It has been almost one and a half years since students in India attended classes physically. Covid-19 has impacted people from different walks of life. With the shift in the mode of education online, some initial and persisting problems such as the technological divide, lack of accessibility and the cost of education were identified from time to time.
However, disadvantages are also linked to the intersectional identity that an individual shares. Women from the marginalised communities faced much more adversity during this pandemic. Most women who belong to the lower-middle-class strata are being forced to give up on their education because families face a financial crisis. Often, a girl’s education in these families is not seen as a priority.
Women from marginalised sections do not have enough support to continue their education without worrying about the burgeoning cost. Last year, Aishwarya Reddy, a student of Lady Shri Ram college Delhi, died by taking her life because she could not afford to buy a laptop to continue her online courses.
Even if we do solve the primary problem of technological assistance, the problem on the social front remains intact. It is not uncommon to see young women in India being forced to get married because of the financial status of their family. This crisis has further deepened during the pandemic when families are finding it hard to provide for members, and the social stereotype sees girls in a family as a burden and a liability, which is transferable to another.
Often women attend colleges and universities in distant cities and states because they want to escape their immediate environment. Travelling to a distant place, they can enjoy their newfound independence away from the toxicity of family members and even other members of the society such as neighbours and relatives. In most colleges, there is a fairly cosmopolitan environment.
This environment allows these women to think about themselves, their career. They interact with their peers and enjoy a certain bit of independence where they can explore their identity devoid of family pressure. Women students also take up part-time employment opportunities during their course of study to earn extra income. This financial and social independence enables them to step out of their shackles when they return to their homes.
When this pandemic hit, students had to return to their homes and assimilate back into their families. They were faced with hard choices. Some of them do not have a room of their own where they can peacefully attend classes; often, there are family members who bother them during classes, assignments and tests to participate in petty domestic work.
Now one might say that this is a problem that is universal to everyone. No, most families are deeply entrenched with gender role stereotypes where if they have a bachelor son at home, they do not ask them to do domestic jobs such as sweeping the floor, doing the dishes or taking care of younger siblings. Boys are often given the privacy to study and carry on with their career-related academic work because they are seen as the future breadwinner and primary support pillar of the family.
The age for getting married is also set explicitly high for men in India versus women. Therefore people extend marriage proposals to families who have a bachelor girl in her twenties. Also, there is an understanding in families that education for a girl can extend only up to a certain age beyond which that becomes unimportant, that can be completed alongside being married.
In certain cases, they even find themselves trapped in the social hierarchy they have been trying to escape. For example, castes in several villages are policed and monitored. People from disadvantaged backgrounds are alienated and punished when they “violate the purity” of upper castes.
Therefore several women from oppressed caste migrate from a rural to urban setup because, in urban areas, caste identity is relatively invisible compared to rural regions. When she goes back, this woman finds herself back in the discriminatory setup she has been trying to avoid. There is little scope for her to stand up because it is often strictly punished if violated.
Even beyond caste, women are faced with questions about marriage, relationship and individual choices. It is not uncommon for a relative to give unsolicited advice about the biological clock ticking to a woman in her late twenties pursuing academics.
The pandemic has disadvantaged women from marginalised sections to a great extent. All the effort that they have poured in to set up a stage where they are now seems to disappear as their choices are being limited and taken away. Even post-pandemic, will they be able to get back their lives that they had previously? Given the circumstances that they have to build from scratch again.