Maya Angelou once rightly remarked,
“There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
A world boggling with drastic ramifications, the global order turned upside down, a sluggish pace of life – all are facing the repercussions of the unprecedented pandemic in the normal ebb and flow of life. The Covid-19 pandemic has bent the world on its knees, overhauling all dimensions of life and creating new pathways to newer challenges.
One of the sectors that has gone through a total reorganisation in terms of its operations has been the education sector, thereby altering the very mechanism through which young minds are nurtured as future citizens of the country with knowledge. The entire shift of the medium from physical to virtual platforms has been a gigantic leap of faith as well as trial, having often unplanned reverberations on all the stakeholders involved.
Online classes have been an ineluctable part of this entire process of both accessing and imparting education amidst the pandemic. Access to internet facilities has been restricted to 30% of the rural population and 65% of the urban population as of 2019. Apart from this whopping digital disparity, the myriad contexts and situations amidst which students have been “compelled” to attend online classes needs to be called into attention.
With the lockdown in place in most states and travel restrictions imposed, students have been forced to remain confined within the “safety” of the four walls of the house while continuing to receive education through the online medium. However, the issue of “safety” of our homes and the myriad contexts in which every individual stands need to be revaluated and examined.
The complete overhauling in the manner in which campuses work as a forum of free intermingling, expression and enquiry has been reduced to the physical confines of the house. This, besides leaving an immense psychological toll on students because of this abrupt shift, the lockdown has left many avenues open for introspection and close examination.
In this regard, the imbalanced and unjustified gender favouritism also plays a crucial role. The claustrophobic confines of a room become more unendurable in the background of oppressive families where one’s identity is forged into triviality and their personal ambition fades into oblivion by prioritising familial duties in the first place.
Statistics reveal that 50% of students suffer from anxiety, out of which 26.75% are in the borderline stage of depression. The reasons for this grave state of affairs are manifold. With constant proximity to family members all round the clock, their vigilance and supervision on the students is becoming omnipresent; this is depriving them of individual space and free time to reflect and devote to self-introspection.
Tormenting realities plague our everyday life around us at present. Last year, a meritorious student of the Mathematics department of Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Aishwarya Reddy, died by suicide due to paucity of access to devices such as laptop to access online education, immediate vacating of hostels without the provision of alternative accommodation, and the ensuing financial stress and mental trauma.
One of the first year students of the history department in Delhi University, who preferred to be anonymous, confessed that she has been going through mental breakdowns and nervous attacks since her mother passed away, compounded with the constant pressure of assignment deadlines being inhumanely and indifferently imposed by the University.
On the brighter paradigm, a group of Covid volunteers have risen to the challenge, regularly and tirelessly verifying information about mental health helpline numbers, besides medical beds and oxygen cylinders. Students, through various social media handles such as Instagram and a few college societies like Girlup Rise and Global Youth, have been conducting workshops on handling Covid-related anxiety and stress. Many stakeholders have reached out to these avenues and mitigated stress.
Constant online engagement with a slew of assignments and projects to be submitted within deadlines reinforces the need to devote more time on these online platforms, which, at times, are disapproved of or looked down upon by other family members, especially in case of female students. These prolonged engagements in online classes are often regarded as an excuse to shirk household chores, thereby proliferating maltreatment, neglect and discontent within the family.
Sahejneet Kaur, a first year student, believes that this is a rampant issue among female college students, especially for those coming from lower economic backgrounds and studying in government colleges Their financial dependence during their course of study on their family compels them to be recalcitrant and submissive to the demands and whims of the patriarchal family needs, which in turn hinder their focus on academics.
The gendered aspect of access to online classes becomes blatantly prominent when they are exposed to rampant domestic violence, which has risen exponentially during the pandemic, increasing the drop out rate, even threatening their very existence. The so-called garb of “safety” at home absolutely unleashes their vulnerability to violence within the “safety of the house”, amidst which students are compelled to attend online classes throughout the day.
Their physical interaction with the outside world gets further restricted, thereby curtailing their chances of expressing and reaching out for help. Sometimes, the misery is often compounded by sexual harassment by one’s own kin members, worsening the imbroglio. Continuing online classes when confronted by such strenuous circumstances with overwhelming work pressure of meeting deadlines and exposure to screen time leads students to the nadir of their mental and physical state, leaving them totally exhausted.
Moreover, due to surging job losses, mental strain, financial insecurity and hardships, family members are often not considerate to the stress endured by students, and satiate their frustration by reprimanding them or imposing obligations on them.
Deep Dhara, a first year student of St Xavier’s College, Kolkata opines, “There are families engaging in a massive fight out of societal pressures. Even stereotypical thoughts as such with education of girls or letting their child work outside so as to support them in a crisis have resulted into oppression and violence. And certainly, students are suffering the most — they are mentally pressurised and not able to come out of the situation. It happens in our communities as well, it’s the time for people like us to help students in whatever little capacities we can. Let us the give hope and stand by their side.”
Personally in my case, too, the shift to the virtual platform has been uncertain and gruelling. Even though I have been privileged enough to confront this in a safe atmosphere, the constant slew of heart-wrenching loss of lives amidst handling locked screens has not been easy and taken an adverse toll on my mental health.
In such a bleak scenario, where the dichotomy of academics and familial obligations mesh in a claustrophobic atmosphere, the misery of students is unimaginable. It will be reasonably accurate to state that the promising youth of the country, the future of the nation, is at stake. Students are burning under the bourgeoning pressure of an exploitative family setting and threat of domestic violence with the pandemic hanging in the balance to further obliterate the overburdened voices.
What is needed is a coherent policy approach with the amalgamation of student voices to backtrack the alienated yet bright minds into the mainstream of life and spiral back again to build the utopia we once dreamt of – the utopia that seemed worth to strive so as to materialise it to reality.