By Sucharita Iyer, Shireen Jejeebhoy and Nitya Daryanani
Due to COVID-19 and the subsequent nationwide lockdown, India’s young people have been faced with the indefinite suspension of schools, the loss of potential employment opportunities or premature entry into work, and hampered access to health services and peer group interactions. This article sheds light on the consequences of the shutdown on one key domain of young people’s lives, namely, access to education. We draw our insights from a larger study conducted by the Dasra Adolescents Collaborative to understand, from the perspective of adolescent- and youth-serving organisations, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on India’s young people’s lives.
The inquiry was conducted through an online survey that probed the effects of the lockdown on young people’s life. A total of 111 organisations responded to the survey, and elaborated on the reports they received from young people, and modifications made to their on-ground efforts, so as to continue keeping young people at the centre of their work.
There are global concerns regarding the effects of the lockdown and pandemic on education. The United Nations estimates that at least 1 billion learners have been affected globally by the closure of schools due to the pandemic. The World Bank estimates, moreover, that close to 7 million young people could drop out of schools as a result of the pandemic. Our study echoes these concerns: Over a quarter of all responding organisations had received reports of students going hungry because of the loss of their midday meal. More than two-thirds (69 per cent) reported that young people had described social isolation resulting from limited access to their friendship networks or peer groups.
Schooling has suffered: Just half of organisations reported that local schools were providing online classes, and about one-quarter reported that schools were providing online materials for self-study. About one in seven organisations reported no action had been taken in the areas they served. Findings suggest that, despite the availability of online classes or materials, limited access to technology or uninterrupted network access inhibited many students from acquiring an education. For example, only 10-12 per cent of organisations reported that most students had regular access to devices and networks.
Four in five responding organisations reported that they had taken action to support young people’s access to education during the lockdown. Two in five had developed online materials (38 per cent), almost half (48 per cent) had created WhatsApp groups to facilitate learning, while one-third (32 per cent) had provided individual or group coaching either by telephone or, when possible, in-person coaching facilities (27 per cent). Some responding organisations also supported local girl champions to hold group classes (18 per cent), while others had organised webinars to build new skills, such as art, writing, preparing audio-visuals and to raise awareness about COVID-19. However, one-fifth (21 per cent) were not able to address young people’s schooling needs.
Past experiences indicate that girls and young women are at increased risk of being withdrawn from or dropping out of school during crises, as a result of the sharp increase in domestic and care work, and growing economic disparity requiring girls to supplement familial income. Girls are often made to discontinue their education and are married to alleviate the family’s financial burden. Similarly, this study indicates that up to 43 per cent of organisations reported knowledge of one or more girls, who expressed fear of school discontinuation or whose parents planned or demanded the same.
Responding organisations have also taken steps to combat this trend. Four in five organisations (81 per cent) focused on counselling parents who were planning to withdraw their daughters from school, while others (11 per cent) informed and mobilized relevant authorities, such as PRI members, frontline workers and community members, to take action. Other responding organisations (4 per cent) engaged teachers to take necessary action, while others still (4 per cent) supported parents to enroll their daughters in open schooling programmes.
Disparities between rich and poor, socially advantaged and disadvantaged, and boys and girls in terms of both access to online schooling and premature school discontinuation, are widening or likely to widen. Differential access to technology, limited network and internet connectivity are far more likely to affect the poor, those from socially excluded castes and tribes, and those residing in remote areas. Simultaneously, the poor are at risk of school discontinuation and premature entry into wage-earning activities. Disruptions to schooling are likely to be concentrated among young people from these vulnerable communities, further pushing the disadvantaged further into the margins.
Gender disparities may also widen. Access to digital education tools and technology in India has always been heavily gendered, with a 2017 study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India stating that less than half as many women in the country had access to the internet as men. The gendered distribution of mobile phones among the young is further visible in areas where access to phones is limited. A 2018 study by the Dasra Adolescents Collaborative found that, among those respondents aged 10-21 in Jharkhand, boys are more likely to have access to mobile phones than girls (unmarried), thereby denying girls classroom access. Girls are, therefore, less likely than boys to have regular access to online classes, at higher risk of being withdrawn from school, and subsequently, more likely to marry early. The growing shift towards technology-based education, therefore, is likely to reverse the trend of narrowing of the gender gap in secondary school completion that the country had previously achieved.
What can we do? With the pandemic continuing to evolve, the world is likely to face a “generational catastrophe” in education (United Nations, 2020). The scale and extent of the challenge calls for consistent and concerted efforts to make education during COVID-19 a more inclusive and accessible process. As evident from our investigation, civil society organisations across the country are working tirelessly to address and mitigate the pandemic’s impact on young people’s lives. Drawing on lessons from the report and trends across the sector, some key recommendations include:
*Take a more flexible approach to digitising curricula: Accounting for barriers in access to technology and the internet calls for the reimagination of curriculum to include the use of multimedia educational resources, including, for example, audio and video clips, community-based radios, and television programmes.
*Engage parents, especially families of girls at risk of dropping out of school: Parents must be supported and sensitised about the value of completing an education, even in the context of ongoing economic stressors, particularly those at risk of forcing their daughters to discontinue their education.
*Supplement the existing education curriculum: The current socio-economic environment calls for a broader range of skills and learning, including gender-transformative life skills that build resilience, agency and autonomy, as well as awareness of laws, rights, and entitlements and government schemes, and develop technological and IT skills.
*Create and modify cash transfer opportunities to keep adolescents, especially girls, in school: Creating and providing incentives, such as financial assistance to families to access digital tools, cell phones and the internet, and conditional cash transfer programmes based on attendance and participation can help retain students at risk of dropping out in school.
*The risk of widening inequities and leaving the most disadvantaged further behind is severe. The insights from this study provide a clear road map for the way forward, and call for the engagement of multiple stakeholders – youth-serving organisations, funders and the government – to respond to young people’s needs and challenges, to ensure that they are able to live up to their full potential.
Iyer works at the non-profit Dasra’s Knowledge Creation and Dissemination team. Jejeebhoy is director at Aksha Centre for Equity and Wellbeing. Daryanani is part of Dasra’s Adolescents Collaborative team.
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