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Closure Of Schools In The Pandemic Has Robbed Many Girls Of Safe Spaces

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.

October 11, 2020 marks another milestone in the history of recognition of girls’ rights. As we commemorate the ninth anniversary of International Day of the Girl Child, girls across the globe are reeling under multiple deprivations.

The pandemic has incessantly widened the gender disparities and distortions in the education system. Moreover, it reversed the accomplishments made in girls’ education before any systemic response.

UNESCO[1] reports that 158 million girls enrolled from pre-primary to tertiary levels of education are affected by the school closures in India during the pandemic. In this context, it is critical to explore the risks to the lives of girls in India.

Representational image. Image source: Flickr

Shocking Realities 

An exploration[2] into the concerns on girls’ education in the COVID-19 context unravels deeply entrenched negative social norms and cultural practices within a patriarchal framework that perpetuate gender inequalities. Young girls bear the burden of unpaid care work, the digital divide in education, health concerns, infliction of violence, and multiple shards of vulnerabilities including poverty and loss of livelihoods of their families.

The current crisis has increased manifold the unpaid care burden of adolescent girls. With the return-migration of many family members, the drudgery of household work has increased. The patriarchal nature of the society dictates that girls prioritise care work (cooking, cleaning, fetching water, caring siblings, caring elderly etc) over their studies. These girls are trapped in a vicious cycle of household chores placing the needs of family members ahead of their own, and as a result, they are left with inadequate time to rest and study.

With the closure of schools, there is subsequently poor access to midday meals for children. Without the perk of midday meals, there is every chance of girls dropping out. Parents reinforce their gender roles as caregivers of the family rather than breadwinners.

The absence of midday meals has posed severe vulnerabilities on the nutrition of young girls. The adolescent girls are socialized to feed all the family members before having their own meals. Any failure in these cultural practices leads to infliction of abuse and violence. These unequal gender practices in the domestic spaces deprive the adolescent girls of nutrition, thereby generating a deteriorating impact in their learning capacities.

Representational image.

Though schools are providing remote learning facilities to students, the digital divide is exacerbating across genders. Only 10.9% of households in India have internet access. Internet access to rural households (5.7%) is much below the national average.

In poor rural families, girls have less access to electronic gadgets as compared to their male counterparts. The underpinning negative gender norms of undervaluing girls is reinforced by ladling those privileges only to boys.

Young girls who migrated back to villages from the cities are doubly disadvantaged. The deep-rooted societal notion of controlling the sexuality of girls to safeguard the honour of the family is exposed through these gender unequal and preferential practices.

Girls encounter severe policing while accessing online mediums (what they listen to, what they watch) and are aggressively monitored on their screen time. This societal controlling behaviour keeps adolescent girls from achieving their learning outcomes, especially on their work submissions, follow-ups with teachers, assessment performances, and more.

Schools are safe institutional spaces (through peers, teachers, counsellors) for many young girls who are exposed to various forms of abuse in their private and public spaces. Due to school closure in the COVID-19 context, girls are deprived of support systems where they can share their concerns.

With return migration of many family members, these girls live in crammed dwellings with little privacy. They fall prey to inflictions of physical, sexual and emotional violence in those settings. The trauma of family conflicts and domestic violence also derails their learning outcomes.

Poor families have lost their livelihoods, and with return migration, the households are striving hard to meet both ends. The prevailing negative gender norms of undervaluing girls’ forces these households to consider adolescent girls as a financial liability.

In the pandemic context, where employment opportunities are limited and agrarian distress is widespread, uncertainty over the availability of money and funds for sustaining family members, compels families to marry off their daughters at an early age. This deprives them of their education and life aspirations.

Poverty and economic distress are often compelling the families to trade on the sexuality of young girls. The family members are coercing the young girls into sex trade or forced marriages in return for financial incentives.

Family members are coercing the young girls into sex trade or forced marriages in return for financial incentives. Representational Image.

During the lockdown period, 91% of interventions made by ChildLine [3] on the issue of child marriage were based on the concerns of girls below 18 years. 39% of those calls were from girls of 11-15 years and 60% from girls of 16-18 years.

Sex trafficking and child labour rackets are thriving in this lucrative business, risking the lives of adolescent girls. The manifestation of such forms of violence on adolescent girls invisibilises them from the school education system.

Adolescent girls are also facing health issues, especially fatigue, stress and are too emotionally shattered to cope with the pandemic. As caregivers to those infected with covid, they are exposed to high levels of health risk.

Their menstrual hygiene is at stake due to challenges in the availability of sanitary napkins and access to safe and clean toilet facilities. Young girls kept their health concerns under wraps.

Time Is Up… Let’s Come Together 

During these challenging times, we are bound to reinstate our commitment to the cause of girl’s education. Let’s ensure that our girls have an enabling environment to continue their education and stay enrolled. By providing safe and secure spaces, we can ensure them a life with dignity during, and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharing care work and equal digital access to education will go a long way in promoting positive gender norms.

On this International Day Of The Girl Child, let’s acknowledge girls’ rights and wrap them with love, and support them in colouring their dreams.

References

[1] UNESCO

[2] The inputs in this section are based on the author’s work on COVID-19 with different organisations as well as some anecdotes.

[3] Times Of India, Govt intervened to stop over 5,584 child marriage during coronavirus-induced lockdown

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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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