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Indian education’s new digital wave after Covid left behind women

Covid-19 made India challenge years of classroom learning for over 32 crore students, but women still lack access to the internet and online classes.

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Indian education today is marked by a fundamental shift in how education is delivered and consumed across the globe in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. As India adapted to newer ways of accessing public and private services, changes in the education sector have challenged years of classroom learning for over 32 crore young learners in India, who are now studying at home.

While students across the world continue to study from home, it is imperative to recognise the differential and stratified nature of the impact caused by shutting down of schools.


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Gender gap in education

Despite rising literacy levels and significant investment in education and training in India, women are most disadvantaged when it comes to access to education, skills development and employment. According to the 2011 Census, female literacy rate was 16.6 per cent lower than male literacy rate at only 65.5 per cent and as per the report, Women Men in India 2017 report, by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, dropout/discontinuance for girls, aged 16 – 24 years in 2014 was, as high as 57.4per cent(urban) and 36.7 per cent (rural).

According to GSMA’s ‘The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019’, Indian women are 56 per cent less likely to use mobile internet than men, with only 35 per cent of active users in the country being women. 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. It has also given weight to the fear that in the prospect of reaching every girl lies the possibility of leaving so many behind.


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Problem of access

Apart from the digital gender gap, Covid-19 has underlined some of the existing challenges that women and girls in India were already struggling with — mobility being one of them.

The National Education Policy of India (NEP) 2020 has addressed many issues central to women and girls not being able to access education systems. The policy has covered much ground by including special education zones, gender inclusion funds, targeted scholarships, and gender inclusionary projects in schools. The policy also addresses the issue of sexual harassment of girls, and suggests meals scheme in schools, which seek to incentivise women from poor households to access schools.

Safe means of mobility, free from harassment, plays a critical role in women and girls accessing education. Promoting digital access for women and girls ensures that the gap created by the lack of mobility is bridged to a large extent. It provides greater opportunities and avenues of lifelong learning, vocational learning, and adult literacy, which are emphasised in the NEP.

Such exclusion explains why women get caught in the cycle of poverty and discrimination. Development practitioners, policy makers, among others, will undoubtedly argue that dropping out of school has a long-lasting impact on the lives of women, one that can lead to early marriages, early pregnancies, and a lifetime of poverty.

In this context, an important programme from UN Women, focused on providing women and girls access to formal education, employment, and skilling reveals that ensuring a second chance was both useful and has tremendous uptake. Among the many stories from the ground, one that stood with me was that of Deepa*, a 28-year-old woman from an economically weak background, who is disabled due to polio. When Deepa could not pass her secondary exams in 2008, she decided to drop out because she felt like a burden on her brother and father who had to physically carry her to school eight kilometres away. It was then that Deepa’s mother came across the option of completing one’s schooling through distance learning, thanks to the interaction of UN Women’s Second Chance Educators with the Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in their village.

Deepa enrolled for the Secondary School Examination through the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), and started attending the classes being organised by the SCE educators at her village. She has taken up five subjects — Business Studies, Hindi, Social Science, Painting, and Home Science.

The transformative change brought in the lives of women and girls like Deepa highlights the relevance of three important factors that will be critical in shaping our post-Covid approach to education. This includes a renewed focus on formal opportunities for women and girls who fall beyond the target age group of schooling, catalytic partnerships, and the availability of various modes of accessing education.

While the in-class experience provides a holistic learning environment, it might be a distant reality for many girls and women belonging to marginalised communities. However, the realisation of education requires women to be consumers of digital devices and platforms. Putting girls and women on the digital map could lead to a literate and educated India. This International Education Day and National Girl Child day, it is imperative to recognise that different modes of accessing education, digital and/or distance learning during the pandemic, have paved the way to enhancing education for girls and women, especially, post-Covid.

*Name changed to maintain anonymity.

The author is Deputy Representative, UN Women India. Views are personal.

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