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मंदार शिंदे
Mandar Shinde

Monday, October 11, 2021

Bring girls back to the classroom - Article in Mid-day

Int’l Girl Child Day: Why it is urgent to bring girls at risk of dropping out back to the classroom

10 October 2021 |  Mumbai Mid-Day | Sarasvati T

Marriage, domestic work, digital gaps and disrupted income regularly push Indian girls away from formal learning. On the occasion of International Girl Child Day, and as schools and colleges reopen across the country, we look at ongoing efforts to bring girls back in touch with education

Stuti Yadav* from Malad Malwani, an underdeveloped area in suburban Mumbai, was made to leave school in 2017 and quickly married off by her father to someone in their village in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur. Her mother, who has a hearing and speaking impairment, had no knowledge of this. “I did not want to drop out. I had just passed my ninth grade and wanted to study further,” says the 21-year-old, who was 17 at the time.

“I resisted initially but my father started crying and was scared I would run away with someone like my elder sister. I was of the view that my father cares about me and would have planned the best for me. My mother was shocked when I returned,” she recalls. Yadav, now separated from her husband, is trying to find work and complete her education in the city.

As offline classes resume in a phased manner across several states in India, bringing children—especially girls—who have lost touch with education back into schools will be a priority for education rights activists, community volunteers and government authorities. Nearly 42 percent of females, from age 3 to 35 years, were currently not attending educational institutions, according to data collected by the National Statistical Office (NSO) between July 2017 and June 2018.

The problem has worsened during the pandemic. The socio-economic impact of lockdown disconnected a large number of learners across India, specifically those who belonged to underprivileged sections of society, from formal education. UNESCO estimates hold that school closures due to Covid-19 have affected 320 million learners in India from pre-primary to secondary levels of education. Girls accounted for 141 million, or 41 percent, of those affected.

In the state of Maharashtra, ever since the pandemic, a total of 2,399 children—including 1,129 boys and 1,270 girls—have dropped out of school, according to data provided by Child Rights and You (CRY). CRY says it has managed to re-enroll a little over half of them — 638 boys and 702 girls.

Mandar Shinde, member of Pune-based child rights network Action for Rights of Children (ARC), says many girl students in their area of jurisdiction are still registered in schools but have stopped attending classes, and hence are not considered ‘dropouts’ yet. He adds that it is too soon to estimate the number of actual dropouts over the year.

With an increasing digital divide and unequal access to resources, gender disparities are widening across all levels of education. Additionally, a surge in child marriages—the National Crime Records Bureau found such cases jumped 50 percent from 523 in 2019 to 785 in 2020—is also contributing to more and more girls dropping out of school and college education.

The burden of child marriage

UNICEF estimates find that at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India each year. Marriage is the major reason why 13.2 percent of enrolled females—12.4 percent in rural areas and 15 percent in urban—do not currently attend any educational institution. This is as per the NSO data cited above.

In Yadav’s case, she was promised that she would be allowed to study further after marriage but what followed within months was pressure to conceive a child, domestic violence and harassment by an alcoholic husband which finally led to the couple’s separation.

For Yadav, the separation meant the end of a tormenting year, making her a little hopeful. She returned to Mumbai last year and despite societal and family pressure to marry again, plans to educate herself and her siblings.

“I have decided to study further with my own money and my father has agreed. I want to earn and take care of my family as well,” she says, adding that she will be applying to take the tenth standard exam privately next year. While her younger siblings are still engaged in formal school education and managing to attend online school classes, Yadav is currently on the lookout for jobs to support them and herself.

ARC’s Shinde says at this point, his organisation’s focus is on bringing such children back to school by tracking them and assisting them with resources. “If we receive cases of a girl child marriage, we try to stop it. But if we cannot, the state Child Welfare Committee takes up the cause of rehabilitation of children who are married off.”

Aspirations vs domestic expectations

According to the NSO data, as of 2018, 32 percent of females in rural areas and 27 percent in urban areas, were not attending education in 2018 because of domestic work.

“My elder daughter had to drop out of school in seventh class because of my deteriorating relationship with my wife. She had to leave school and take care of younger siblings and other chores at home,” says Suhas Chavan, who works as a housekeeper at a private company in Pune.

Chavan’s daughter Raksha*, who used to study in a municipal school, has since been at home dealing with the family crisis, with no opportunities available to study further or learn new skills. Completing her education and getting a job are uphill challenges for the 15-year-old.

“I want to enroll her again in school but the situation at home does not allow that. How will she study now when she cannot learn the English language quickly or remember anything that she has learnt? And I don’t want her to work. We can manage ourselves financially,” her father says.

Raksha’s three younger sisters have continued to attend online classes on one phone that Chavan bought during the pandemic. He says the three will go to school once offline classes begin for their age groups.

Both Yadav and Chavan’s eldest daughter were forced to put aside aspirations and compromise their independence to shoulder household responsibilities at a tender age.

How digital gaps hurt

For 17-year-old Almas Khan’s younger sister, who is studying in Class 7 at a Municipal school in Malad Malwani, attending online class every day was a task as the family did not have enough money to spend on internet services or mobile data.

“There was only one phone and three people to study. My sister used to visit her friend’s house to study but even that could not last for a long time. My father cannot work since he was grievously injured in an accident. In that case, paying for mobile data is a privilege,” says Khan, who herself is grappling with finances to secure admission in a first year bachelor of commerce (BCom) course in a nearby college.

Khan fears that her younger sister will have to leave school after passing seventh class, the final level of upper primary municipal school. The fear, she says, is valid, given that she was forced to quit school after tenth class, due to financial constraints.

In 2019, she managed to resume Class 11 studies at a night college with financial assistance from teachers, a few debts and small scale jobs at home. Lockdown hit during her first year final exams, and like her younger sister, she too attended online classes with her friends and cleared the 12th class board exams with 76.5 percent.

According to the Centre for Budget and Governance Ability (CBGA), only 33 percent of women in India had access to the internet, in contrast to 67 percent of men. Further, the NSO data reveals that only 24 percent of Indian households have an internet facility.

According to Shinde, most of the children from marginalised communities were attending government schools so education and related entitlements were available for free up to the seventh or eighth standard. The pandemic disrupted this system with online classes and lack of access to digital infrastructure pushed children from marginalised communities, especially girls, out of school.

Ongoing efforts and scope for action

Mumbai’s Zarin Khan, community organiser at Nakshatra Network which works for girls’ education and health, says she and her colleagues have been constantly visiting girls who are willing to get back to school and convincing their parents to re-enroll them. According to Khan, the group has managed to re-admit six girls this year to school or college and is currently in touch with 35 more girls in the Malad Malwani area.

“We have also been gathering groups of girls and allowing them to study together since there are a limited number of phones,” Khan adds.

Education rights volunteers believe there is not much that they can do if the families have shifted to their native places after losing their source of income in cities during the lockdown.

When asked how schools can help bridge the gap between the number of girls enrolled and those attending online or offline classes, Shinde states that schools must first get in touch with local authorities such as Zilla Parishads or Municipal Corporations to identify vulnerable groups of children and ensure that they are attending school.

Second, schools must provide basic necessary facilities such as transport, books and uniforms to such children at the earliest. “Finally, schools must declare out-of-school and dropout cases as an educational emergency as any child left out of school is a potential victim of child marriage or child labour,” Shinde adds.

Organisations have also been conducting classes to help children work on their basic skills and recover from learning losses.

According to Nilendu Kumar, General Manager, Development Support of CRY, volunteers are also conducting bridge classes, where they take language, maths and science lessons, for children from marginalised communities in rural and urban areas, to ensure they are smoothly integrated into the offline system.

Says Kumar: “Children have faced a loss of education for more than one and a half years. This has been the biggest casualty. In the case of girls, if you have to prevent them from getting married underage, you have to ensure that you connect them to education in some or the other way.”

(*Names of all the girls have been changed to protect their identity)



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