We Will Study! How the digital divide is causing rural girls to be left behind
School closures have pushed rural girls in India back into a life of labour, underage marriage and gendered roles. It’s time their voices are heard
In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took firm hold, government-mandated lockdowns led to a blanket closure of schools and colleges—staying safe by staying home being the need of the hour. Amongst the many groups adversely affected by this policy—and extraordinarily so—were children, particularly girls in rural India, for whom the chance to be educated was the result of hard-won battles against gender discrimination and social pressures to conform to traditional roles earmarked for women.
“I convinced my parents not to discontinue my classes. They supported me fully and even begun enquiring about where I should go for my next level of education. The closure of schools has changed this situation completely,” says Sandhya from Nuthankal, a small village in Telangana, who had reached the 10th grade at her local school. She has now begun farm work since further learning is no longer an option. In the nearby village of Kandagatla, Lakshmi, an 11th grader, remembers fighting with her parents for permission to commute to the nearest high school eight kms away, assuring them that she could take care of herself and her safety. Before the lockdown, parents of these children had stopped pressuring daughters to get married, hopeful that a better future might be in store.
According to the 2021 UNICEF report, COVID-19 and School Closures, the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns in 2020 have impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in India. Needless to say, this crisis further exacerbated learning opportunities for many vulnerable sections of an unequal society. In April 2020, the Malala Fund estimated that 10 million girls at secondary education in low and lower-middle income countries would be at risk of dropping out because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the research estimates that as a result of the pandemic, 20 million girls in developing countries may never return to the classroom.
With the closure of schools and all residential educational institutions during lockdown, girls’ education has become unpredictable. Learning losses have a substantial impact on girls and young women, much of which extend beyond academic progress. For a majority of girls in India, schools are the only channel to meet peers, seek support, access health and immunization services and eat a nutritious meal. Consequently, uncertainties about the future, lack of food and little to no health support leave families in precarious situations. The result: much against their wishes, girls are being forced into the gendered roles they so vehemently fought against before lockdown. Patriarchal values have rebounded and they are being pushed into more domestic work, forced to abdicate control over their mobility and freedom and compelled to accept a cloistered, disempowered life without choices.
Girls have now joined the farm-labour force along with their mothers, recruited to 9-to-5 work such as cotton-seed picking, ginning, chilli processing and lemon plucking. Large numbers have also been sucked into family-based labour jobs—vegetable vendors, beedi workers, shepherds, cattle-herds and in other such home-based units in the informal sector. They work under the scorching heat, with burnt faces and hands, blisters on their feet and aches and pains—a far cry from a life of packing school bags, doing homework, meeting friends and playtime.
The increasing pressures of early bethrothal is perhaps the most difficult to endure. Sirisha, 19, who is in the second year of graduation, lamented that three of her close friends have gotten married and their dreams of studying further have come to an end. Gugulothu Indu, 17, a 12th grader from Yembamla village says, “I have kept in touch with my friends and made calls to Childline to report that their marriages were fixed. I am glad that their weddings have been postponed, if not totally stopped.” Like Indu, many girls have not yet given up on a brighter tomorrow in spite of dire odds made harsher by the lockdown. Undeterred, they work hard so as to use their earnings on mobile phones that are equipped to access online classes—devices that can cost between Rs 7,000 to Rs 12,000.
Fifteen-year-old Shailaja, studying in 10th grade, is a leader of the Girls’ Committee in her village Istalapuram and is determined to keep up her studies “to make my mother proud”. “My father is an alcoholic, abusive and does no work. My mother has sacrificed a lot to educate my brother, twin sister and myself. I used my savings to buy a mobile phone for Rs 10,000 to attend online classes, watch good videos and improve my knowledge. I cannot give up.” Chandana, also from Istalapuram, studying in the 12th grade, echoes the same determination. “I am taking online tutorial classes to prepare for the qualifying examinations for entry into professional colleges. It is very difficult to adjust work and online classes, but I do it.”
For Shailaja, a 10th grader from Istalapuram, Andhra Pradesh, juggling online classes and her job as a lemon harvester is all in a day’s work. Photo Courtesy: Shantha Sinha
Shailaja and Chandana are part of a small minority, however. Online education is a distant dream for most rural children. According to a UNICEF report, only one in four children in India has access to the devices and internet connectivity necessary for digital learning. Moreover, there is a large rural–urban and gender divide barring the way. According to the Global Education Monitoring Report 2020, only 12 per cent of households in the poorest countries have internet access at home, and access to mobile internet is 26 per cent lower for women and girls than for their male peers. These figures are supported by a 2020 UNICEF report which states that at least every seventh girl globally has been unable to access remote learning when schools are closed.
While these girls from poor, marginalized and vulnerable families’, daughters of illiterate parents, are putting up stiff resistance to structural inequities and patriarchal norms, it is imperative that they not stand alone. Governments at all levels must propel state action to reach out and relieve them from labour force, stop child marriage and protect freedom and rights of girls. Without this support in terms of educational material, digital tools, food security, health and hygiene provisions and scholarships, such children are being left behind in the worst way—with lost futures they are trapped in generational cycles of poverty and deprivation. Stories of such girls must become visible. Their pleas must be heard.
Child-rights activist, Shantha Sinha is the founder of MV Foundation and a professor of political science at Hyderabad Central University. She received the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay award and the Padma Shri in 1999.