International Literacy Day 2021: Pandemic pushes progress back

Gender and class gap in literacy rates remain critically unequal


September 8, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

International Literacy Day 2021: Pandemic pushes progress back

Programmes such as “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana” (Save our Daughters, Teach our Daughters) have made strides to improve education opportunities for female children in India (Photo: MIG Photos/Aman Kanojiya)

As India marks International Literacy Day 2021, the pandemic's severe impacts on the education of hundreds of millions of children leads experts to fear the economic divide will worsen literacy rates in the country.

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Established on September 8, 1966, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) introduced International Literacy Day to emphasise the importance of literacy for individuals as well as society in large and the need to focus on improving global literacy rates. The issue of literacy constitutes a crucial component the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which was adopted by world leaders in 2015 and aims to promote universal access to quality education and learning opportunities for young people and adults.

India’s literacy rate in 2021 was reported to be 74.04 pc, and although on a steady rise ever year since Independence when it stood at a mere 12 pc, there is a still long way to go with India having largest population of illiterate adults of all countries, more than a third of the world’s total number of illiterates.

Along with various central and state government programmes, NGOs across India have played a key role in the literacy drive by reaching out to students who have dropped out of school or have not been given the opportunity to access a good education, especially in rural areas where the literacy gap is much larger.

Indraani Singh is the founder of one such NGO, Literacy India, which started in 1996 with only five children, and has expanded to almost 15 states, providing digital and classroom education for a range of academic, vocational and upskilling courses.

“Those who have migrated to the metro cities from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, states with some of the lowest literacy rates in India, have very poor understanding of the basics and even the teachers are struggling in the classroom. So we teach as per the individual’s level and help many government school children to get better quality of education, making sure primary kids have a solid foundation so they do not drop out by the time they get to middle or high school,” Singh tells Media India Group.

However, these programmes were severely curtailed or even stopped due to continuous lockdowns and school closures that have resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic is believed to have had a disastrous impact on the education of over 247 million Indian children. The impact was felt even more severely by the underprivileged sections of society, notably due to a large disparity in access to internet and computers between the rich and poor households, with the latter accounting for a huge majority.

Unicef, the UN agency mandated for children’s welfare and protection around the world, has emphasised this inequity numerous times since the outbreak of the pandemic. “Online education is not an option for all as only one in four children has access to digital devices and Internet connectivity. Pre-Covid, only a quarter of households (24 pc) in India had access to the Internet and there is a large rural-urban and gender divide,” it says.

What Unicef has to say on the inequity has been felt on the ground by others well. “It has actually halted our progress badly. Every year we were reaching out to more and more students who were dropouts, who have no inclination towards academics, trying to curb child labour by counselling the parents, and just before Covid-19 hit, we had already covered 150,000 children from here all the way to orphans in Ladakh. But even though for children in the metro cities, we are somehow managing with providing tablets and internet services, we had to stop the programme in villages such as in Ladakh. When there is no network, how can we reach them? It makes me very sad because we have gone back more than two years in our progress. Without the disruption, we could have reached 5 million students by now,” says Singh.

Singh says that literacy is essential for proper social and individual human development in addition to academic achievement. Basic literacy skills equip individuals with tools that can transform their lives, improving their overall standard of living, and in turn improve the standard of living for the rest of the community. Thus, her organisation largely focuses on integrating vocational classes into the curriculum such as hardware, mobile, coding, robotics, stitching, beauty and wellness. One such project was an app coded by her students, which featured an animated programme about Covid-19 safety.

“They could show their family and neighbours easily and we were able to scale the programme to thousands in our community with the help of our children. This is one of the ways of teaching our children, learning better and empowering themselves,” she says.

This showcases the importance of students being able to easily adapt to an increasingly digitised world, and is fitting for 2021’s ILD theme, to “human-centred recovery, with a special focus on the interplay of literacy and digital skills required by non-literate youth and adults.”

Singh says that Literacy India also employs “value education” to teach students what they are missing out on learning at home. “We have evolved over the last 2 decades and have realised school studies not good enough, we have to incorporate skill-based education. Value education is also something we have added because issues like drugs, child abuse, child trafficking and prostitution have impacted these children, and they have to be taught about these things from an early age. For example, in the rural communities, if girls have been abused, they do not even understand what is “good touch” and “bad touch,” and parents either do not think this is important to teach them or are busy making ends meet,” she explains.

The government has been tinkering with education and brought a National Education Policy last year, which emphasises multidisciplinary learning and not totally isolating vocational and academic streams.

However, with education budget in continuous decline since the government took over in 2014, the efficiency of high-profile programmes like “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save our daughters, teach our daughters) have had little impact and only in some segments of access to education, for instance, the gross enrolment ratio, or total number of girls enrolling in secondary schools has risen marginally from 77.45 pc in 2015 to 81.32 pc four years later.

And worryingly, despite these programmes, the enrollment rate of girl child in elementary and higher secondary levels has dropped in the same time frame, falling continuously from 95.90 pc in 2015-2016 to 95.19 pc in 2016-2017, and from 56.07 pc to 55.91 pc, respectively. This shows that the far fewer girls are getting into schools at the higher secondary levels and most would not even complete 12 years of eduction.

The gap between the male and female literacy rates also remains severe, as literacy rate for boys is 82.14 pc and that for girls is 65.46 pc. The exclusion of girls is bound to have expanded dramatically during the pandemic, as NGOs from various parts of the country have reported on many more girls dropping out, as economic difficulties have forced parents to remove focus from their daughters’ education, a concept already often overlooked in Indian society.

Yet, some experts believe the public’s mindset has been changing, albeit gradually. “The Beti bachao campaign has done some wonders in the last decade because ever since it came in, the parents somehow understood these policies. Girls have been given laptops, scholarships, bicycles, and this made the parents think otherwise about their daughters also, that they could be the breadwinners of the family for once. Our organisation’s first female child was a vegetable seller’s daughter and now she is a programmer. Her father is very proud and the other parents can see the hope for their own children through this. But since Covid-19, early marriage of girls has increased because marrying them off is an easy option and means less mouths to feed,” Singh explains.

Such examples prove the importance of working towards a higher literacy rate for all sects of the Indian population, with a combination of theoretical education and hard skills.

“It is a very daunting task for the central government to reach out to India’s huge population, and all the students who are dropouts or do not have access to academics. The local panchayats and state governments should be more responsible and ensure the students can access better education by providing network for digital learning, and helping maintain social distancing when schools open. We still have a long way to go,” she adds.



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