Six months into the pandemic and the future of schools and colleges was more uncertain than ever. With the number of cases is only increasing every day and amidst this educational institutes have came up with their ‘one-time’ solutions. While urban private schools started transitioning to online classes as early as in April, these transitions are difficult to make and not universally feasible. These reforms are also in a way ‘survival of the most privileged’, only those with enough social capital and access to resources can opt them. When these are paired with the intra-household dynamics, there is a skewed impact on how the pandemic affects female students. The problems with these transitions are only starting to show – in Mallapuram, Kerala a 14-year-old Dalit girl died by suicide due to the inability to accessing online classes in June.
As this shift to online classes only becomes more rigid, and staying longer than we thought, it’s important to note the gendered aspect of this connectivity.
The humongous transition to online classes proposes problems for girls in two ways – one is the absence of school and second being the inaccessibility of online classes. It is a well-known fact the familial structures we operate under are patriarchal and this reflects in the resource access. According to Internet and Mobile Association of India, only 30% of the internet users are women at 143 million and the rest being men. There is also an unequal burden of housework, the UNICEF reports Indian women perform 297 minutes of unpaid care work every day, as compared to men who do 31 minutes of it. Further, holed up into closed spaces, many girls note a lack of agency, which they previously enjoyed at school or in the outdoors. The pandemic also means spending much more time with your abusers, and having nowhere to run from it. LGBTQ youth also report a greater sense of anxiety and frustration, now that they are forced to spend much more time in homophobic and transphobic homes.
Online education gender gap is an issue that will be here to stay given the pandemic has exposed how significantly under-prepared our education system is and how access to internet for education isn’t something most young girls have
What the closure of school means
For girls in many parts of India, no school means no socialisation and no access to amenities like washrooms. As a huge portion of the economy is unemployed, food on the plate is also difficult to come for many families. Mid-day meal ensured at least one meal per day to most children, there was also the weekly distribution of folic acid and iron tablets. Now with schools being closed, this guaranteed meal is also gone. Additionally, free sanitary napkins were distributed monthly in government schools. With this supply also being cut off, adolescents and teenage womxn have to resort to using cloth, owing to the high price of sanitary napkins, and this just undoes all the progress that has been made to reduce infections.
There has been a trend of increasing dropouts after disasters and crises. It is estimated 20% of girls will not return to school after the pandemic – most being married off. Child marriage cases are being reported each day, social distancing means fewer guests and lesser costs. Domestic violence has also spiralled due to the lockdown, and while helplines are available most do not have the means to access them. A study by Cambridge estimates the mental health gap between women and men to increase to 66% in India.
There is also a hidden curriculum – the side effect of education. Schools foster important conversations and contribute to socialisation, you learn diversity, teamwork, accessory education like sex education is also taught. And complete shift to online classrooms leaves no space for that. CBSE recently introduced a guide on cyber safety course for students of 9 to 12 classes after the recent boy’s locker room incidents where teenagers were sharing images of girls with lewd comments on social media. Most awareness programmes about menstrual hygiene, safe sex, road safety, soft skill development happen beyond the curriculum and as of now, there is the absence of means to provide these through the web. Of course, patriarchal households are often hostile towards women’s access to smartphones. We reached out to Shubham Mudgil from the Edjustice People’s Campaign, an organisation that has been working to ensure better and more accessible public education, on their observations on this divide. “There is basic skepticism about women using phones. Parents tend to keep them away from phones as they fear that it might have a bad influence on them,” he says.
The Digital Divide
Add to that, there is a huge digital divide in the country with only 40% internet penetration in the country. A DASRA survey estimates only 18% unmarried women between 15-21 have a mobile phone as compared to 64% of men. There are also a major caste and class divide, with urban and/or higher caste women having greater connectivity than their rural counterparts. Thus, only those that can afford high-speed internet and these expensive technologies can be a part of these online classes. Over 80% of parents of students studying government schools in five Indian states — Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh — said the school did not deliver any online lessons during COVID-19 lockdown, according to a survey conducted by NGO Oxfam India.
How many women have uninterrupted access to devices for the required 3/4 hours every day? How many people live in households with continuous electricity? How many people live in households big enough to have a separate room to themselves for these classes? Maybe the internet is not strengthening people like it is claimed to be.
The private and government school gap here is also huge. Most private schools have taken to online classes but government schools are themselves not equipped for these. Also, more girls are enrolled in government schools ( 56.8%) than boys (43.2%), which furthers the divide of quality of education being received. “The moment a family’s income gets impacted by a calamity, girls are the first to bear its brunt, they are always thought of as a burden and not an asset so they are the lowest priority” Renuka, a gender rights activist with Pardada Pardadi Educational Society told India Spend.
Thus, there is an immediate need for accessory policies to ensure this digital divide does not translate into a divide of opportunity and knowledge. Under the RTE act, 6-14-year-olds are to receive compulsory education, and if the pandemic isn’t subsiding, it becomes important to stop seeing online classes as exceptional situations and make them much more inclusive. Various civil society organizations are trying to bridge this divide. When individuals cannot afford phones or tablets for learning, then they explore group learning options but there too, there are normative behaviours that interfere. “Online education has this sense of talking to outsiders and unknown-when we tried pitching the idea of online study groups to young girls in some cases we found some reluctance on the part of the parents. That was based on the idea that they would interact with strangers and it might not be in their best of interests. And what happens is that if you consider a family with father mother a daughter and a son. The son can easily use phone browse internet more liberally. However, when the daughter does the same then it is frowned upon. A lot of judgement is attached to it. Thus it makes sustainable digital connectivity for girl students even harder” adds Shubham.
Anureet is an intern at SheThePeople TV