Gender-based discrimination is a common phenomenon worldwide, and India fares no better. Here, the disparity is visible across all sections of society in some form or other. The worst to suffer from this inequality are girl children.
My work, which is to build steps to improve education, lies in Kishanganj, one of the least literate districts of Bihar. A predominantly Muslim minority district, education in this area has been a low priority for years here. Girls, in particular, don’t complete their studies due to several socio-economic barriers. This despite the fact that the Bihar government’s data (Education Dept. 2016-17) showing that the district is performing well when it comes to the enrolment of girls in school.
Generally, the availability of toilets and running water in government schools are considered key strategies for ensuring girls’ attendance and retention. The Bihar Education Department data (2016-17) shows that 92% of government schools in Kishanganj have functional toilets for girls and 89.5% of schools have clean drinking water facilities. Yet, the drop out of girls from the rural and marginalized sections of society continues to be high, indicating that reasons lie elsewhere.
To begin with, poverty and reluctance to educate the girls, as compared to boys are major deterrents. Then there is the distance girls have to travel to get to school, combined with the parents’ insistence on girls learning household skills for the marriage market.
And then, there’s early marriage. Daughters are seen as a liability to be ‘passed on’ to others, and upon reaching puberty, most parents start looking for suitable grooms for their daughters. In fact, in Bihar, 2 out of 5 girls get married before the age of eighteen as per a UNFPA Report. Such was the case with Tamanna, a 16-year-old from Gangi village.
Having lost her mother at an early age, she had already been forced to drop out of school once to look after her younger siblings. But, with a lot of perseverance, she joined the Azad India Foundation-run learning centre in her village and secured admission in a school for Class VIII. This was not something she was willing to give up easily, but her father wanted her to get married instead, which caused a lot of tension in her house. After her repeated persuasion, Tamanna’s father agreed to postpone the marriage by at least two years until she completes Class X.
With the lockdown, however, she’s worried he may change his mind again. “I joined the learning centre in my village with a lot of difficulties. Marriage will force me to leave something that I love. If I am able to complete my studies, I can earn and contribute.” she said.
Because of the lockdown, her family’s finances have been adversely hit. The one thing that constantly crosses her mind is “I know times are tough for my father. I want to help him make ends meet but I don’t want to give up my studies.” This dilemma keeps Tamanna up during the night, worrying.
Lucy, a 15-year-old from the Milik Basti nearby, has been struggling with a similar issue. Her father, a landless labourer, hardly earns enough to feed his family. He got his two eldest daughters married at a young age to escape the burden of a hefty dowry. His two sons (both younger than Lucy) attend formal schools, while one other son attends a Madrasa to become a religious scholar. Amid all of this, Lucy’s education hangs in the balance.
Having fought her way into the learning centre in the village, she’s constantly faced opposition from her parents and community in trying to go to school for various reasons, including the distance of the school from her home.
But Lucy remains determined to complete her education. She said, “I have worked very hard. My parents also realize that I am serious about my studies. I try to help my mother complete household chores before I go to school.” After her continued persistence, Lucy’s younger sisters have also started attending the learning centre.
But with the pandemic, the schools and learning centres have been closed for an indefinite period. The girls have been working in fields and in their home. They have been unable to study, as most of them do not have access to books. Majority of them don’t have access to smartphones and internet connectivity that makes online learning a distant reality for them. This is an unprecedented situation that is also taking a toll on the mental health of children and adults alike.
The benefits of educating a girl child are manifold and can contribute to a healthy and progressive society. Education, particularly formal secondary education, is the most effective way to develop the skills needed for work and life.
Quality education can counteract the social factors that hinder women’s labour market participation. Education increases women’s wages later in life by 15- 25%. 1% increase in female education raises the average level of GDP by 0.37%.
What we also need to ensure, as a government and a society, is that we push for girls to rejoin schools and learning centres from which they had to drop out, post-COVID-19. This unprecedented situation has been unfair to everyone, but girls belonging to the lower strata of the society have been hit the worst. The government and civil society must keep pushing forward on digital inclusion until every child is covered.
Our first step to ensure girl child education post-COVID-19 should be to get girls back to school. Increased allotment of funds into the education sector might encourage parents to allow girls to partake education, so as to find an opportunity for employment, and a sense of empowerment. This will ensure a revolution where, as each woman rises, she will inspire a whole village, a society, the nation, and ultimately the world. Let stand up for our girls! Let’s support girls like Tamanna, Kushnuma, and Lucy in their fight to get an education in post-COVID India!