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The Reason Girls In This Bihar District Keep Dropping Out Of Schools Isn’t New

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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.

In Bihar, 2 out of 5 girls get married before the age of eighteen as per a UNFPA Report. Representational image.

The Impact Of The COVID-19 Pandemic

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.

The benefits of educating a girl child are manifold and can contribute to a healthy and progressive society.  Representational image.

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.

Our first step to ensure girl child education post-COVID-19 should be to get girls back to school.

After The Pandemic

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!

Featured image for representation only.
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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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