By Dr Sudeshna Roy*
Education allows people to live a dignified life, improve quality of living and participate in the national development (UNESCO, 1990; 1996., DFID, 2006). But the Covid-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the education system in India, more so for the adolescent population.
Education and health needs are deeply entwined and fundamental to this population group. But it is threatened to be neglected due to the current scare of a global economic slump and the interconnectedness will have a domino effect on the overall wellbeing of the adolescents.
Digital divide and unmet education needs
The unplanned announcement of complete lockdown and it’s prolonged continuation in India has jeopardized access to education. With 1.5 billion students out of school since March 2020, the implementation of Right to Education Act, 2009, has taken a beating.
Though there has been a tectonic shift in how school routines are conducted through the use of information and communication technology (ICT), the digital transition is concentrated in urban India, primarily in private and big schools.
Rural institutes have faced tremendous challenges in continuing classes owing to inadequate technical infrastructure, lack of internet connectivity, poor functional knowledge among teachers and students for maneuvering digital devices and non-affordability of expensive gadgets by lower-income rural households.
A recent report portrays how agricultural households had to sell their livestock and assets in order to purchase smart phones for their children to continue education.
Moreover, there is a prominent digital divide by place of residence and gender in access and ownership of smart phones and computers. As per the Census of India, (2011) about 9.5% of all households (5.7% in rural and 18.7% in urban) areas own a computer, whereas the NSS report (2017-18) reveals that access to computers is only 4% in rural households compared to 23% in urban.
While according to the report by Internet and Mobile Association of India (2018), only 30% of the total internet users in the country are women, whereas the rural-urban disparity is acute with only 20% internet penetration in rural India relative to 65% in urban centres.
This unequal access to digital technology is not only because of disparate income and asset ownership between men and women, but is rooted to the irrational fear that access to smart phones and the internet would corrupt adolescent girls and give them courage to rebel against traditional orthodox Indian moral codes and provide a fillip to exercise their agency.
Thus, vehement denial to provide access to technology becomes a way of exercising power and control. A report by Dasra (2019) highlights how instruments of violence, threatening, ridicule, shaming, denial of permission, restrictions on mobility, withdrawal from school, forced marriage, detainment within home are used as ‘backlash’ and administered to adolescent girls who tend to defy the traditional social norms, stereotyped expectations and gender discriminations.
Further, the access to uninterrupted high speed internet connectivity is another issue altogether, notwithstanding that India has one of the cheapest rates for internet subscription. For households having more than one child, uniform access of mobile phones for online classrooms is limited and in patriarchal Indian society, the adolescent girls eventually lose out to their school and college going brothers.
School dropout and gender discrimination
Data stories are not encouraging too. The Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) in secondary and higher secondary level of schooling in India is 51.3% and 32.3% respectively, dropping sharply from NER of 88.9% at elementary level, despite no-detention policy (UDISE, 2015-16).
Furthermore, all-India NER is found to have declined 50.2% and 27.8% for secondary and higher secondary levels as per UDISE, 2017-18. The age-specific enrolment ratio for UDISE (2015-16) clearly shows the difference between elementary and secondary education with barely 48% children in ages 16-17 years were enrolled in any educational institution as against 92.4% in ages 6 to 13 years.
Additionally, the proportion of SCs, STs and differently-abled children in higher secondary level is 17.3%, 6.8% and 0.25% as against 19.9%, 10.6% and 1.1% in the primary level of schooling respectively (UDISE, 2015-16).
Efforts under the Rastriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) which aimed at increasing the secondary level enrolment ratio of children to achieve a 100% Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) by year 2017 and universal retention by 2020 also got delayed due to the pandemic.
Drop-out rates among young adolescent girls is alarming. According to MHRD (2018), average annual dropout rate at secondary schooling in India was 27.06 % in 2016-17.
On reaching puberty adolescent girls are compelled to deregister from school due to lack of separate toilets, susceptibility to gender-based violence (GBV) outside homes, non-affordability and non-usage of sanitary napkins and for fear of public shaming due to period stains. An alarming 23 million adolescent girls drop-out of school per year owing to lack of menstrual hygiene facilities and ignorance of such in India.
Covid-19 prompted physical lockdown of schools and social distancing mandates has further threatened discontinuity in learning affecting drop-out rates to escalate especially for adolescent girls.
Many studies evidence that natural disasters and socio-political-economic disturbances have resulted in school absenteeism and high dropout rates with the likelihood of re-enrollment in post-disaster recovery for girls being much lower relative to the boys. Apart from formal education, the vocational skills training in secondary and higher secondary levels as has been set up under National Vocational Education Qualifications Framework during 12th Five-Year Plan and under National Skill Development Mission (NSDM) in 2015 have been also compromised.
Doubts also remain on the quality of education under online schooling arrangement, especially for adolescents in secondary levels, which signifies crucial juncture towards their future career choices.
Opportunely, the National Education Policy (NEP) (2020) is a right and appropriate step towards greater inclusivity and improvement in the secondary and tertiary education system. But it is only with time and effective execution cum auditing under the pandemic regimen, that the desired impact of the policy can be ascertained.
Unpaid care burden, child labour and child marriage
Secondary level school dropout is invariably linked to the adolescent girls being coerced into unpaid care-work; domestic chores and sibling childcare, and being married off against their will. Prolonged period of being out-of-school and sitting at home during Covid-19, mean that parents find it less valuable to send their children to school and force them into family farm-labour or casual wage-work as survival strategy.
India has 10.1 million child labourers in 5-14 years age group while adolescent children labourers in hazardous occupations in ages 15-18 years, account for 62.8% child workforce in India. Predictably, Covid-19 has generated a heightened risk of exclusion from education of many more vulnerable children who are being pushed into child labour.
Rural institutes have faced tremendous challenges in continuing classes owing to inadequate technical infrastructure, lack of internet connectivityStudies have shown that child marriage and trafficking incidences increase disproportionately after natural disasters. Adolescent girls are denoted as socio-economic liability and are gotten rid-off hurriedly via marriage. According to NFHS-IV, West Bengal (25.6%), Bihar (19.7%), Jharkhand (17.8%) Andhra Pradesh (16.6%) and Rajasthan (16.2%) are the top five states with high incidence of child marriage.
Despite streamlining and stringency in the legal provisions against it, child marriages are still rampant albeit with resorts to secrecy and flouting of law by parties involved. Parents find it cheaper to marry off adolescent girls in mass marriages as it entails low expenses in dowry. Covid-19 has thus led to spike in child marriages. UN has estimated an additional 13 million child marriages in the coming decade as an outcome of pandemic induced poverty.
Pandemic restrictions and ensuing financial downturn have also dented the advances that were made through some best practices; Kanyashree Prakalpa and SABLA scheme by West Bengal government, Ladli Scheme by Delhi, Apni Beti Apna Dhan Yojana by Haryana government wherein conditional cash transfers to adolescent girls led to delaying of child marriages and promotion of higher education among this group.
Cyber crime, trafficking and child care institutions (CCIs)
With increased digital dependence another emerging concern is adolescents being vulnerable to cyber bullying, cyber-crimes and digital violence. Cyber-crimes in India have reported a 63.5% rise in 2019 relative to 2018 while, the cyber-crime rate was 3.4 per 1 lakh population.
With the pandemic ushering a transition in way of doing things, greater attention must be focused on creating a safety net, vigilance, keeping communications open among parents/guardians and children on issues of sexuality, crimes and legal rights. With increased debt bondage risks for the unemployed households, adolescent girls are vulnerable to being sold off and trafficked for sexual exploitation. Orphaned young adults residing in CCIs have also braced multifold challenges due to Covid-19 crisis.
Amidst the ongoing vaccination drive and declining trend in Corona infections, selected states have reopened physical classes in schools with the urgency to implement NEP 2020, taking cognizance of necessary safety precautions and protocols.
But after witnessing the unprecedented healthcare catastrophe during the second wave earlier this year, majority of Indian parents are wary of sending their wards to schools. Undeniably online education cannot be the long-term replacement for Indian students, as pupils especially adolescents are unable to deal with emotional stressors, grade assessments are not reliable, learnings are ineffective and non-interactive which pose as barriers.
Thus, well thought out SOPs are needed for not only teachers/mentors but, parents/guardians must be guided regarding coping strategies on how to tackle behaviour and communication problems among children. For adolescents, sticking to a disciplined routine, instilling creativity and variety including physical exercise would perpetuate constituency in daily schedules amidst these uncertain and anxious times.
Furthermore, public-private investment is a necessity for bridging digital divide for rural India. Donation camps for smartphones and education resources might be initiated for the needy. Innovative methods such as peer-led tutorials, neighbourhood outdoor classes can be implemented with capacity building of teachers and school administrations with scope of involvement of corporates and NGOs.
The Water-Sanitation-Hygiene (WASH) programme must be strengthened with Swachh Bharat program for scaling up of separate girls’ toilets and to inculcate menstrual hygiene management effectively. Wide publicity campaigns must be operationalised for helpline channels to redress adolescent grievances especially violence as recommended under Rashtriya Kishore Swasthya Karyakaram (RKSK).
Coordinated efforts for sensitizing of local government bodies; Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) with NGOs is required to engage the parents, families and adolescents in a consistent manner. Education has to be reimagined to enable young learners to emerge as confident and competent individuals. Adolescence is a time for aspirations and thus inculcating leadership spirits, building their agency is essential to put their potentiality, vitality and indomitable energy into productive use.
*PhD from JNU, independent researcher, writes on gender, health, livelihood, urban issues and marginalized people