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Does ‘Education For All’ Include Girls With Disabilities?

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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 differently-abled and those facing learning difficulties are not a homogenous group. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Their problems and challenges require special kinds of solutions which are diverse in nature as well as therapeutic. Today, the entire priority of health sector has been shifted towards attending to people affected by COVID-19. Hence, other health conditions are bound to face neglect.

Children with disabilities and learning difficulties have some other health-related issues (mental, intellectual, physical, etc.) as well as social-communication challenges. With hospitals not entertaining other cases, the situation has worsened for the differently-abled as they are at a greater risk of being discriminated. And the discrimination is even more defined when disability and gender intersect.

As per the World Health Organization, nearly 15% of the world’s population, representing more than 1 billion people, live with disabilities with female prevalence at 19.2%. About 2% to 4% find day-to-day life challenging without assistance, and low- and middle-income countries have higher rates of disability than high-income countries.

As per the 2011 census, 2.68 crore individuals in India are facing some or the other kind of disability. Out of these, 1.18 crore were women. With such data in existence, there is a need to think and rethink differently in order to make India’s education more accessible and inclusive for students, especially girls with disabilities and learning difficulties—because they need much more assistance than others in the face of a pandemic.

What About Girl Children With Disabilities?

India is amongst the 153 countries currently witnessing temporary closure of schools and colleges to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus. This transition will not only impact and bring changes in the methodologies, pedagogies and curriculum development of private schools but would have a far-reaching impact on low-income private and government schools.

Image only for representation. Via Flickr

The burden has further increased on those families who were reliant on the mid-day meal scheme for their children’s nutritional needs. The situation is unfavourable when the notion of gender is prefixed with it. It gets worse when the aspect of disability also comes into play, making these girls one of the most marginalised groups in the world.

A girl child with a disability is often hardly able to articulate her medical problems and now imagine those with mental disabilities and with sight or hearing impairments, especially those belonging to low-income families. They will find this change even harder in the long run. Young and adolescent girls are twice as likely to be out of school in crisis situations. Further, they are more likely to face greater vulnerabilities, such as domestic/gender-based violence when not in school.

Gendering Education

The drop out rate of girl students in India is already a significant barrier to girl child education. The inaccessibility of school premises, the lack of basic infrastructure such as toilets, safety concerns make it even worse for girls with a disability. As classes go online, the stark digital gender divide will likely increase drop out rates during this pandemic. Girls, in general, will be forced out of schools as resources go scarce, and online education will not be an option for many.

The socio-economic disparities prevalent in rural, semi-urban and urban areas are grim for mothers and girl child alike. As per reports, India also has the highest number of anaemic women in the world. Due to dearth of income, especially among migrant workers in cities, landless labourers in villages and slum dwellers in semi-urban areas and the absence of mid-day meals for young girls, the pandemic will get more challenging for low-income groups.

According to the ASER report, among the age group 4-5, 56.8% of girls are enrolled in government schools compared to 50.4% of boys, while 43.2% girls and 49.6% boys are enrolled in private pre-schools or schools. The difference gets wider with their age. In the 6-8 years age group, 61.1% of the girls attend a government school, in comparison with 52.1% boys.

This disheartening data compels us to think that this shift to online classrooms would benefit only those students who are in private schools. It means, most girls belonging to lower-income households would be left out and pushed into early marriage and be subjected to the whims of their male counterparts.

The burden of domestic work on Indian girls has further increased.

“Even before Covid-19, girls in India did substantially more unpaid care work than boys. This mirrors Indian adults – Indian women have among the highest number of hours spent per day on care work (297 minutes a day) while Indian men have among the lowest (31 minutes),” said Antara Ganguly, Gender Specialist at UNICEF India.

While girls in general face discrimination when it comes to accessing quality education, girls with a disability face double discrimination due to the socio-cultural norms and biases based on their gender and disability. In the absence of resources, infrastructure and support, these barriers become even more complex.

The outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic is acting as a hindrance to the learning outcomes of students with disabilities and learning difficulties. This is the first thing that enters the minds of educators, parents, students and school leaders across the globe. But can we spot a silver lining?

Let us flip the lens and question: What if the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is providing us with an opportunity to rethink how emergency education planning can be inclusive and accessible for children with disabilities? What if we use this as an opportunity to empower girls with disabilities?

Isn’t this global crisis presenting a unique opportunity to rethink the need for accessible and inclusive education? The answer is a simple “yes”. The real effort lies in taking steps towards this direction. To find solutions to the challenges girls with disabilities face, we not only need to look at barriers that all children with disabilities face but also those specific to being a girl.

How Can We Ensure That Online Education Caters To The Needs On Students With Disabilities?

Students with autism are struggling with virtual classes. There are testimonials of parents available that reveal that online communication and instructions are often improper due to several issues like connectivity, apathy, lack of time and transition to online teaching. Increase in screen-time has further aggravated the problem for students with sight and anxiety issues.

Children with NF1-ADHD show lower overall performances in the areas of intensive, selective, and executive attention, while children with ADHD-only showed slower response times in a sustained attention task. The impact of COVID-19 has exasperated the learning difficulties while lowering the retention power of students with ADHD.

Children with Borderline Intellectual Functioning are at higher risk than others. It is a relatively unknown condition and has not been exclusively classified as a true mental health disorder. Children with such functioning are highly vulnerable to substance use disorders. Adaptation to “new-normal” lifestyle while following the discipline of “social-distancing” comes with a challenge as the impulsivity among BI students is likely to rise.

Seema Lal, Special Educator/Co-Founder, TogetheWeCan, a Kerala-based parents support group, said, “Parent empowerment is key while working with children with neuro-diversities, and this was addressed ineffectively as it is. Most schools in India do not follow the mode of differentiated teaching within classrooms which involve parents, teachers and peer groups. Now, with the system turning online, this divide has widened. The responsibility has shifted on the parent entirely suddenly.”

The real worry lies in implementing and monitoring the transition in the lives of children with special needs. These kids are affected because their memory and retention power is not similar to others. In these extraordinary times, we need extraordinary measures to make education not only accessible but also inclusive. The children with mental, physical, emotional, or intellectual limitations may need extra words of reassurance, more explanations about the event, and more comfort and other positive reinforcements of messages.

Are Government Initiatives Inclusive Enough?

Image only for representation. Via Flickr

As per the National Education Policy 2019, “Every school complex will create the infrastructure necessary to ensure that appropriate support is available to all CWSN, within the complex.” It aims to provide assistive devices and appropriate technology-based tools, as well as adequate and language-appropriate teaching-learning materials (e.g. textbooks in accessible formats such as large print and Braille) will be made available to help CWSN integrate more easily into classrooms and engage with teachers and their peers.

Government’s emergency initiatives like PM e-VIDYA aim to unify all efforts related to digital/online/on-air education. A National Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Mission will be launched to ensure that every child in the country necessarily attains foundational literacy and numeracy in Grade 3 by 2025.

It is important to note that school education for CwDs (Children with Disabilities) in India is already at crossroads. So the real question is: Are these initiatives inclusive enough?

There has been no separate announcement by the Department of Empowerment for Persons with Disabilities (DEPD) (under the Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare) and the Ministry of Human Resource Department (HRD) about how educational services will be provided to children with disabilities during the pandemic. There is no clear cut mention of how many of these beneficiaries belong to the CwD category, or how these platforms are being designed to suit their needs and specifications.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), along with the Department of School Education and Literacy, has released ‘Pragyata’. It consists of extensive guidelines for digital education for schools, states, parents and students. Only one section in the 20-page rulebook has been devoted to teaching children with disabilities. This has dismayed experts and parents as yet again, the government falls short to cater to the needs and challenges of CwDs.

The push towards digital education is against the provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016. The Act mandates “inclusive education, differentiated teaching and peer support”. This is an antithesis to the concept of online education. The sweet fruit of inclusive education can only be fully relished through the training of teachers. But this training has been woefully limited, and its implementation even more depressed and hard-hitting.

While students, schools, educators, leaders and parents are constantly struggling to embrace the online mode of learning, the digital divide deprives a large population of children, especially with disabilities and learning disabilities from access to education not only in the rural areas but also in cities.

You must be to comment.
  1. Neha Agrawal

    The government of India have taken various initiatives to improve the level of education and this is shown in the results. Get the full knowledge about the Government schemes to get the benefit of all the great schemes.

  2. Neha Agrawal

    Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan is the scheme started by the Government of India to educate each and every child of the country. You can read about this government scheme at- https://indiaagainstcorruption.org/.

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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.

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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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