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“Abhi Bhaiya Hi School Jaaega” The Pandemic Is Robbing Young Girls Of A Future

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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.

 “Aai chaar ghar mein kaam karti thi, wahan pichle sola saal se kaam kia. April mein sab memsahib bol di kaam par nahi aaneko. Humlog theen bhai behen hain, abhi khaane ka paisa mushkil se aata hai, bolo didi school kaisa jaeega?” (Mother has been working in four houses for 16 years. All the ‘memsahibs’ asked her to not come to work in April. We are three siblings, and money for food comes with difficulty. So tell me, how will I go to school?) said 13-year-old Vandana from Juhu Gaon, Navi Mumbai.

History holds testament to the fact that adversities disproportionately impact women and other marginalized communities. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different. People say that this virus spares nobody—it has affected the rich and the poor, men and women. But, has it affected them alike? The answer is no.

It is true that the virus does not discriminate, but social infrastructure does.

Due to poverty, lower access to hygiene facilities, higher mortality rate, increased burden in the household, and for various other reasons, women from underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds are at higher risk of being impacted by the pandemic. The imposition of a stringent lockdown has drastically affected the livelihoods of people and has pushed millions further deep into poverty.

It is estimated that almost 10 million secondary school girls in India could drop out of school due to the pandemic.  Representational image.

This is not to say that the lockdown should or should not have been imposed. The aim is to point out the differential impact it has on different groups of people. When families struggle to make ends meet, they are faced with several tough decisions to make in terms of what is to be cut down on. Unfortunately education, and more so, the education of girls is at the bottom of that priority list. With the stopping of free meals and other such perks, many rural poor families feel no incentive to send their girls to schools.

“Toh abhi mai aur Shanti school chod dia. Hum log yahin chota mota kam kar lete hain, aur sirf Som school jaata hai,” (Me and Shaanti have left school. We do odd jobs here-and-there, and only Som goes to school) added Vandana.

It is estimated that almost 10 million secondary school girls in India could drop out of school due to the pandemic. This puts them at risk of early marriage, early pregnancy, poverty, and violence. It also robs young girls of their aspirations and an opportunity to uplift themselves.

“When families can’t afford school and have to choose, they will often send boys. Financial hardships and cultural stereotypes about gender roles play a major part in keeping girls in less-developed countries from completing their education,” said John Wood, founder of Room to Read.

This is bound to worsen the education deficit for girls in poorer countries, where the rate of female secondary school enrolment was already low even prior to the pandemic. And it could set back almost 70 years of progress for girls’ education in India. The online mode of education makes the glaring gender inequality stand out even further.

It is true that the virus does not discriminate, but social infrastructure does. Image source: Flickr. Representative image.

According to a study by Young Lives, the University of Oxford, “Boys in India are much more likely than their female peers to use a computer and the Internet (as well as other forms of technology, such as a smartphone) regularly.

Meanwhile, four in five (80%) girls in the Indian sample (based in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) have never accessed the internet, and more than three in five (62%) have never used a computer. Gender also interacts with other forms of disadvantage in India. Our data show that the poorest girls and those living in rural areas have much less access to technology than boys and girls in wealthier or urban households.”

The problem does not end with vaccination. The post-COVID-19 era affects not only the present but also the future of lakhs of girls.

 “It is estimated that about 20% of girls are not going to come back to school after lockdown. Most of the girls from families of migrant workers are in the vulnerable age where they are likely to get married,” said Professor Amita Rampal, Educationist, Delhi University.

Marriage, early pregnancy, high mortality rate, poverty; all these which often go hand in hand potentially imply that these girls will not return to their books and pens. So, how can we still say that the virus impacts everybody alike? And what can be done to lessen the blow for girls from rural India?

By ignoring the gender dimension to education during and after the pandemic, we only help exacerbate the inequality already present. Representative image.

Gender-sensitive budgeting is the answer, it has always been. Gender-sensitive budgeting is a policy instrument which ensures that resources are allocated according to gender-specific needs, so as to bring about equality.

Government education institutes in India do provide fee concessions to girls and one meal to all its pupils. But that clearly is not enough- because this simply builds a system of desired behaviour-reward reinforcement and does nothing to instil equality in education.

If families are not sensitized consistently along with being given perks, the moment the perks are withdrawn, they reconsider sending their girls to school.

That is where we need extensive sensitization campaigns on female education and against early marriages. And the burden of these campaigns cannot be borne by NGOs alone. The central and state governments have to step up their effort. Further, resources must be allocated specifically to creating safe and hygienic toilets for pupils, particularly girls. Schools have to be more active participants in ensuring that their female students attend classes.

It is clear now that education can no longer lie at the bottom of the priority list post the pandemic. Unless pushed into poverty, boys will return to schools. However, young girls are often seen as a liability to be passed on, and therefore families have to be intensively sensitized and incentivized to do the bare minimum and send their girls to schools. By ignoring the gender dimension to education during and after the pandemic, we only help exacerbate the inequality already present.

Adopting gender-neutral policies is as good as following ones that are gender-blind. And we do not need education to be used as another instrument to discriminate.

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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