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‘My daughter’s studies can wait’: Covid pushes girl child out of school as family incomes drop

Education ministry data shows 35 lakh children are currently out of school, which includes those who dropped out during the pandemic.

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New Delhi: Satish Yadav, a security guard at a mall in Faridabad, lost his job during the lockdown imposed amid the second Covid wave. The 45-year-old, a father of two, then started selling fruits on a pushcart to support his family. The new job ensured a steady income but it was not enough to educate both his children. And, so, Yadav’s older child — the daughter — had to drop out of school.

“My daughter’s studies can wait for a couple of more years…I will only be able to teach my son with the limited means that I have and I want to focus on doing just that right now,” Yadav said. His son studies in Class 5 and his daughter was a student of Class 9.

As a fruit-seller, he makes less than Rs 10,000 a month, while as a guard he would earn nearly double.

Suman Verma is a single mother of a daughter who is about to turn 18 next year. Verma, a resident of Delhi’s Nangloi area, does not want to send her daughter to school after she too lost a big chunk of her income during the lockdown.

Verma works as a house help and the lockdown cost her her job in four of the houses she worked. Verma now works at just one house as help and babysitter. While she would earlier earn Rs 15,000 a month, she now makes only Rs 5,000 — which she said was enough only to feed herself and her daughter.

“I cannot send my daughter to school. She will turn 18 next year, I will get her married. I have saved some money for her marriage,” she said.

Yadav and Verma are just two examples of how the pandemic — and the ensuing lockdowns — affected education in India, especially for children from lower and middle-income families. And, information gathered anecdotally by ThePrint indicates that girls have borne the brunt.

According to the Ministry of Education, 35 lakh children are currently out of school, which includes those who dropped out during the pandemic. The ministry does not have consolidated data on the exact number of children who left school since March 2020 (when the Covid pandemic spread in India) or a break-up of girls vs boys.

Out of School children include those who may never have been enrolled in school, while dropouts are those who left school midway.

The actual figure, though, is likely to be higher as states are still in the process of counting, ThePrint has learnt, a task made difficult for surveyors because of the pandemic.

The data of 35 lakh children was shared by states with the ministry between January 2021 and the first week of October after the Centre asked states to identify out-of-school children.

In a letter written to all states, the government had said, “There is a stark difference in identification of OoSC (Out of School children)…Therefore, States and UTs should carry out proper identification of OoSC for 5 to l8 years age group, so that no child is left behind.”

The data from the states is uploaded on a portal — PRABANDH — started by the ministry in June. According to that, the dropout rate is highest in Odisha (22 per cent), followed by Ladakh (over 18 per cent) and Nagaland (over 16 per cent).

Local-level data from states also indicate that the number of dropouts are worrying.

In Maharashtra, for example, nearly 18,000 kids dropped out of school last year, a survey by the state in the month of March shows. According to a report, so far over 1.25 lakh children in Tamil Nadu have been forced to quit school because of the pandemic.

Another survey report ‘Emergency Report on School Education’, led by economist Jean Dreze, also states that 37 per cent of children in rural areas dropped out of school because of the pandemic. The survey was conducted in 15 states — Assam, Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

While the ministry data does not have separate figures on the number of girls who have dropped out, those shared by Bangalore based NGO Aahwahan Foundation — which works with schools catering to lower-income families across the country — reflect what ThePrint found anecdotally. The dropout trend was mostly among lower-middle-class families, migrant labourers and vendors.

Among the schools that Aahwahan supports in Bangalore, 252 out of 1,702 children dropped out during Covid. Of this, 179 were girls. The situation is similar in Tamil Nadu and Kerala where 809 out of a combined total of 3,610 students dropped out, of which 565 were girls.

In Odisha and West Bengal, similarly, 836 out of 3,864 students in Aahwahan-supported schools dropped out during Covid and 543 out of them were girls.

In Mumbai, meanwhile, 126 kids out of 1,603 dropped out and 98 of them were girls.

Also read: Take responsibility of self-prescribed books — education ministry issues guidelines to schools

‘Parents are planning to get them married’

Prasant Barik, who looks after schools operating under Aahwahan Foundation in West Bengal, Odisha and Assam said, “People were pulling their kids out of school last year also, but in the past few months the trend has increased quite a lot.”

“In the schools we work with, we have noticed many girls dropping out after Class 9 and 10. Some of them have also called us up later and told us that their parents are planning to get them married and asked us for help to stop it,” he added.

“These parents are not just vendors and daily wage labourers, but also those who had private jobs and have lost their jobs due to Covid.”

Mansi Jena, an Aahwahan volunteer working in Mumbai, claimed that in schools in Thane she found cases where students were driven to the brink of suicide because of their family’s financial issues.

“A lot of parents lost their jobs during Covid… vegetable shop vendors, house helps and daily wages labourers were not able to earn any money at all during the lockdown. They tell us that they will teach their sons and not their daughters. We face a lot of difficulties convincing the parents. Students went into depression and tried to commit suicide and we had to give them counselling,” Jena said.

She added that parents asked them for help to find jobs for their children at their NGO, rather than sending them to school.

Another Aahwahan volunteer, Nivedita R.S., who works in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, too said that she has encountered cases where parents want to get their young daughters married because they cannot afford to teach them anymore.

And like Yadav and Verma, other parents who spoke to ThePrint, but on condition of anonymity, said that owing to reduced income, they would prefer their children work and contribute to the family earnings, rather than send them to school. Many with young daughters added that they were keen to get them married and so preferred to have them pick up household skills rather than study.

A parent from Kasargod told ThePrint on condition of anonymity, “My daughter has already finished Class 10 and I cannot afford to teach her any further. I am planning to get her married as soon as she turns 18.”

Also read: Nobody knows the fate of our ‘out-of-school’ children. Enrolment data is insufficient

‘A very serious problem’

Professor R. Govinda, distinguished professor at the Council for Social Development and former vice-chancellor of National University of Educational Planning, said the problem of children dropping out from schools is “very serious” and not enough attention was being paid to it.

“There are two categories of children who have dropped out during the pandemic – poor that became poorer and had to leave studies. In this case, the girl child has to bear the brunt of financial burden. Second category is the children from lower middle-class families who were admitted in budget private schools. As most of the budget private schools have shut down, many kids have had to drop out of school,” he told ThePrint.

Niharika Singh, a project officer with the Centre for Social Research, an organisation that works on women empowerment, agreed that cases of girls dropping out of school have increased during the pandemic.

She added that while working in Haryana, they noticed instances where girls were married off early because their parents could not afford to send them to school anymore.

“The effect of the pandemic is clearly visible among young women and girls. There is no recorded study like that but we have found anecdotal evidence. Pre-pandemic we were able to get a number of girls to schools in Haryana, but the situation has become worse,” said Singh.

A policy brief by the Right to Education forum in January, had also projected that 1 crore girls are at the risk of dropping out of school because of the pandemic. The report had said that the pandemic “could put girls at the risk of early marriage, trafficking and poverty”.

Also read: Cabinet approves continuation of Samagra Shiksha Scheme for school education till March 2026


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