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India In Lockdown: Gender Gaps In Access To Education And Rising Student Suicides

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This post is a part of Back To School, a global movement supported by Malala Fund to ensure that access to education for girls in India does not suffer post COVID-19. Click here to find out more.

Ever since the lockdown, the reported deaths in the media have largely been due to one or more of the following causes — coronavirus, exhaustion from walking long distances, crop failures, lack of food, and, more recently, suicides (accruing to mental illness and/or academic pressure among students).

According to NCRB data, an average of 28 students die by suicides every day in India. That’s about more than one student every hour. It is also well established that in most cases students die by suicide due to academic pressure. Umpteen local newspapers can be found which cover the news on board results with headlines criticizing schools which perform poorly and galvanizing students who top. This only aggravates the problem further.

However, in a new trend, students have been ostensibly dying by suicide due to the lack of digital resources required to attend online classes. Cases from Bengal, Assam, Punjab, and Kerala, etc. made it to local, national and international news while data on the total numbers has remained elusive as it is still developing.

In this light, especially given the current uncertainty around education, it makes for an intriguing inquiry to acknowledge factors affecting the accessibility to ‘online education’ and its consequences.

Almost uniformly, daughters are engaged in household chores and are either enrolled in government schools or denied the opportunity to education altogether.

Inequality is a given in Indian society— class (income), caste, gender and geographic location (rural and urban) being some of the most commonly employed gauging attributes. These socio-economic inequalities have been the determining factors of accessibility to education and now, in the midst of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, online education.

Based on the prevalence of an inherently patriarchal society across most classes (disadvantaged and privileged) and castes (all four varnas), gap in education based on gender is likely to worsen further. However, it will affect the gender gap albeit differently for privileged class and caste than disadvantaged class and caste unless actively remedied with progressive reforms in policy and approach.

Given the social protocol that daughters go into another family after marriage and it is the sons who stay back to become the bread-earners, it is a popularly held belief, if not dictated explicitly in religious scriptures, to invest and further the education of son. As a consequence, daughters bear the brunt and are either enrolled in government schools or denied the opportunity to education altogether. However, almost uniformly, daughters are engaged in household chores.

In terms of online education, this translates into preferable access to digital resources to sons over daughters for attending online classes. Especially in joint families, prevalent in rural India, hierarchy dictates — fathers and uncles have access on priority basis, followed by sons and then daughter (and working mothers and aunts, if any) — in the absence of multiple gadgets or an imbalanced user to gadget ratio.

classroom teaching in school and online teaching at home
The government needs to amp up the awareness programs with thrust on education, especially girls’ education.

In marginalized sections of society, especially in economically disadvantaged sections as a consequence of marginalized caste (Dalits), females are likely to face the double whammy of marginalized caste and/or class as well as gender. This double disadvantage has been evidently recorded in the suicide of the 14-year-old dalit girl from Kerala. It serves as a reality check for civil society and policy makers alike.

The gender gap will likely be further aggravated due to the economic crisis consequential of unplanned and poorly implemented lockdown. Not just a withdrawal of girls from the education system but as the rural and marginalized sections collectively stare at the economic crisis, it will also be junking years of hard work and social awareness programs that were designed, implemented and invested in by civil society and government urging village elders and parents to send their girls to school in the first place.

As noted by Safeena Husain, founder of Educate Girls, to Devex, “By losing all the gains we have made in the last few years [educating girls], the impact will be immeasurable.”

Taking the cue from Bankathi village in Jharkhand, the governments at the state and centre need to formulate a policy which firstly addresses the problem of accessibility and the absolute uncertainty as regard to this entire year of education. Secondly, the government needs to ensure transparency and adequate representation of all stakeholders and their concerns in policy formulation. Thirdly, the government needs to amp up the awareness programs with thrust on education, especially girls’ education while simultaneously ensuring the economic support needed at the rural and grassroots, especially the marginalized sections to help them tide through the economic shortcomings due to the imposition of lockdown.

The need to extend counseling support to students has been evident even in the past. However, in the midst of a pandemic and lockdown, the students have been reeling under the pressure of academic uncertainty and increasing pressure. Counselling and mentoring support is desperately needed, and as such, relevant support should be made available via the existing network of schools (private and government) to reach out to the maximum number of students possible.

Not only does the government need to break its silence on where education is headed and address these issues, but collectively as a society, we need to actively change the popular narrative and shift the focus from ‘marks’ to promotion of well-being and learning.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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