The coronavirus pandemic has caused a devastating health crisis in India resulting in food shortages, school closures, and a loss of income for daily wage earners and low-income households. Marginalized populations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, which has impacted their safety, mental health, standard of living, and overall chance of social mobility. The pandemic has hit young girls particularly hard, as they are stuck in limbo regarding their educational prospects — according to some estimates, the pandemic could cause 10 million secondary school girls in India to drop out.
For millions of girls across India, getting an education is the only way to escape poverty, abuse, early marriage, and early pregnancy. Amid school closures across the nation, millions of female students face great uncertainty about the possibility of continuing their education. Against this backdrop, the Indian government has a responsibility to provide adequate support to young girls in the country, especially those from marginalized communities. This can be done through enacting effective policies and programs that address the factors deterring girls’ education, such as gender disparities in access to technology and cultural norms.
A variety of factors already deter girls in India from going to school, especially those who come from rural areas and low-income communities. The pandemic has exacerbated the hurdles these girls face in addition to aggravating systemic sexism. In India, the education of a boy is considered more valuable, as the son will always remain part of the family. Furthermore, girls are expected to take care of the household by cooking and cleaning and are seen as inferior to boys. Girls are expected to learn domestic skills in preparation for marriage so that they can take care of their husband and future children. Since a daughter will leave the household after marriage and become part of another family, educating a girl child is often seen as an unnecessary burden — parents receive more return on investment in the education of their son.
Girls are also less likely to have access to technology for remote learning. In Bihar, a state that has one of the highest poverty rates in India, just 28% of girls reported having access to a phone compared to 36% of boys. According to a study undertaken by the Malala Fund, which took sample populations from the five states of Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, and Delhi, in 71% of cases, phones are owned by a male family member. This can hinder girls’ access to phones as they may be hesitant to ask their male family members. Male family members often hold the authority at home and thus have the power to limit or deter girls’ phone usage. Only 26% of girls said that they could access the phone present in the household whenever they wanted to, compared to 37% of boys.
On a larger scale, only 23% of Indian households have access to the internet for remote learning. Although the Indian government has reported telecasting curriculum-based lessons for free on TV in Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, and Telangana, only 11% of the 3,176 children surveyed across these regions reported accessing these. This hurdle is compounded by girls already having diminished access to technology. Technology disparities can have a permanent impact on girls continuing their education, and remote learning has made education for girls from marginalized communities even more inaccessible. There is a desperate need for the Bureau of Indian Education to bridge the technology gap and enact policies to support schools across the country by distributing technological devices among students who don’t have them.
Girls’ education has also been negatively affected by the recent Union budget presented by the Indian government. The budget for education has seen a 6% cut from the previous year. Furthermore, the funding for the National Scheme for Incentives to Girls for Secondary Education decreased from 1.3 million dollars in 2020-21 to just 136,000 dollars in 2021-22, at a time when funding is needed the most. These cuts in funding will directly impact girls in rural areas and the girls from marginalized communities who were the direct recipients of these schemes. The digital divide and the need for digital infrastructure for schooling was also not addressed by the budget. The Indian government has a responsibility to revise the budget to reduce the existing inequalities affecting girls across the country.
However, some effective measures have been taken by the government to support girls’ education such as implementing a mid-day meal program in schools which aims to improve the nutritional health of children while also coaxing them to come to school. This scheme has had an enormous positive impact on girls’ education as it motivates parents to send their daughters to school. The scheme also provides employment for women who cook and deliver the meals. Because of the pandemic, however, government aided schools remain closed and many girls from families who live in extreme poverty face hunger in addition to lack of education.
Studies have shown that educating girls not only benefits the girls and their families but also creates more stable communities, improves the economy, and aids in reducing poverty. In India alone, investing in girls’ education could lead to a 10% increase in GDP over the next 10 years as every $1 spent on girls’ rights and education would generate a $2.80 return. That said, the urgency of educating the girls cannot be reasoned solely in monetary terms. The Indian government’s inadequacy in fully providing support to vulnerable female populations to access education is a violation of the Right to Education as enshrined in the Indian constitution.
The Indian government should enact community-specific solutions by looking at the local needs of each community experiencing a high population of female children not participating in remote learning. Additionally, partnering with community non-profit organizations that understand the cultural norms of specific regions and running back to school campaigns can also convince parents to allow their daughters to partake in remote learning and continue their education.
The Indian government should also lift financial barriers that are preventing girls from returning to school such as school and examination fees. Sending cash transfers to girls’ families from marginalized communities has also been effective in increasing the percentage of girls going to school as seen in Ghana. When designing policies, the government can also include feedback from the girls themselves on what their needs are.
Most importantly, the Indian government should provide a direct and concise plan on school re-openings as well as provide internet-connected devices to schools across the country. This will aid in providing a smooth transition for all students, especially girls, as they return to continue their education.
Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.