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More girl students drop out as pandemic sharpens digital gender divide

Then she started getting the food items regularly. Hema Kumari, a Class X student from village Shahpur, joined her friends and instructors, to find a space for the girls’ classes being set up by Sehgal Foundation.

ASHA RAMACHANDRAN | New Delhi |

At a time when educationists across the country are debating over assessment of school leaving children, a set of students is silently dropping out of the education system ~ girls from the economically weaker segment of society.

With education going almost completely digital following the onset of the Covid19 pandemic, government has an opportunity to bridge the gender gap but ground realities present a different picture.

Contrary to what was expected, the number of girls attending online classes has seen a huge fall, according to reports by global and domestic organisations, including the UNESCO and the World Bank, who have all advocated policies that would swiftly bridge this gender gap before it becomes a grave social issue.

Due to Covid e-learning and online classes became the norm as virtual classrooms ensured students’ education was not halted.

Meanwhile, over the years, despite an aggressive campaign for girl child education, the primary reasons for a high rate of school drop-out among girls particularly in rural India, are distantly located secondary and high schools as well as safety aspects.

With classes going online these hurdles should have been overcome and one would infer that a larger number of girls would be enrolled.

However, there is a significantly lower number of girls accessing digital education, says a report by the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. A major reason for this is the limited or no access to computers or mobile phones by young girls.

This is particularly true of families in the lower income group, where there would be a single computer and just a few mobile phones in the household. With boys given priority the already disadvantaged girls are further pushed to the brink.

“This reminds us that while online learning has created newer opportunities in the form of digital platforms, it has also brought to fore the fact that the internet is not an organic equaliser,” the ministry’s report noted.

“It has also given weight to the fear that in the prospect of reaching every girl lies the possibility of leaving so many behind.”

According to a new survey by UNESCO, the digital gap has widened alarmingly during the Covid-19 crisis. The lockdown in India has affected 158 million girl students, impacting their dreams of a formal education and of better lives, the UN body has said.

Educationists have called for a deeper scrutiny of how online, remote teaching has widened the gender bias against girl students.

A global body that that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA), points out in its report, The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020, only 21 per cent of women in India use mobile Internet compared to 42 per cent of men.

This disparity has worsened during the ongoing pandemic. Experts and educationists have called upon policymakers to put in place measures to promote girls’ education as this has long-term impacts, including poverty alleviation. In this context, the National Education Policy of India (NEP) 2020 has addressed several issues pertaining to access to education by girls.

The policy also promotes digital access for women and girls to ensure that the gap created by the lack of mobility is bridged to a large extent. Non-government organisations (NGOs) also have a major role to play in this, experts point out. One such initiative is by a Gurugram-based rural development NGO in rural Nuh, Haryana, helping girls with digital and life skills training.

Known as the Transform Lives, the NGO, Sehgal Foundation, targets one school at a time. Under this initiative, in an attempt to empower girls, the digital and life skills training classes continued online despite schools being closed, and later offline while following all the Covid guidelines. “In the present scenario of the pandemic, digital and life skills awareness training is a game-changer, bringing hope for many girls to empower themselves digitally and develop self-esteem,” shared Navneet Narwal, Associate Lead, Transform Lives at Sehgal Foundation.

The Transform Lives initiative targets student dropouts and those who would attend government schools in rural areas. Narrating a few case studies, Narwal said during the pandemic, young women and girls were engaged in digital and life skills awareness training programmes.

They have not only learnt the basics of internet research and various computer programs, but how to search for employment, pay bills online, and apply for various government benefits that would foster economic security for their families. Manju, a Class XI student from Beejwad Naruka School in Alwar, Rajasthan, learnt to access information about various benefits that her family was eligible for.

She applied online for ration under the Covid programme and was able to check her Public Distribution System status.

Then she started getting the food items regularly. Hema Kumari, a Class X student from village Shahpur, joined her friends and instructors, to find a space for the girls’ classes being set up by Sehgal Foundation.

The classes were able to resume following all necessary Covid guidelines. A proud Hema says, “I got to know about myself and my goals in life. The empowerment led us to find alternatives, amid adversities we found a solution for holding classes.”