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Why Did The Pandemic Cause A Lockdown On Women’s Education?

This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

Ghutiarishorip, South 24 Parganas. I walk past a group of flower vendors and local saree men to enter a small tin house. The scanty electricity connection took a power cut the fifth time in a row for the day. The mother brought us cups of tea and biscuits to restore our energy back from the long journey.

It was a small village, and almost the entire crowd had gathered around us—some very suspicious of our whereabouts and motives, others with a very enthusiastic smile. I could sense an aura of celebration around the Halder family. I progressed forward with the greetings.

Soon, as the crowd scattered with the descending sun, two young girls scrounge up near our mat and heard attentively of what her father said, ‘boroder kotha‘. After that, the discussions got heated and lively through the active participation of the mother, father and the elder girl of the house.

Boroder kotha mostly constituted discussions on the national economy, the political circus and education. I moved towards the elder girl and asked, “Is this pandemic affecting your studies?”

Neema Halder, the 19-year old replied with a broken voice, “My family could only afford my education before the lockdown. During the COVID containment, my father lost his accountant job from the local doctor’s chamber, and he was forced to take up odd jobs like either lending a helping hand for the cable connectors or the cow milker. We have also lost all our land because of poor documentation. So, I was bound to work as house help for the Pradhan’s mansion, and now my fate destined me to this marriage.

The pandemic had affected the lives of people from different walks of life. The COVID era mostly saw the introduction of online education and computer teaching. However, the supposed digital divide has now outputted into a social divide, mainly barring people from poor income households from the benefits of learning.

The burden of the economic crackdown has significantly affected the availability of food, health and livelihood to most people in our country. In a country where 70% are below the poverty line, the huge blow has ruffled lives of plenty in return for job losses, a day without meals, unsupervised health concerns.

In such a scenario, affording a smartphone or a laptop or 4G net connection for a Google Meet and Zoom classroom remains a luxury. Whereas, in the patriarchal set-up where the girl child is seen as a burden or a liability, the privileges of education are snatched away from her. If a smartphone is made available in a marginalized household, the boy child enjoys the facilities only.

Schools and colleges have started to reopen in other states of Maharashtra and Bangalore with regular assistance of COVID protocols, but the West Bengal Government has remained silent and ignorant to such a significant concern. However, there has been a loose talk on reconsideration of opening educational institutions after puja vacation.

Such uncertainties have made Sharmistha Sanyal, a Class 11 student, take her life for the repeated injustices she met. A young girl from a lower-class background has lost her parents to severe illness during the pandemic. She died by suicide because she could not afford a phone for her online courses, and her grandmother was hellbound to marry her off.

Recent reports from various private initiatives sparked off striking percentages of girl students, mostly from lower-middle and lower class backgrounds, to be victims of child marriage. Many girls have also been forced to take up child labour to continue their education and the degrading condition of her family.

There has not been proper induction of the government officials and police in such cases of grave concern. Various sociologists raised concerns that there has been an enormous rate of school and college dropouts, mostly among female students during the pandemic, and reopening cannot guarantee proper regulation of their education even then.

Schools and colleges have always been an open space to create communication channels and new friends who provide a wide outlook to the outer world. It has always been a channel to know about the greater world, be aware of their rights and opportunities, and get exposed. Most girl students opt for studying in distant institutions to escape their immediate environment. They develop a sense of independence and learn to think widely, away from superstitions and social stereotypes.

Regular interaction with peers and new teachers helps them in engaging with a healthy environment capable of their personal growth. Women are also known to take up part-time jobs during their study life, to financially facilitate their family and lessen the burden of their parents. Such an environment helps in mental and academic growth and becomes conscious of their national concerns through school activities like organizing functions, academic ventures, environmental days, and getting access to higher scopes.

Most of the students in government primary schools are from middle class or lower-middle-class families, and due to school closures, they are not getting mid-day meals and are gradually turning away from school and becoming more reluctant towards education. After a lot of corruption, some schools provide mid-day meal raw material every month, but whether it reaches the child’s family is still unidentified. As a result, the number of malnutrition has increased, and girls with the onset of menstruation and other health concerns have suffered periodically.

With the pandemic, students are trapped inside the four walls of repression assimilated in their households. More than the young boy, a girl child is occupied often with domestic work and family care, rendering her no time for her study courses. Most Indian households render an outlook that the boy will be the future breadwinner and leave him with the most time to focus on his academics and career, but women are hindered with early marriage. The social stereotype and financial burden both work hand in hand to channelize this outlook. The pandemic has increased the rarity of girl education, but pre-pandemic also bore bad educational opportunities and conditions for women.

The villages are also a place where caste is strictly monitored and controlled, and people from oppressed caste households are often discriminated against and isolated. Women from marginalized households have suffered discrimination more extensively, and the social hierarchy has restricted her opportunities further. Where only 8% of students from Tapasili jati and advasis have basic access to education, taking into account both offline and online courses, we can imagine the extent of hardships of women coming from that identity.

With the introduction of New Educational Policy 2020 facilitating more digital study formats, the central government passed the blueprint to assimilate educational benefits only to upper-class students and systematically push the marginalized communities backwards. The new syllabus introduced changes with deduction of Rabindranath Tagore’s literature, Sankha Ghosh’s poem, Mahasweta Devi, RK Narayan, and eliminated courses on farmers, workers, radical women liberation, and caste movements of historical significance.

As a result, there has been a significant upward trend in saffronization. Infiltration of Ramdev’s Ayurveda and Yogi’s Hindutva philosophy in place of natural sciences and technology courses shows clear motives of inducing backward ideologies, known to discriminate marginalized and dominate over poor and oppressed. Such nuances can heavily affect the already downtrodden situation of women education. Where education and schooling provided scope for free-thinking and liberation for women and marginalized genders, instances of such Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan infiltration raise a bigger question mark on the actual social, political and economic development of the country.

Schools and colleges have been virtualized for over two years now. The COVID situation has seen fluctuating trends, increasing gatherings and crowds in cinema halls and shopping malls, and participating in Ganesh Puja celebrations. The Durga Puja hype has also seen an upward trend with regular crowds at New Market, Gariahat Bazar and Dakshinapan. Yet, a question still lurks on the young minds of today- if the government can open doors of entertainment ventures, recreational hotspots, why is the question of education and development left unanswered?

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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