The pandemic has resulted in millions of casualties worldwide, while in the Indian heartland it has brought death to the dreams of education nursed by thousands of children, and especially young girls.
“I do not know what to do anymore,” sobbed one former student, who at the tender age of 16, had to give up her education in exchange for childbirth and an abusive marriage.
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She was a bright student who scored 85 per cent marks in her Class 10 Board exams. But the girl’s mother, a single parent, took advantage of the lockdown and the lull in her education to get her married off to a much older man last year.
“The man soon started harassing the girl, physically and sexually, and she conceived,” Archana Sahaye, director of Childline, Bhopal, told 101Reporters.
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“She is a teenager, and her body is still developing, but despite this, she was forced to have a baby, and her in-laws did not even give her food during her pregnancy.”
The teenager gave birth to a daughter in July and is now trying to get her marriage annulled with the help of Childline and the Women and Child Development Department. The girl’s former school principal has assured her of readmission after she recovers from her delivery.
She is lucky, compared to the lot of other girls in the capital city of Bhopal. Parents who could not afford an extra smartphone or an internet connection for online classes, have chosen to marry off their daughters.
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Rate of child marriages in the state has seen a sharp rise– of 26 per cent–in the wake of COVID-19. The Women and Child Department had stopped 196 child marriages in the 2019-20 period, while the number rose to 720 in 2020-21.
Child marriages are highly skewed against girl children.
According to a report released by Child Rights and You (CRY) in October 2020, more than 70% of the children married off at 16 years were girls. The report, compiled with help from Census 1991, 2001 and 2011, and the latest National Family Health Survey (2015-16), said that as many as 11,93,171 children were married at this age in MP, and out of this 8,60,332 were girls.
Safeena Husain, the founder of Educate Girls, explains, “With families staying at home amid economic hardships, incidences of domestic violence, drunk behaviour and child abuse have increased. If this persists, the risks of child marriage, physical and sexual exploitation of girls, trafficking, unhygienic and unhealthy lifestyle will continue to drastically surge.”
Husain believes there will be more lasting consequences. “Stuck in this situation, girls will continue to lose confidence and feel demotivated to return to mainstream education, making them even more vulnerable.”
In MP, a social transformation had been underway over the last two decades. The literacy rate of women in the state had increased to 59.24% in 2011, from 50.29 in 2001. Experts fear these gains could be reversed with the pandemic lockdown.
While the school dropout rate of girls in MP was 24.4 per cent in the year 2017-18, experts suspect there has been a sharp rise in the dropout rate for 2020-21.
"School was a socially acceptable reason for parents from marginalised and financially weaker sections of the society to send their daughters out of the home. Without it, while boys continue to be exposed by going out to play with their friends, girls are getting left behind," said Gourav Jaiswal, core team member of Shiksha Satyagrah in Seoni, Madhya Pradesh.
Starting from scratch
Haseen Ali, who works as a driver in a car dealership, revealed he has been out of work since March and had to quietly discontinue his daughter’s education. “I have no money to buy food for my family, how can I afford books and a smartphone? I myself use a second-hand keypad phone given to me by another employee,” he said.
A 13-year-old daughter of a ragpicker enrolled in Class 1 in 2019 at the age of 11, under a local administration-led programme called ‘Khushal Naunihal’. She had just begun her studies when the pandemic struck and she was forced to quit. Her mother Mangi is worried that the stroke of luck that gave her daughter a chance at education has now run out.
“I was happy that my daughter was going to get an education, but now just after a year, she is right back where she started,” said Mangi.
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The ‘Khushal Naunihal’ programme began in 2019 under the leadership of the then Commissioner Bhopal Kalpana Shrivastav. The city administration along with seven other NGOs gathered 400 children, who had been begging at various locations, and helped them enrol in government schools. But due to the pandemic, the initiative came to a standstill.
"The positive results of the programme have been reversed and since Kalpana Madam has also been transferred, we will now have to start from scratch to form a new team,” said Kripashankar Choubey, member of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) of Bhopal.
The children who had been enrolled have started begging again, to help out parents who have lost their jobs.
During the lockdown, the NGOs and the CWC also prioritised the safety, health and food security of these children, and began focussing on providing them with food and medicines.
The committee plans to form a new team to restart the Khushal Naunihal programme as soon as the pandemic ends.
Other social-welfare agencies and organisations too are struggling to keep families invested in education, as they struggle through a harsh economic reality. For example, the Madhya Pradesh Commission for Protection of Child Rights and the Childline tried to keep students in touch with the practice of learning and keep them from forgetting what they studied so far.
They bought books and notebooks for the students, and the staff and a few volunteers held short-duration classes at Bhopal Childline’s TT Nagar headquarters. But as days passed, both organisations were forced to channel their funds and resources into ensuring food security of children in slum areas and in financially weaker families. The learning initiative had to be sidelined.
Now that schools have restarted, many of these NGOs and government bodies are going back to the drawing board, to brainstorm on how to engage the children’s interest once again.
(The author is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)