International Day of the Girl Child 2021: Pandemic widens gender gap in India

Digital divide: Step backwards for India in women empowerment

Society

October 11, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

International Day of the Girl Child 2021: Pandemic widens gender gap in India

Without urgent governmental support, India's progress in the rights of its girl children may be pushed back by years(Photo: Unsplash/Jaikishan Patel)

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the fight for rights and education of the girl child in India, due to a combination of a steep rise in poverty and diverse digital realities of underprivileged sections of society, which are widening the already severe gender gap in the country and putting the future of millions of girls at risk.

Initiated in 1995 at Beijing’s World Conference on Women, the idea of International Day of the Girl Child was born due to the necessity of recognition and redressal of specific challenges faced by girls around the world, and uplift them in society through progress in their education and safety. Later in 2011, the United Nations General Assembly officially established October 11 as the date set to mark the fight against rampant gender inequality, especially in marginalised communities.

Undoing 70 years of progress

Over the past seven decades, India made tremendous strides in girls’ access to education that saw female literacy rate rise from about 9 pc at the time of Independence in 1947 to 70.3 pc, according to a 2017-2018 survey by the National Statistical Office (NSO). Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of girls in primary school increased from 61 pc in 1970 to 115 pc in 2015, even higher than male GER.

But the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are threatening to severely roll back the progress made over the years. Indeed, the damage may already be done, as there has been a significant drop in the number of children enrolling for schools in the current academic year. For example, data submitted by private schools to the Haryana Education Department shows that only about 1.7 million students had enrolled for the 2021-2022 academic session against almost 3 million the previous year. Also in the academic year 2020-21, more than around 60,253 students in Andhra Pradesh are estimated to have dropped out of the system, with officials saying a high number of dropouts are girl students. Furthermore, a Right to Education Forum policy brief estimated that 1.6 million girls aged 11 to 14 years were currently out of school and ten million girls in India could drop out of secondary school due to the pandemic.

Even after decades of education on the universal importance of girls’ rights, when any disaster strikes, it is their futures that are disproportionately affected.

South-Delhi based Aarohan, which is active in several parts of India, is one of the many NGOs in the country fighting for the rights of underprivileged children.

“At this time, the most pressing concern is the enrolment of school-going children, those studying in primary, upper primary, pre-nursery, and marginalised children mainly, because their parents cannot stay at home, and when they go to work, many children are back on the streets begging. And girls are undoubtedly affected more because to get rid of their responsibility, parents are marrying their daughters off much earlier,” Rani Patel, president and founder of Aarohan, tells Media India Group.

According to Unicef, the UN agency for the global welfare and protection of children, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India. While the number of underage girls getting married had declined from 47 pc in 2005-2006 to 27 pc in 2015-2016, experts worry the pandemic has cause a significant increase in child marriage in India, which is already home to largest number of child brides in the world and accounts for a third of the world’s total.

Globally, over the last decade, 25 million child marriages were averted, but Unicef estimates that the pandemic may cause at least 10 million additional child marriages to occur before the end of the decade, which would threaten years of progress in reducing the practice. In the state of Telangana, for example, authorities had intervened in 1355 child marriages since April 2020 until March 2021, a 27 pc increase from the previous year, and even higher numbers have been reported in other states and regions.

“Getting them married off, even if at a young age, acts as a guarantee of safety for them. After the lockdown began, the number of child marriages in Ahmednagar and Marathawada region has grown by 27 pc,” Mahesh Suryavanshi, coordinator of Ahmednagar Childline who has a lot experience in dealing with such cases, said while speaking to Media India Group.

Several studies have shown that early marriages cause higher rates of domestic violence, unplanned and risky pregnancies and thus girls are less likely to continue their education and have any hope of a better life.

Experts put the worsening situation down to the severe economic shock after prolonged and strict lockdowns, which shrank by India’s GDP by 7.3 pc in 2020-2021. In 2021, a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Unicef revealed that the number of children in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide: an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years. Due to sex typing, girls especially are forced to engage in casual or unpaid care work, or generally, unskilled, low wage work compared to boys of a similar age.

“The slump in the economy means poverty is increasing and finances are a huge issue; parents are not getting revenue sources, so they are pushing their [underage] children to try earning, which increases their vulnerability and puts the safety of children at stake,” says Patel.

A ‘Digital Generation’

2021’s theme of “digital generation” is especially relevant because the pandemic has clearly highlighted how, as we move towards a heavily digitised world, be it in education, jobs or entertainment, underprivileged communities and especially the females get left behind. This worsening gender gap is illuminated by the UN, which says, “Gender digital divide in connectivity, devices and use, skills and jobs is real. It is an inequity and exclusion gap.”

Patel explains that the sudden onset of online education due to the pandemic only brought to the surface the glaring inequalities of the Indian education system. According to Unicef, only one in four children in India had access to digital devices and internet connectivity pre-Covid, highlighting the “large rural-urban divide.”

“Education in the country is nowhere, because it is an eyewash that the government is imparting online school for these girls. Somebody has to train them [in these new technologies], somebody has to guide them in the transition, who is doing that? Government schools, for example, are not well equipped at all and a lot of confusion and malpractices exist. Even in these physical classrooms, children were not able to keep up, how will they do so online?” explains Patel.

Patel adds that rather than adding yet more policies to tackle the situation, which only sound and look good on paper, the federal government must make proper implementation their key focus.

“They’re introducing good policies like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, but is that reaching the common people, is anybody aware of it? Even sons are not educated or going to school right now, so there is no question of the girl child. Definitely on this day, I would recommend that particularly in the marginalised communities, girl children should be given around-the-clock protection, education, and nutrition,” she says.

In fact, many experts have called the Beti Bachao scheme a failure, and data from the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) reported that it had failed to meet its objectives, with the sex ratio deteriorating in districts of Haryana and Punjab for example, and complete misappropriation of funds which resulted in less than 25 pc of the budget being actually used for the scheme, a whopping 56 pc being spent on publicity instead.

Thus, it remains to be seen whether officials will step up to the plate. Since 1958, with the National Committee on Women’s Education, education of females has been given policy priority and funding through government schemes, but due to the emergency faced during the pandemic, reshuffling of funds has meant that contrary to before, when nearly a third of corporate social responsibility (CSR) investments were in education and skilling, financial investment in girls’ education is being directed towards pandemic response instead. Despite what has been laid out in every National Education Policy since 1968, India spent only 3.1 pc of its GDP on education in 2019-2020, instead of the 6 pc, a consistent failure to do so.

With little to no preparation on this front from the government, NGOs such as Aarohan and Teach for India were doing the bulk of the work when it came to providing the digital infrastructure required. Philanthropists and teachers have also been providing internet-connected devices to students from underprivileged areas and Aarohan, for example, has made a digital library for children for children to access their classes and also continued the midday meal scheme for those under their care, which was also affected during the pandemic.

The government must step up and allocate the required amount of funding for females’ education and rights of girl children in order to bridge the gender digital divide and ensure that as schools reopen, proper guidelines and gender-specific plans are put in place so female education and rights do not deteriorate even further.

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