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The author is Vandana Nair – Senior Advisor, Strategic Investment and Youth, Center for Catalyzing Change
For Meena, 15, from Lohardangga District in Jharkhand, school was an important safe space – a way to interact with the outside world, nurture great aspirations, and acquire the knowledge and skills to achieve these. aspirations. But since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, her school has been closed indefinitely until further notice. Her safe space, her means to build her own agency, is now gone, leaving her in a state of uncertainty and emotional distress.
Meena came from a poor family of daily wage workers, and it was only through her will and dedication to study and build a better future that she became the first in her family to reach 10th grade. By the end of this year, she would have taken her board exams, but instead, due to the pandemic and her family’s lack of financial resources that prevent her from accessing education in online, Meena’s prospects for further education are in grave danger. Being the only wife of her younger brothers, she is now relegated to strict gender roles at home, having to do all the housework and care for her brothers while her parents prioritize their education over the his. After all, they will eventually be the breadwinners, and she, being a girl, is not allowed to have aspirations beyond marriage. His days are now spent washing clothes, fetching water, cooking, etc., while the limited availability of data on the only smartphone in the house is used more for his brothers’ online lessons than for his.
And Meena is not alone in her predicament. COVID-19 has dealt an unprecedented blow to the lives of adolescent girls like her across the country, whether through disruptions in formal education or lack of essential resources or barriers to accessing services health. And those in rural and low-income communities have been hit the hardest.
A survey conducted by the Center for Catalyzing Change (C3) among 7,200 adolescents from four states, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Odisha, shed light on these barriers. Conducted in two cycles during the months of April, July and August 2020, it focused on four key topics: sensitizing adolescents to the symptoms and prevention of COVID-19, access of adolescents to health services basic health and education during the lockdown, and how active teens can exercise or how vulnerable they are when confined to their homes during this time.
One of the most striking findings of the survey is the significant gender discrimination suffered by adolescent girls during this period. Historical evidence shows us that during disasters or calamities, it is often young girls who become most vulnerable to negative consequences, and COVID-19 has been no different. More girls (39%) had to help with housework compared to boys (35%), while more boys (31%) had the luxury of spending their time studying than girls (27% ). In fact, the girls’ household activities were mainly involved in included activities like cleaning (61%), cooking (59%), laundry (44%), washing utensils (41%), caring for brothers and sisters (23%) – all of whom fall distinctly under the jurisdiction of duties that reiterate the traditional gender roles that women have grappled with from time immemorial. Teens, on the other hand, do not have to face the same expectations when performing household chores. In fact, it was found that the teenage boys interviewed spent the majority of their time watching TV, on the phone, interacting with parents, etc.
Even in terms of technology, there was a clear disparity, as seen in the case of Meena. Only 22% of the girls surveyed knew how to use e-learning platforms and only 12% had access to their own mobile phone so that they could attend online classes without distraction. At the same time, 35% of boys had access to their own cell phone, almost double that of girls who have their own cell phone. Having their own cell phone allows boys to attend online classes more regularly and without distractions, which teenage girls clearly miss. In addition, 51% of adolescent girls surveyed did not have access to essential textbooks, showing how the gender gap in access to education has widened during the pandemic.
In light of this, it’s no surprise that more teenage girls said they were likely to drop out of school due to the challenges of the pandemic, than the number of boys, citing the threat of a early marriage or pressure to contribute more. household chores being the main reasons why they would potentially drop out of school.
In addition to these existing inequalities, adolescent girls also reported feeling increasingly vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual harassment while in lockdown. While there have been an increasing number of reports of domestic violence since March, it is concerning that very few teenage girls know how to report abuse. Only 36% of teens knew the correct helpline numbers, and only 22% knew the range of issues that could be reported on the helplines. The mobility of teenage girls, which was already a major challenge they face, was further hampered during the lockdown – only 39% of girls said they were allowed to go out on their own during the lockdown, compared to 62% of same-age boys allowed . go out alone.
The plight of adolescents in times of crisis is often overlooked. Their needs are either not considered sufficiently essential or because they are young, they are not considered immediately affected by the health connotations of a global pandemic. Yet, as the C3 investigation points out, teens are clearly grappling with the consequences of the COVID-19 lockdown, and we must all come together to make sure their future and their lives are not threatened by it. .
As classrooms go digital, more and more girls may be excluded from the school process. It is imperative to adopt an inclusive model for classrooms that also caters to students who cannot access the Internet. Since 76% of teens said television was their main source of information, one important way to do so could be television. In fact, Kerala’s First Bell Initiative has already shown that such an educational model can be effective.
In this time of isolation and social distancing, we also need to develop alternative ways for young people to engage with their peers and the community at large, to allow continued access to informal learning and social opportunities. psychosocial development. There is also a need to reach out to communities, families and supporters of adolescents, sensitizing them to issues of gender discrimination and encouraging them to find ways to continue educating their daughters.
Most importantly, more attention is needed for the mental health needs of adolescents during this time, so that more young girls like Meena are able to cope with the emotional distress that the aftermath of COVID-19 has caused. To ensure that the mental health of every adolescent, every village and every social setting is taken into account, it is essential to recognize and promote community responses to psychosocial support. By engaging with their peers, by sharing each other’s burdens and concerns, will they be able to meet the challenges of the pandemic together.