From 1941 to 1981, the gap in literacy rates between men and women in India grew from 17.6% to 26.62%, after which it, fortunately, began to decrease and was at 16.68% as of 2011. The next decennial census report for our country occurs next year. While we can hope that the gap has nearly closed by now, the gendered implications of the pandemic are many. Apart from the rise in domestic violence during the lockdown as reported by the National Commission of Women (NCW), the lockdown has also caused a shift of responsibilities for girls towards unpaid household and caretaking work.
As a consequence of the strained economic conditions on families, it is also predicted that many girls would be forced to drop out of school, fall prey to violence, and forced into marriage. The pandemic has made it a great possibility that the gap between literacy rates will increase once again. India, do you want your performance to drop to a 1950’s standard?
Some of the major challenges that we will be facing in terms of education for girls during and after the lockdown include technology, now that digitization is on the rise. First and foremost, state and central education boards could direct all schools to communicate with students and submit a report to calculate how many households require assistance, and what kind of assistance they need.
Any student whose attendance drops for online classes should be checked in personally by the school’s administration. For instance, a lot of families might not be able to afford the internet, which would adversely affect education for all, regardless of gender, as schools are going online. Telecommunication companies could offer subsidies on data packages and provide internet free of cost to families that cannot afford them.
Of course, this would mean that private companies like Jio and Airtel must participate, but we do have companies like BSNL that are owned by the Government of India itself which can easily begin the scheme and make ‘Internet for All’ a possibility.
Another challenge is the digital divide itself. Since resources and funds would not be necessary for the building and maintenance of schools and for printing textbooks this year, those funds could probably be redirected towards providing tablets or laptops to households that require them. Even if a family owns a single device, if the classes are live and not recorded, it is likely to create problems where the son’s education is given more preference, and the daughter would have to miss out on classes.
To prevent this, recorded lectures and flexible schedules for assignment submissions might come handy, and this would also make it easier for teachers. Practically, however, most of this may not be possible, and even if it were, execution is very difficult. There have been innumerable projects to tackle this, such as ERNET’s ‘Vidya Vahini’ in 2001 that aimed to connect 60,000 senior secondary schools at an estimated cost of INR 6,500 Crores, but nearly two decades later, we are still fighting the same fight.
In 2014, when Sierra Leone, a low-income West African country, was hit by Ebola, low-tech devices like solar-powered radios were used to broadcast classes to all students. Once the epidemic ended, hygiene kits were distributed and infrared thermometers were used on a daily basis to check for high temperatures among students. India can definitely learn a thing or two from such cases and formulate a suitable solution.
Another important aspect of online classes is ensuring that educators themselves have access to all the necessary resources and tools to continue imparting education in this new format. Free workshops and training should be provided to help faculty, as well as students, navigate and optimize digital schooling. While each of these solutions would have some challenges of their own in terms of implementation and financial crunches, a solution is essential, no matter how difficult it may prove to be.
Even post-COVID, steps will have to be taken to ensure that India will never face the same problems again in the event of another pandemic or calamity. The importance of eliminating the digital divide has been amplified by the challenges faced during the lockdown, and once the pandemic ends, every possible action must be taken to accommodate every citizen.
Combating the gender roles imposed within homes, from burdening girls with household chores to other worse forms of abuse, which consequently impacts their education is a different challenge altogether. Even if the battling coronavirus is the primary concern of the government, raising awareness and addressing these issues publicly is extremely important.
If even the smallest percentage of citizens that tune into the Prime Minister’s Mann ki Baat is enlightened and change routines in their house to accommodate for all, it is still a win. The Beti Bachao, Beti Padao campaign should not stop because of a pandemic, it should be optimized to suit the current needs and be implemented with an even higher drive. Government policies that recognize and award families that encourage education of girls and committees that survey and draw solutions for the same are all necessary and need to be stipulated and executed immediately.
The Right to Education was made a Fundamental Right in the Constitution in 2009. It is imperative that the government do everything in its power to ensure that education is accessible to all children, regardless of gender or socioeconomic status. As the youth of India, we advocate for the same and expect immediate action to be taken, pandemic or not.