Among the many consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps the most visible and immediate impact has been in the field of education. Schools were ordered to shut overnight for an indeterminate period to prevent children from getting infected as social distancing emerged as, and still is, the most-effective solution to contain the virus’ spread.
Educational institutions quickly turned digital, embracing e-learning and online tools to impart education remotely. Virtual classrooms were promptly created where students from kindergarten to higher grades connected through a choice of online conferencing platforms, attending classes from homes. No one knew, and still do not know, when the physical classrooms will again be filled with the curiosity of eager students. The next best alternative, therefore, was to adapt to the virtual world.
Over the last several months, students, teachers, parents, and schools swiftly settled into the new world of screen-based learning from homes. The pedagogical quality of such a system is a matter of debate, but simulated teaching spaces persist as the best substitute when schools continue to remain shut.
The dominant argument favouring such an approach is that, at the very least, it establishes continuity in education, even if it is imparted remotely. There is no gainsaying the fact that a wider digital footprint can serve as a powerful force to spread literacy and building a knowledge-based society. For the disadvantaged and the marginalised, education opens a whole new array of opportunities.
While, on the face of it, there can be no dispute over imparting education digitally given the current conditions, there is a more essential question that needs deeper scrutiny. Is online, remote teaching widening the gender-bias against girl students?
A few data points can be helpful to examine this. According to The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020 of Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, only half of the women in India use mobile internet compared to men—21% among of women compared to 42% of men.
This disparity appears to have manifested even more adversely during the Covid-19 pandemic. A September 2020 study by Centre For Catalysing Change, a not-for-profit organisation, shows how adolescent boys had more access to digital infrastructures such as mobile phones, internet services, radio, and media. This evidence is particularly troubling, demonstrating how lack of access to gadgets and technology may have forced many girls to stay away from any form of digital schooling over last few months.
A study by Young Lives, on childhood poverty worldwide, mirrors that same disturbing gender dimension to digital access in India. According to the study, “Boys in India are much more likely than their female peers to use a computer and the internet (as well as other forms of technology, such as a smartphone) regularly”.
As much as 80% or four in five girls in the sample that Young Lives collected in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have never accessed the internet, while nearly two among three (62%) have never used a computer.
What does this data tell us? These numbers expose the vulnerability of girl students many of whom are also likely to be subjected to a deep gender bias. This hushed segregation at home can force many girls to drop out of the school system forever. This also raises the worrying possibility of their being forced into early marriage and child labour.
The government’s official statistics also broadly corroborate the hypothesis. In a survey Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India, nearly a third (30.2%) of the women cited household tasks as their reason for discontinuing education.
While these biases have dealt a severe blow to girl education, there is now growing fear that the continued absence from physical schools can also push many girls towards under-nourishment.
India’s Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme, launched 1995, is among the world’s largest state-funded school feeding programme. The MDM provides free and nutritious lunch to approximately 100 million children, aged 6-14 years, across 1.3 million government primary and upper primary schools, for at least 200 days a year.
The scheme has been particularly effective for key target groups such as children of migrant workers, many of whom were rendered jobless overnight as the pandemic swept through the country.
Children of domestic help, carpenters, electricians, mechanics and other self-employed service providers have been beneficiaries of the MDM scheme in urban areas.
This incentive has collapsed because of the Covid-19-forced school shutdowns that may have compelled many families to withdraw their daughters from school. A time-series school enrolment data that may be available a few years from now could throw up some worrying trend lines on dropouts.
This has struck a double blow for poor girl students. Staying away from school has denied them the necessary mid-day meals and nourishment for months on end, while lack of access to gadgets and basic digital devices has deprived them of school education.
These prevailing digital gaps may well mirror the biases that currently exist in India, manifesting in inequalities in many places, including between boys and girls.
The ed-tech sector, rightly so, has been toasted for quickly and efficiently making education accessible through technology in a highly disruptive pandemic-created environment. But the gender-specific digital divide even among the poor and disadvantaged is reason for disquiet. A strong political will and sharp policies are the need of the hour to bridge this gap swiftly before it becomes an issue of grave social prejudice.
Sourav Banerjee is country director, India, Room to Read
The views expressed are personal