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Access To Online Classes Is A Privilege That Many Girls In India Don’t Have

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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.

The shocking reality of India’s digital divide came in light in a tragically in June this year when a 14-year-old girl died by suicide in Kerala. She was distressed over not having access to any digital device to attend her online lessons. While the above is a tragic example of India’s digital divide in educational access in general, it is important to know that this digital divide, acute as it is, is further marked by severe gender disparity.

Even before one seriously considers India’s more recent digital divide concerning access to education, one has to be aware of the issue of general, non-digital access to education which is marked by a sharp gender divide.

Image for representation only. Via Flickr Via Flickr

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2019, the convener of the Right to Education (RTE) Forum in India had bemoaned the state of girls’ education in India: “[T]he current scenario of girls’ education in India is very precarious. Nearly 40% of adolescent girls aged 15-18 years are not attending any educational institution. About 30% of girls from the poorest families have never set foot inside a classroom.”

Such is the background of the existing and entrenched gender disparity in general educational access in India. When the nation was confronted with the prospect of large-scale remote, digital education on account of Covid-19, the gendered digital divide was exposed in a stark manner.

A recent news report outlines the need for digital access for women: “The NSSO’s 75th Round Survey on education suggests that in rural India, of every 100 female students who drop out of secondary school (class 10), twenty do so because they are engaged in domestic activities…Second, once this limited scope is coupled with the additional requirements posed by the online mode of education, the gendered outlook within families will tend to encourage more women to withdraw from enrolment compared to their male counterparts.”

A lower-priority for girls’ access to digital education hurts them disproportionately. A report on girl-students in rural Maharashtra stated that “most of the families whose children go to government schools have one smartphone with internet and, according to teachers, parents would prefer to continue boys’ online education instead of that of girls.”

As per the Internet and Mobile Association of India report, while 67% of men had access to the internet, this figure was only at 33% for women. This disparity is more prominent in rural India, where the figures are 72% and 28% for men and women, respectively.

With such a lopsided reality of digital access to education, tilted so unfavourably against girls, it is no wonder that there is an all-around worry that it would only make the existing educational divide worse with possible dire social consequences for girls in low-income families.

Image for representation only. Via Flickr

The coronavirus lockdown has seen an increase in the burden on girls with household chores and taking care of their siblings. If these girls drop out of school, we will witness a spike in early marriage, child labour and trafficking in the country. For a nation that wishes to attain various goals of development and growth, it is crucial that there is the realization of every citizen’s potential, regardless of gender. India already has quite a dismal record on account of its deliberate neglect of equitable gender norms.

The much-publicized 2019 Global Hunger Index underlined India’s severe malnutrition problem, but it also exposed the direct connection with women’s nutritional levels. As an Observer Foundation (ORF) analysis put it, “It establishes a direct correlation between malnutritioned women rearing a malnutritioned child and emphasizes the need to economically empower women to include them in the process of decision making to ensure the right to proper food, nutrition and health of the households.”

The gendering of the issue of malnutrition is also an outcome of the gendered provision of basic rights such as education. Female literacy is one of the most powerful tools to improve a society’s health and economic well-being.

But with the gendered divide that is the reality of digital access in India, it will probably push the access to education for women back from the precarious position it already is at. The gendered digital divide represents a cascading effect that portends severe disadvantages to women in India, in matters of what one might broadly call their empowerment.

The middle- and upper-classes are euphoric about the new reality of online everything. These privileged few provide the sheen of normalcy for access to online goods and services. They can afford the expensive gadgets—at a minimum a smartphone—to access the digital world. But, as a teacher in the US public schools said, “being a digital consumer and a digital learner are two different things.”

The minuscule and misleading percentage of the population which indulges in digital consumerism obscures the difficulties faced by the vast majority of the people. The difficulties are especially real for girls in India, for whom access to the digital world is mediated not just by economics but also by gender norms. If we want the women of India to be holding half the sky, then it is imperative that their access to tools of empowerment and inclusion as represented by education, especially the current reality of digital education, be just and equitable.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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