Torchlight on girls’ situation in India under the pandemic
Only 1 out of every 100 girls enrolled in grade 1 reaches grade 12 in rural areas.
India is home to the highest number of child brides.
56.26% of adolescent girls in India are not lettered.
Between ages 15-24 years, only about 56% of women and girls use hygienic materials during menstruation.
The above statistics reflect the grim status of women and girls in India under ‘normal’ circumstances; a result of deep-rooted patriarchy and gender inequalities in the Indian society. The current pandemic, while pushing socially disadvantaged people to the edge, have made the lives of women and girls direr. Room to Read’s experience of working with adolescent girls across the country indicates that the outbreak of Covid -19, and its socio-administrative repercussions, has made it more challenging for growing up girls to negotiate spaces for themselves. Their steeplechase run to a moment of informed choice, when they get a chance to exercise their agency, has become harder in the current context. The pandemic has exacerbated issues that create a negative and a generationally dipping impact on growing up girls, including those involving their communities, neighborhoods, families and friends. We see these risks, standing on the bedrock of gender inequality, unfolding through the following processes:
Lessons from earlier epidemics like Ebola indicate that adolescent girls face an increasing threat to getting married off early in such situations of strife. Interestingly, policies put together for arresting the spread of the virus, have encouraged the practice. For example, the guidance of limiting the number of invitees in public gatherings is motivating families to get their daughters married off during this time at lower expenditure.
Continuing education – a challenge:
Girls have to deal with increased burden of care work and domestic chores during the pandemic. Since all family members are at home, negotiating time for their own rest, leisure or for completing assignments is difficult.
Additionally, job losses in the family threaten investments in girl’s education, since it is not considered an essential investment. Data and information from earlier epidemics also point out how young women are the first ones to be pulled out of the education system and last ones to get back; in several cases they don’t return to schools.
During the current Covid-19 situation, a number of governments and non-government organizations have made available digital content to maintain education continuity. But then, since “good girls” are not expected to use smartphones “too much”, many girls are having difficulty in accessing such online learning resources.
Health & well-being challenge:
As shops are closed due to lockdown imposed by the administration, several girls are having to use cloth as a menstrual hygiene product during these times. What we don’t know yet is whether the girls are able to follow necessary steps of either disposing the cloth or ensuring that it is being dried in open spaces which gets direct sunlight for enough time. In a society where about 71% of girls are not told about periods until their menarche, these important practical steps can be very difficult. More often than not, the cultural silence around the issue puts girls at risk of serious infections.
With respect to protection, we know that there has been an increase in gender based domestic violence. This poses an increased risk for adolescent girls, both at a physical, as well as mental-emotional level; the remoteness of solidarity circles makes it difficult for reporting such cases of violence.
What then is the Safety Valve?
The safety valve is keeping girls on the path of education and equipping them with life skills. Only an institution of learning can cover her from risks and provide her with the foundational steps to build her life. A comprehensive life skills education helps a girl to strengthen her sense of self, recognize her assets in her environment and build upon those. What she needs is an experience of exercising her agency and negotiating key life decisions. Blend of academic learning and life skills education can therefore create pathways of social, political and economic empowerment.
Under the current situation, it is therefore very important to aggressively influence public opinion to stay committed to girl’s education, and to drive action and investments at various levels. This is the time to escalate the issue of girl’s education, create an enabling environment, and prevent families and communities from taking wrong decisions for their daughters. For, empowered and educated girls alone can create a resilient society equipped to stand up to any disaster or pandemic.
Senior Manager, Girl’s Education Program, Room to Read, India
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