not enough to allow all the kids to take their classes online. In villages, the problems are either with electricity, or no internet connectivity, which makes e-learning a complete failure.

In both these circumstances, though, what is common, he points out, would be the girl child who would face the impact as “If there’s a boy (in the family) the boys will be given preference.” He says the likely problems to be faced now is the cases of dropouts and child marriage. “In places like Rajasthan, or other tribal areas, where child marriage is a cultural norm, they will now think that schools are not functioning, we will just get the child married off.”

Senger also points to another rampant issue that girls may face due to Covid-19, which is being trafficked. In the 550 villages that KSCF runs its programme, Senger says there have not been any cases of child marriage, but receiving the right and adequate education is still a problem during this pandemic.

In fact, thousands of letters were written to the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, by children of the Bal Panchayat to help their villages get better equipped for online learning. Till now they have not received any response.

Reports point to a grim picture

A report by UNICEF, on the Impact of Covid-19 on children, finds children at the highest risk of becoming victims of the pandemic. It also highlighted how girls would be worse off, as they have less access to digital technology than boys, “which may reduce their access to and participation in on-line learning”.

So, the central government’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign, may in essence be derailed if systematic checks are not in place to see that the girl child is not put into labour work to sustain a family, or married off to “unburden” them.

Education of the girl child has been difficult to implement, even now, as can be seen from the most recent literacy rate report titled ‘Household Social Consumption: Education in India’ as part of the 75th round of National Sample Survey. In all states of the country the literacy rate amongst females was comparatively low. It was as low as 57.6% in the case of Rajasthan as against a male literacy rate of 80.8%. Uttar Pradesh too was dismal which showed boys’ literacy rate at 81.8% and females’ ratio at 63.4%. Telangana had 80.5 and 65.1; Chhatisgarh at 85.4 and 68.7; and Jharkhand at 83.0 and 64%, boys literacy rate and female literacy rate, respectively, to name just a few.

Rights workers in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan that we spoke to mention the same issues. They say that most villages have absolutely no access to technology, and the fear that dropout rate will increase. Shobhana who works in Uttar Pradesh for Dalit Women Fight says that its just the government teacher equipped with an android phone who would come take classes.

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in its report on Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Family Planning and Ending Gender-based Violence, Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage, says that the pandemic would disrupt planned efforts to end child marriage and cause wide-reaching economic consequence. It said in its report that “together, these factors are expected to result in an additional total 13 million child marriages taking place that otherwise would not have occurred between 2020 and 2030”. That is a huge number of child marriages, squarely held responsible due to the pandemic and its forced lockdown.

How and if the government deals with such warnings, is to be seen.

(Cover: As schools remain shut during Covid-19, girls’ education may be deeply affected. Rights workers are worried, they will be either pushed into the labour force or married off // PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)

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