Gender inequality in education has widened during pandemicWith families struggling financially, girls cannot focus on their studies as they have to help out in household chores and do not always have access to technology for remote learning.
If things had been normal, Sonika Sharma would have been in the final year of high school and looking forward to going to college.
Instead she is uncertain what the future holds.
The National Examination Board has cancelled the grade 11 exams which Sonika was supposed to take in April and told schools to conduct their own examinations. She has not heard anything about this from her school.
“This was supposed to be the last year at high school, but the academic session hasn’t started yet and I am still stuck at my home,” said 16-year-old Sharma from Kohalpur in Banke district.
In the meantime, she is relying on distance learning programmes provided by a local radio station to stay productive and motivated. However, she is worried about falling behind, citing distractions at home and financial hits from the lockdowns.
“Although my parents encourage me to focus on my studies, I am also expected to do the cooking, cleaning and babysit my little brother. I spend more time on doing household chores than studying,” said Sharma. “And then there is a financial problem at home, due to which, at times, I cannot concentrate on my studies.”
Her father, who worked as a cashier at a local cooperative, has been temporarily laid off since April and the family of four has been financially struggling since.
Globally, the World Bank estimates that 1.6 billion children have been pushed out of school since March, including 111 million girls in the world’s least developed countries. Studies conducted by UNESCO and UNDP said financial uncertainty unleashed by the Covid-19 can lead to girls being pushed into child marriage, child labour, human trafficking, sexual violence and other forms of exploitation.
In Nepal, Room to Read Nepal, a non-governmental organisation working in the education sector, in a survey conducted in April-June, found that among the 3,992 girls polled in 11 districts, 279 girls said they would not be able to return to school once school reopens while 1,796 girls said their families’ incomes have been hit by the pandemic.
Since schools closed, 20 of the surveyed girls had married, the survey found.
“When parents face crises because of limited income and resources, they are likely to neglect or deprioritise daughters. These girls are forced into staying back at home, doing household chores and some even end up getting married,” said Salini Tamang, Girls Education Program manager at Room to Read Nepal.
While financial hardship has always been the main reason for girls to stay away from school, researchers are now worried that the economic fallout caused by the pandemic will only exacerbate existing inequities and increase academic gaps.
According to Tamang, Room to Read conducted the survey not only to find out about the risk factors that are negatively affecting the girls’ education amid the pandemic, but also to come up with urgent responses to the situation.
“We cannot just wait until the school reopens to find out whether or not the pandemic pushed girls out of school. It will be too late, and any reactive programmes will be less effective by then,” said Tamang.
The INGO has already stepped up support for girls from low-income and marginalised communities through long distance mentorship and remote learning programmes via radio.
Under the girls’ education programme of Room to Read, currently, 4,289 girls in the 11 districts including Banke, Bardiya, Tanahun, Chitwan, Kathmandu, Nuwakot, Bhaktapur, Lalitpur, Sindhupalchowk, Kaski and Kavre are assigned mentors.
Sabita Sunar, a local mentor in Banke district, has been reaching out to 91 girls through phone calls, video calls or text messaging since April to follow-up on their academic progress and on their family situation. “Most of the girls are having financial problems at home and this stress is impacting their studies,” Sunar said. “I listen to them and try to give them suggestions and motivate them to stay focused and optimistic.”
Sharma, who has also been assigned a mentor, feels that talking to her mentor is like a therapy to her. “I feel like someone is there for me, someone who is concerned about my education,” said Sharma.
While each mentoring session lasts for 15 minutes and each girl’s turn comes once a month, Sunar said that the mentors also talk to the parents to explain the importance of girls’ education. “We want to send a message to the parents that no matter what, they must never compromise with their daughters’ education,” said Sunar.
The mentorship seems to be working.
“Our main concern is to prevent girls from getting married and secondary education is a major delayer of early marriage. Through our sessions with the parents, we have managed to postpone and stop five marriages so far. This I feel is an achievement,” said Sunar.
Although mentoring sessions may be effective in providing life skills and motivation to girls, still, Sunar and her fellow colleague Rampyari Tharu admitted that many girls are struggling to keep up with their studies in the absence of technology that could otherwise help them with remote learning. The Room to Read survey found that 16 percent of girls have already stopped studying at home due to lack of access to digital resources and their inability to ask teachers for help.
“There are radio stations that are providing educational programmes but out of 91 students that I mentor, only 10 percent have either a radio set or mobile phones at their homes. Many parents are too poor to buy a radio while others cannot afford to buy multiple mobile phones for themselves and their children. Some students are replying on the mobile phones of their neighbours to communicate with us,” said Tharu. “This would make them fall behind in their studies, make them feel demotivated enough to discontinue their studies all together.”
Experts suggest that the government should come up with a financial package as an urgent response to support families that have been financially hit by the pandemic, so that girls can go to school once the school reopens.
“The government shouldn’t take education in isolation. If the marginalised communities don’t get financial aid from the government, the drop-out and out-of-school numbers of girls are sure to increase post-pandemic,” said Basudev Kafle, a professor at Tribhuvan University, who has carried out research on school education.
The government, meanwhile, has only come up with plans revolving around remote learning, according to Dibya Dawadi, the deputy spokesperson for the Education Ministry
According to Dawadi, local governments have partnered with schools and mass media such as radio and television stations to prepare education programmes for students in their communities. The ministry has also had a campaign where the teachers had visited children’s homes to distribute reading materials.
“At present, everyone is concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on our health. Although the ministry is aware about the reports on the impact of the pandemic on girls’ education, when it comes to female students’ dropout rates, we will have to just wait and see when school reopens,” said Dawadi.
As for Sharma, she is waiting for everything to be normal again so that she can continue her school. Just a few weeks back, she said that she was shocked to learn two of her friends had eloped but she hopes that they will at least continue with their studies.
“I don’t want to get married anytime soon. Instead, I want to study so that I can be a lawyer,” said Sharma. “But for now, I have to juggle between my household chores and my studies.”