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For 12-Year-Old Nasima, COVID Means She May Never Go To School Again

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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.

“I used to study and do activities at the learning center and school, everyday. I miss meeting my teacher and friends. With school closed, it is only work now.”

This is the story of Nasima, a 12-year-old girl from a small village in Kishanganj district of Bihar. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Nasima would attend school and come back home to help her family in the fields, but since the lockdown and schools being shut, she has been working a full day.

In wake of the COVID-19 responses, a majority of countries have closed schools and other educational institutions. Almost 1.5 billion learners and 63 million teachers in 191 countries have been affected, as per UNESCO. And the impact on those belonging to vulnerable groups, especially girls, minorities and other marginalized groups have been especially severe.

Education In Pre-Pandemic Times

The World Bank and UNESCO in a report revealed the stark learning poverty that existed, where 53% of 10-years-olds in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read and understand a simple text or do math.

Prior to this COVID crisis, too, education was not available to all equally. The World Bank and UNESCO in a report revealed the stark learning poverty that existed, where 53% of 10-years-olds in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read and understand a simple text or do math.

This was the case in India too, especially for girls like Nasima. The district from where she belongs is among the poorer districts of India. Kishanganj has the lowest female literacy rate (46% as per 2011 census) in Bihar, and among minorities and marginalized groups, it is even lower.

Even before COVID, education for girls like Nasima was not easy to get. Finances are a major factor that decides if the girl will have education or only her brother. Getting girls married at an early age drives parents to discourage their girls to attend school or leave school after primary education.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic throwing open these divisions further, the education of girls, especially from marginalized groups, has become even more of a challenge.

The Impact Of The Pandemic On Students And Learning

In fact, the governments’ effort worldwide to tackle the health emergency is affecting the education of hundreds of millions of learners. The potential losses in the learning and further reduction in the enrolment rates in the vulnerable groups is likely to escalate further. School closures have aggravated inequality and learning loss is greater for the children with less connectivity in the poor households. It has also put some children at higher risk of violence and other forms of abuse.

Girls are the worst affected. Those who drop out will face a significant decrease in learning, which in the long run will affect their productivity and earning potential. They’re at risk of early marriage and may be at greater risk of sexual and gender based violence during the pandemic. A significant proportion of them, like Nasima, are currently at risk of dropping out to work as an extra set of hands either at home, fields or as domestic workers in the urban areas.

Some will also be forced into early marriages. The reasons are all obvious, the vicious circle of poverty due loss of livelihood in the family. According to UNFPA State of the World Population Report 2020 COVID-19 could disrupt efforts to end child marriage. 13 million additional child marriages are expected during 2020-2030. In India, one out of four girls will be married before the age of 18.

Moreover, there is a significant risk that the governments would now deprioritize education as most economies are downhill. The national budgets on education would get slashed. Before the onset of this pandemic one in four countries including India spent less on education than the internationally recommended minimum level of 4% of GDP and less than 15% of their budgets funding for quality education in wake of this crisis.

Are Current Solutions Likely To Work? 

a group of school kids reading from a single computer
They are also trying to get teachers and students to engage with educational resources on digital portals, or through Whatsapp messages, among other things.

To overcome this enormous education gap, governments are relying on TV/Radio for broadcasting educational sessions for the children. They are also trying to get teachers and students to engage with educational resources on digital portals, or through Whatsapp messages, among other things.

Most of the efforts are centered on school subjects learning. How effective these hurriedly put together home learning efforts will be, especially for the social groups who do not have access to these mediums, is questionable in India. Take Nasima’s case itself. She says, “We have just one basic phone at home that does not have an Internet connection, so I can’t access any educational information. I want the school to open soon.”

The digital divide is preventing the continuity of learning, putting many girls at greater risk of dropping out. As per National Sample Survey (2017-18) only 16% of girls had internet access compared to 36% of boys. This digital divide is still pronounced in the rural areas of the country.

Moreover, for girls like Nasima, even transitioning back to school may be challenging or even impossible due to the economic pressures her family is facing.

What’s A Good Way Forward?

It is extremely important that countries such as India should maintain an adequate level of education funding in light of this.

The global disruption to education is driving new innovations in learning through alternative means to digital platforms, that is, TV and radio. These innovations are spearheaded by schoolteachers, academicians and civil society, who are working to support learners and their families.

Lending a hand to this, we need the government to ensure public access to the Internet across-the-board, and creation of contextualized study material that can reach every group in the society. The government and civil society groups must keep working for digital inclusion to include every child irrespective of their social status.

The pandemic is positioned to take away the dreams of millions of girls like Nasima, but with the right planning, budgetary allocation and gender-positive, nuanced interventions, we can bring girls back to school.

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