How COVID-19 adds another layer to struggles for Girls’ Education in Rajasthan/India

How COVID-19 adds another layer to struggles for Girls’ Education in Rajasthan/India 

By Dr. Geeta Deshmukh, LGT Impact Fellow at Educate Girls, India

Being from Public health background, I have always believed that education is one of the primary social determinants of health related issues. Both these go hand in hand in different capacities and are the root cause to many problems in India. I was very excited to join as LGTVP fellow with Educate Girls as this gave me opportunity to explore my belief and also strategic partnership role being offered me was very different to my earlier job roles. But given the Pandemic situation, coming on board & to resume my career as an LGT impact fellow took some time. The working in a “new normal, virtual world” was totally different to my expectation as the pandemic has hit entire world like never before. COVID 19 has not only impacted the health of the individuals but has also impacted their livelihood and mental wellbeing.

India has come a long way from being a patriarchal society with extreme gender disparity with years of efforts from government & NGOs which are dedicatedly working on ground for better results. We can see tremendous improvement in girl education specifically after Right to Education act came in place. However, when COVID-19 started grappling the gigantic country like India in March’2020, Government imposed strict lockdowns & entire country came to a standstill. Forcing all the educational institutes, schools to be shut for months & leaving the children especially girls being homebound. The strict lockdowns have affected marginalized groups so badly that the economic challenges may force their children especially girls to never go back to schools post COVID-19 pandemic eases down. Over 11 million girls may not go back to school after the COVID-19 crisis (UNESCO).

The girls from remote, rural areas and from economically backward families are affected the most due to lockdowns and are at risk of malnutrition, child labor, child marriages, early pregnancy, violence & even trafficking; likelihoods of re-enrolling these girls in schools is almost next to nothing (Devex). As the COVID-19 situation aggravates these girls will face not only physical but social, mental & economical marginalization. Though Central & state governments are working to bridge the gap for learning via various digital initiatives, but the digital divide leaves the girls with no means of connecting to learning again. The age old gender inequality is the main culprit for the digital divide, as the smartphones if available will be reaching to the ‘boys’ in the family first. This digital divide is a great concern in the education system literally threatening the girls’ education in the remote & rural areas.

I am working with Educate Girls as Strategic partnership lead since Sep’2020. My role is to manage and leverage the relationship with policy makers aka government to explore the challenges in the education sector & help them to solve these. It was quite challenging for me during early part of my tenor as pandemic was at its peak. My role required in person meetings with government officials which was highly impossible due to restrictions on the movement. This disallowed better connect and coordination with people on ground. I had to put the extra efforts to connect to them virtually & in person whenever possible (I did travel couple of times though there were travel restrictions) since I was working remotely. The long waiting hours & unavailability of staff in the offices was frustrating sometimes. Nevertheless, the officials were aware of these constraints, restrictions & helped me in every possible way to streamline the processes & work towards a common goal of Girls’ education. As I have progressed I have understood the fact that working with Government body & understanding their strategies is very critical for Educate Girls as an organization. I am trying my level best to align with government’s priorities which will eventually help in better implementation of these strategies on ground. So far it’s been a very good journey and it has given me opportunity to learn & contribute to the strategy building and it’s on ground implementation for betterment of society. 

Government has tried to connect to the children through its various digital initiatives during pandemic. Government is also supporting many organizations who are taking initiatives to contribute to learning of the children and Educate Girls is one of them. It has initiated a program “Camp Vidya” which is a Community Based Learning Camp for the children who do not have access to smartphones. All the COVID-19 guidelines were strictly followed during these camps. Children who were part of these camps were made aware about COVID-19 and its preventive measures. Basic numeracy & literacy were other key subjects taught in these camps. Parents & local leaders were reluctant at the start due to fear of COVID-19, but the Educate Girls staff & Team Balika volunteers convinced them to send their children to these camps. These camps and efforts put by team educate girls were highly appreciated by the parents & community members. They realized the importance of these camps and infrastructure required to run these were ensured by the communities itself in later stages of this initiative. The pre & post camps analysis regarding learning outcomes of these camps has shown tremendous improvement in the participating children. These camps & efforts but Educate Girls were highly appreciated by State & district officials. As strategic partnership lead I was involved in presenting and getting approvals for this program from the Government officials.

Children learning at Camp Vidya: an initiative providing access to education during the pandemic. Photo credit: Educate Girls

With the start of 2021, the Government started to revisit their policies to fill in the gap caused by school’s closure for almost a year. A comprehensive strategy was put forward by education department while planning for the school reopening and working on Enrolment, retention & learning. Even the NGOs were assigned to have specific contributions for on ground implementation of various activities post COVID-19 & tracking was also planned. Extensive awareness campaigns were intended for BACK to SCHOOL campaign, taking into consideration the economical, psychological & social impact of COVID-19 on the society.

But while Government was all gearing up to reopen the schools, the second wave of COVID-19 struck the nation again in March’2021 and is worse than last year in both severity & fatality rates. The schools are shut again until COVID 19 is under control. Government & all organizations left in splits regarding their strategies to compensate the learning loss of children for the last year. The COVID-19 situation is so fluctuating that the immediate policy/guidelines revisions are required. Many places are under strict curfew mandated by state governments across the nation. The condition is deteriorating & might lead to another “lockdown” like circumstances. This is causing the irreparable impact on the children’s lives & learnings if not ended soon. In long term this shall affect the entire generation, as today’s children are future of economy, workforce across all the sectors including health, education, innovation, technology, research & everything (Devex).

Government bodies are on their toes all the time & working like never before to sail through this tough situation. All plausible attempts to bring back the lives of the children in the “new normal” where the right to education for all especially girls is retained. As a society, how can we reduce these equities and disproportionate impact of the pandemic on girls’ education? The answer remains the same. However, the importance of the girls’ education has increased by many folds. So when we educate a girl, we educate a community, a society, a generation. Investment in Girls education can help to achieve 9 sustainable Development Goals across health, education, poverty, hunger, gender equality & even climate change. So this basic understanding needs to be reinforced, and post COVID special efforts need to made to reenroll girls who are missed from the mainstream education (Devex).

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