With a vaccine in motion to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, the nation gears up to overcome the developmental challenges posed by the pandemic and lockdown; quick studies are already providing the Government the starting mark. Since March 2020 decades of hard work in improving education outcomes have faced the most serious challenge as schools shut down. While both boys and girls have been affected, emerging discussions and evidence indicate that the impact of the pandemic is expected to be exacerbated for girls and women.
Experiences from past disease outbreaks and economic crises also suggest that girls and women are likely to be disproportionately impacted. With targeted programs and efforts, the country has made strides in girls’ education, however, several challenges, continue to keep girls out of schools.
Some of them include:
It is likely that the COVID 19 pandemic will further some of these challenges.
Following the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we undertook a study in four districts of Rajasthan – Dausa, Karauli, Tonk and Udaipur to understand perceptions of girls and their parents, from marginalized communities, on girl’s education and the impact of COVID-19 on education and access to the pre-matric scholarships. The pandemic has indeed affected girls. Majority girls reported spending more time on household chores with 18 percent girls reporting that they were engaged in income generation activities as well. Despite efforts of the State to enable online education, only 11 percent girls were able to access the same. Increased household work was one of the reasons for girls not being able to attend online education, along with limited access to phones, internet, and lack of knowledge on how to access online classes.
Across the four locations with parents having lost jobs, and several migrant workers returning home owing to COVID-19, girls were concerned that they might not be able to attend schools once they opened. Girls were anxious, stressed, and concerned, as to whether their parents would be able to secure back their jobs again and meet the household expenses. Tension and fights between family members was also a cause of stress for the young girls. Further, they were concerned about their education – they had doubts regarding being promoted to the next class, remembering what was taught to them prior to the lockdown, and not being able to attend online classes.
Post COVID-19, the findings of the study are pertinent for the Government to restart important deliberations around the importance of scholarships. One aspect that the study dove into was the pre-matric scholarships and how this could enable girls to tide the unprecedented situation brought on by the pandemic. The study found that only 44 percent eligible girls were accessing the pre-matric scholarship; and that there were several challenges in access. Lack of awareness on processes, delayed payments, and significant documentation, to name a few. However, those who were accessing the scholarships, found it to be useful in enabling girls to complete their secondary education. Parents felt that with the help of scholarships to support some of the education expenses, girls could study longer. Particularly for girls from poor families, it was felt that the scholarship schemes ensured that the girls continued their education. This was corroborated by girls as well. Parents and girls stated that if the challenges in accessing the scholarships could be minimized, more girls and families could access the schemes.
Over the last decade or so Rajasthan has encouraged families to keep girls in school, with several programs and incentives, which have had mixed results. The pandemic has now slowed down these gains too.
In such a context, scholarships could play an important role in enabling girls to access education. There is also a need for greater engagement at the community level to emphasize the importance of girls’ education and its role in shaping their future, beyond just their marriage and childbearing. The need for safe spaces for girls – within schools and on the way to schools is also of critical importance. With several young people having lost jobs and having come back to villages; now more than ever, parents are concerned about girls’ safety.
Over the last two decades, Rajasthan made strong progress in achieving high enrollment in primary education (ASER 2018). This enabled greater number of girls to access education. However, Rajasthan has the second worst overall literacy rate in the country and the lowest literacy rate for females (NSS, 2017-18). Among adolescent girls, the NSS reports that of the 3.7 million girls in the 14-to-18-year age group in Rajasthan, 26 percent were out of school. The gains in primary education have, not quite translated in girls smoothly progressing to secondary education.
The study has, thus, recommended the immediate strengthening of the delivery of incentives and schemes, monitoring and engagement to enable reenrollment and retention in schools, interventions to overcome learning loss and time lost over the last eight months, and stronger implementation of child protection systems and redressal of abuse to check the rollback of the State’s gain in girls’ education. At this crucial juncture as the State begins to build back – with the experience it already has, efficient roll-out of programs and financial incentives for girls’ education would help hopefully put girls’ education back on track as soon as possible. Immediate intervention to address concerns around delay in payments, and documentation are recommended for scholarships to play an important role in keeping girls in school during these unprecedented times.
(The author is the co-founder of Development Solutions a research and consulting organization that works on various aspects of social impact. This study was undertaken in partnership with IDS Jaipur).