Questioning the impact of the pandemic on children’s education and gender equality has led to a generational catastrophe in India. In this moment, we might want to remember Chachaji’s statement: “The children of today will make the India of tomorrow. The way we bring them up will determine the future of the country.”
Jamlo Makdam, a 12-year-old migrant labourer, reportedly died after walking 150 km from her workplace in Bhupalpally district of Telangana to her native village in Bijapur district of the neighbouring Chhattisgarh during the Covid-induced lockdown. While people started talking about the inhuman treatment of the migrant labourers across the country, I was questioning myself: why was Jamlo working in chilly fields and not studying in school? Why do such children remain unnoticed before such a tragedy? Jamlo probably did not get a chance to go to school like many others who also leave school and start working at a young age.
The pandemic has changed our lives in many ways. Today, I remember Jamlo and many other children and questioning how our countries are doing. Are they all safe? Numerous children are silently excluded from the formal schooling system and because of their circumstances and the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic has created more anxiety for our future generation.
Since March 2020, school campuses have been shut down due to the pandemic. By mid-April of the same year, almost 1.58 billion children and youth, from pre-primary to higher education, across 200 countries were affected by the pandemic in various ways. The recent report published by the United Nations (UN) provided a note of caution, stating, “Preventing a learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe requires urgent action from all” (United Nations, 2020).
The closure of educational institutions, especially schools, will hinder the provision of essential services to children and communities, including access to nutritious food. Additionally, limited opportunities in the labour market will badly affect employment and increase the risk of violence against women and girls.
A prolonged academic detachment may have multiple consequences on children, such as drastic dropout from schools, increased child labour, child marriage, child trafficking, abuse, and addiction to substances. It will have a terrible impact on girls who are already deprived of decent educational opportunities for many reasons, including gender-specific norms and practices existing in society.
Before the outbreak of the worldwide pandemic, a learning crisis among children was identified by the World Bank; around 53% of children in low- and middle-income countries were found to be living in ‘Learning Poverty’. Numerous children in India are at risk because of this, but who are they and where are they?
There are mainly three types of vulnerable children vis-a-vis education: (i) children who never enrolled in any school, (ii) children who are formally enrolled in school but extremely irregular in school due to various socio-economic reasons, and (iii) school dropouts. Children who are never get enrolled or withdraw admission from school before completing their elementary education either belong to families having livelihood issues or belonging to families with an orthodox belief system. Often, girl children remain more vulnerable rather than boys.
Two prominent questions emerge here: (i) Do we provide enough support in our formal school system so that children aspire for education? (ii) Do we pay enough attention to girls’ education?
According to the data available from U-DISE, there are 1,795,240 schools in India. Out of all schools, 83% provide primary education facilities (Class 1 to 5), whereas around 50% provide education till Class 8. There are only 28% of schools that provide school education till Crass 10 and only 21% provide school education till Class 12. This data indicates that the majority of our children do not have access to education beyond Class 8.
More than 70% of schools in India are either managed fully by the government, any department under the government, or autonomous bodies created under the Central or State government in order to meet a specified purpose. On the other hand, around 50,000 schools are residential and run by various departments of the government of India, including the Tribal Welfare Department and Social Welfare Department. In many such residential schools, the residential facility is provided with a bare minimum need of the children. What may happen to those children studying in rural areas having poor facilities in schools and rare access to any formal education during this prolonged school closure?
A study on informal worksites in seven Indian cities revealed that 80% of the accompanying migrant children did not have access to education, 30% never enrolled in schools and 90% did not access ICDS services. Almost all children were found to be living in hazardous and unhygienic conditions. There are two types of children who belong to migrant labourers’ families. One set of children are left behind in the villages by parents who undertake employment elsewhere and another set migrates with their parents who are often engaged in the construction sector, brick kilns and agricultural sectors. The job losses encountered by the migrant workers in the current pandemic will worsen the plight of these children. What is happening to these children now?
The majority of girl children in rural India go to government schools. Girls drop out of school because of several reasons including family and social norms. However, many reasons lie within the schools only such as lack of transport facility, lack of functional toilets in schools and absence of female teachers in schools.
A report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) published in 2018 stated that 39.4% of girls of 15-18 years across India drop out of school. Most of them do not end up earning; they are forced to perform household chores or even resort to begging, the report claims. What may happen to the girl children during this prolonged school closure? Forget about their education, are they even keeping well in terms of physical and mental health? Are they safe? The scenario is presently blurred but alarming which may lead to a generational catastrophe.
There is a famous proverb that goes: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” If we relook at the education of women in India, we will probably agree that even after 73 years of Independence, we are far from reaching a level of satisfaction in women’s education. I wish to remember the face of children like Jamlo who deserve a better life with proper facilities of health, nutrition and education to contribute to nation-building for the future.
Above are the event excerpts of the special talk by Dr Saswati Paik on ‘Learning Crisis leading to a Generational Catastrophe amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impact on Children’s Education and Gender Equality’. The other participants in the webinar were: Dr Indu Prakash Singh, Facilitator, CityMakers Mission International; Dr Govind Kelkar, Executive Director, GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation, Gurugram.
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Dr Saswati Paik