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Household Chores, Marriage Instead Of Classrooms Awaits These Girls In Haryana

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.

By SwaTaleem Team (Ananya Tiwari, Suganya Sankaran, Vaibhav Kumar, Arzoo Shakir)

Earlier in 2020, when the pandemic hit India, the education system was trying to grapple with the uncertainties and challenges that COVID-19 brought just like other sectors. Since education caters to the citizens of tomorrow and has the potential to change the social fabric of the country, it’s essential to understand and highlight the differential impact of the pandemic on the education of vulnerable communities and if possible, explore ways to address those. This article is a step towards that.

COVID-19 has laid bare the systemic inequities built into our world, and it is our women and girls from rural, marginalized communities who are hit hard. As the pandemic forced school closures indefinitely, we are acutely aware of the devastating impact on our girls and their communities.

For us at SwaTaleem, like for many others, these times have been uncertain. We have had to (and continue to) adapt our work and find alternative ways to connect with and support our girls, teachers, government officials and communities.

Who Are We?

SwaTaleem Foundation works towards increasing decision making and foundational skills in adolescent girls by implementing a transformative design process where teachers, learners and community leaders choose and address educational challenges in Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBVs).

KGBVs are nationwide residential government schools built in Educationally Backward Blocks (EBBs) specifically catering to adolescent girls coming from historically underrepresented communities (an intersection of low-income households, religious minorities and lower castes).

Our work is primarily located in Mewat and Panipat, two districts of Haryana where we work with 6 KGBV schools and 900 girls. Despite its proximity with big cities like Gurgaon and Delhi (Mewat is located at a distance of 40 km from Gurgaon), Mewat struggles with low literacy levels (it has only 36% female literacy) and poor schooling and health facilities.

It’s a Muslim dominated area where agriculture or factory work are primary sources of livelihood. All five blocks namely, Nuh, Nagina, Tauru, Firozpur Jhirka and Punhana, have one KGBV each running under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan from grades 6 to 10. In this area, girls’ education is not seen as a priority for families. We observe that most of the girls drop out after 10th standard, and only a few get opportunities to complete their higher education.

COVID-19 And Its Perils

We spent the first few weeks of the lockdown deepening our understanding of how COVID-19 is affecting our Girls and Teachers by listening to them, by learning from feminist/women-led organizations and literature research  (Malala Fund, United Nations).

Here’s what we have learnt:

  • Girls are directly at-risk of dropping out of schooling getting married early. We already know that there are clear links between lack of access to education and higher rates of child marriage, and indefinite school closures only have a negative impact. With limited resources, families might pull their daughters out of schools to either earn income or to get married as a way to “protect” them.
  • Girls are at increased risk of gender-based violence. The impact of lockdown means girls are at home for longer periods, putting them at greater risk of domestic violence. Also, with them taking on the burden of household chores, gender inequalities are being reinforced.
  • Moving into online spaces assumes access to technology and learning, which is not the case for the majority of the Girls. 65% of the girls we work with don’t have access to technology and internet services, making it harder for the Teachers and us to reach out to them. Also, even when they do have access, they are not able to access learning as they are expected to take on more household chores. Their fathers, who are factory workers or inter-state truck drivers who own the phones are mostly out of the house as well.

“My dream is to become an engineer. I am facing a lot of challenges in accessing online learning due to network issues and the inability to get the recharge due to money constraints. The financial constraint is a big challenge for me. The burden of household chores has also increased. My father asks my brother not to do household chores, so I am burdened with an entire load of work which affects my online classes. My brother doesn’t allow me to use the mobile phone as my father gave the mobile phone to him. Due to the prevalence of discriminatory practices and perceptions, girls are not handed over phones, but it’s the boys who get it. Marriage is taking precedence over the education of girls, and many parents are thinking of marrying off their daughters during the lockdown period.” – Lavanya, 14 years old.

If we don’t ensure that adolescent girls from marginalized communities are reached out to and supported immediately then they, who are already at the margins, will be further left unheard and unsupported. It is the girls who will lose their access to education; lose opportunities to pursue their dreams and possibilities, setting them up for a lifetime of dependence on others and vulnerability to poverty.

Using IVRS To Navigate Inequities Around Access To Education

While addressing this chronic but under-discussed problem of the gender divide in education in the current times, we at SwaTaleem Foundation, wanted to answer one question – how do we ensure support and learning continuity for adolescent girls from rural, marginalized communities who don’t have access to technology?

We knew that most homes have a basic phone and Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) can be a platform that can be explored. IVRS is an automated telephony system technology that interacts with callers and gathers the required information while reaching out to individual recipients.

Conversations can be pre-recorded or generated audio which assists, directs, or route calls automatically without a live operator. In our context, these could be used efficiently to disseminate educational content to the girls where they can communicate by using a basic click-button phone.

We, therefore, mapped stories on concepts that surround the girls and included curriculum-related key points in it. This was followed by assessment questions created to be administered through IVRS itself which mapped onto six main areas: English, Science, Maths, Hindi, Reproductive Health and socio-emotional skills.

In addition to achieving the first step by onboarding the teachers in the process, we pursued the second step by engaging parents in the conversation, wherever possible, in order to ensure that the girls indeed get access to phone and we, in turn, develop a program that fits their household routine. Conversations and surveys suggested that an average engagement of 30 minutes in the evenings is a better time to interact with the girls at home.

Our Learnings So Far

With the IVRS implementation in place, we were curious to see how they perceive it. To ensure that the girls have access to the stories, we tried multiple strategies:

  • Sending the same story twice a week. And re-sending them again to the failed calls.
  • Sending them in the late evening, once the fathers are back from work and girls can access phones.
  • Sending them on the WhatsApp groups as well, made by the school teachers.

In the first one month itself, we were able to connect with 300 girls and their families through the IVRS program making over 2000 calls. We have facilitated 50 hours of learning sessions directly with them. The response to the stories has been encouraging, and we have been build anticipation and excitement around these stories.

In our conversations with the teachers, they have shared that “We know these times are difficult and the idea of IVRS sounds exciting. It would support us in information dissemination, and we look forward to trying it to build relationships with the Girls and their families now.

In our calls with the parents, we saw how determined they were to work together with us as partners in ensuring their daughters continue to learn. As one father shared, “This is the first time we have heard from the school, informing us about what is happening and what we should be doing.

Stay tuned or write to us as we explore more learnings around IVRS and the next steps in this direction.

If you resonate with the work we are doing and want to contribute, please feel free to donate to our ongoing crowdfunding campaign or write to us to volunteer here.

Created by Ananya Tiwari

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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.

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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.

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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.

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