10 million girls at risk of dropping out of school because of the COVID-19 pandemic: RTE Forum
Ten million girls in India could drop out of secondary school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Right to Education Forum policy brief. With 1.6 million girls aged 11 to 14 years currently out of school, the pandemic could disproportionately impact girls further by putting them at risk of early marriage, early pregnancy, poverty, trafficking and violence.
Released on January 24, the International Day of Education and National Girl Child Day, the brief indicates stark disparities in female literacy rates. Populous States such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Rajasthan recorded rates below the national average of 70.3 per cent. In contrast, Kerala, Mizoram, Lakshadweep, Goa and Tripura fared better in female literacy.
Infrastructural issues, including distance from school, remained important road blocks for girls to access higher education. The policy brief states that for every 100 elementary schools (classes 1 to 8) in rural India, there were only 14 offering secondary (classes 9-10) and only six offering higher secondary grades (classes 11-12).
Besides this, enrolment declined drastically for girls from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and Muslims, who were subject to multiple marginalisation. For S.C. girls, enrolment was 19.34 per cent at the elementary level, which became 18.6 per cent at the secondary level and 17.3 per cent at the higher secondary level. In the case of S.T. girls, it was worse - 10.35 per cent at the elementary level, which fell to 8.6 per cent at the secondary level and then to 6.8 per cent at the higher secondary level.
The RTE brief further mentions how conventional gender roles were assigned in school, reinforcing stereotypes and discrimination. Cleaning toilets, separate seats based on caste, tribe or religion were oft-repeated discriminatory practices in schools and occasionally found mention in textbooks. The marginalisation deepened for girls with disabilities or those belonging to the LGBTQ community. Teachers were not trained and sensitised to the needs of LGBTQ children, and sometimes instead of taking an anti-bullying stance, they were complicit in their harassment.
Delivering the keynote address for the virtual launch of the report, Dr Shanta Sinha, Ramon Magsaysay awardee and former Chairperson National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, said, “There is a link between school and democracy. We have to ask ourselves — are schools inclusive, and how can they be made more inclusive? The tasks boys are made to do in school are clean the blackboard, while girls are made to sweep. Small discriminatory practices exist everywhere which girls accept without questioning. Sexual exploitation and harassment compound the issues for girls. These are political issues that need to be addressed and the school system strengthened. Schools must become hubs for democracy, equality and justice.”
Poverty and entrenched patriarchy also play a vital role in affecting girls’ education. Regressive gender norms place the unpaid burden of sibling care and household chores on girls. Patriarchal social norms like child marriage, dowry, and restrictions on mobility of girls also act as barriers.
Dr Ambarish Rai, National Convener of the RTE Forum, highlighted how corporatisation and privatisation exacerbated inequalities in education, making it difficult for the children of the poor to access education. “At this time, India needs a common school system to not only address issues of migrants, Dalits, backward groups, girls but also realise the constitutional commitment to equality. We have requested the Finance Minister to ensure education is adequately funded and not placed in ‘C’ category in the Budget. To that end, we are also running a petition,” he said.
Anjela Taneja, from the Fight Inequality Alliance and Oxfam India, said, “While India’s elites embraced digital education and India’s EdTech companies made billions of dollars in profits, girls’ education has suffered with the number of out-of-school children projected to double. Given that even before the pandemic, the wealth of the 69 top billionaires was more than the national budget, it is time for more progressive taxation to ensure adequate resources for girls’ education.”
The policy brief recommended the need for the extension of the Right to Education Act to cover all children. It also called for measures to establish a safe and secure environment for girls, and ensure education that encourages equal participation for them besides empowerment and life skills.