Written by Kamal Gaur
In 2016, 193 countries came together to sign an aspirational agenda of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – for all of humankind, including the most marginalised children. Among the 17 SDGs that were agreed upon, SDG 4 focused on education. SDG-4’s goal is to “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”. This, of course, is also a necessary condition for people to improve their wellbeing and that of future generations. SDG 4 is, therefore, crucial for the attainment of all the other SDGs.
In fact, SDG 4.7 states that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development. The “Learning Crisis” threatened the attainment of SDGs well before COVID 19 made a landfall. The pandemic has impacted the education of more than 300 million children — more than 10 million children are in the age group of three to six years across India — due to temporary closure of education facilities across India and the world. However, the right to quality, inclusive and safe education should not be undermined even during emergencies. The longer children and youth are unable to attend learning facilities, the more likelihood of their failing to return to their institutions, especially girls, and the most marginalised, such as children on the move, children forced to live on the streets, children in tribal areas, children in peri urban areas and those from low-income households. While it is hard to predict, the closure of learning facilities closures could last up to a year.
There is no dispute that the closure of learning facilities, including anganwadis, is an effective measure to contain the spread of COVID-19. However, some caveats should be in place. In India, the anganwadi are also known as “khichdi ghars” — they provide food that in many cases is the only meal that children from most marginalised communities receive. Closure of education facilities also means no nutrition for children from 0- 6 years. That means our plans need to now take account of such situations that affect the children’s well-being.
During the lockdown, even in the current times, when the anganwadis are closed, parents are the best facilitator for children’s learning. But many of them struggle to perform this task. This could be due to their limited education level or scarce resources at their disposal. The problem becomes graver for children from marginalised families. Parents and children require support through varied means of communication such as social media platforms, local media and community radio stations.
During the phase of the recovery from the pandemic, there should be urgency in restoring the safe, protective and nurturing environment for children. This is especially for children who have witnessed loss of life, social distance from caregivers, extended periods of self-isolation at home, violence and exploitation. Anxiety caused by the pandemic could negatively impact the mental health, nutrition and wellbeing of children. It would be ideal to provide psychological and social support to children and their caregivers, both at home and at the anganwadis.
Research suggests that the girls living in areas affected by conflict or recovering from disasters are already 2.25 times more likely to be out of primary learning facilities than boys. The gap between the numbers of girls and boys out of learning facilities during COVID-19 is likely to increase as girls are less likely to return to education facilities and could also be forced into early marriage — early pregnancies, domestic and sexual violence cannot be ruled out. Existing gender discrimination could be exacerbated by the current situation.
Appropriate technology such as tele-calling could be one of the ways out of the current predicament. The database will facilitate learning during the lockdown and the recovery phase through mother’s/parents’ groups, anganwadi development committees (ADC), child development and protection officers (CDPOs), and caregivers. Disseminating COVID-19 related messages on social distancing, hand washing and ways of engaging with children especially to mothers’ groups will support reduction in risks of pandemic. During the recovery phase, I recommend all stakeholders in education should come together to initiate a “Back to Learn” and “Safe Return” campaign that focuses on social distancing norms, and by supporting local bodies in disinfection of these spaces.
Common communication points — religious institutes, public distribution spaces — in the community should be leveraged to display such messages. The database developed through the rapid assessment procedure could help in the dissemination of educational resources and other teaching learning material to parents through ICDS professionals. The government must aim to provide teachers, educators, school authorities and caregivers access to ICT platforms and train them in the dissemination of learning materials.
The pandemic is an opportunity for all organisations, institutions and individuals working in the education sector to collaborate, innovate and act in solidarity to support the government in ensuring that the education community and its stakeholders emerge stronger from the crisis. We need to find new ways to integrate distance learning, scientific cooperation, and information support in our ways of working.
The writer is Deputy Director Education, Save The Children