Build a better future
With National Girl Child Day just past, a look at the impact of the pandemic on the lives of adolescent girls and what needs to be done to help them
Like the rest of the population, as many as 120 million adolescent girls — roughly one-tenth of the nation — are experiencing a never-before situation. However, the disruption they are facing is likely to push back the gains made in the previous decades.
Adolescent girls’ welfare and entitlements are linked to a host of development indicators, including women’s workforce participation, morbidity rates and maternal mortality among others. This is a generation that was — until the pandemic struck — breaking a millennium of stereotypes and deprivation. Born just as the new century began, adolescent girls in India were seeing never-before school-going rates (10.3% out-of schoolgirls in 2006 to 4.1% in 2019, according to the 2019 ASER report). They were pushing the boundaries of academic achievement with 92.15% pass percentage in class XII versus 86.19 % for boys in the 2020 CBSE board exams).
They were marrying later; the rate of child marriage was 50% in 2000 as against 27% today (UNICEF report on Ending Child Marriage). Fewer women were dying in childbirth, thanks to work done by the Government, health and education systems, NGOs, communities, and families.
Large-scale change makers including the Government were recognising that working with this age group could potentially nip a host of life-long deprivations like income poverty, food insecurity and preventable morbidities in the bud. And, then, the pandemic struck. Girls in schools, working towards their first professional degrees or gaining new exposure and perspectives from the world suddenly found themselves confined to the home.
The impact of such a phenomenon on day-to-day lives needs to be taken into account, says a recent survey among 7,200 teens from Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. Instead of going to school, girls reported spending more time cleaning the household (61%), cooking (59%), washing clothes (44%), washing utensils (41%), and taking care of siblings (23%). Boys, on the other hand, said they spent most of their time watching TV and farming, among others.
Nor did girls have optimal access to the Internet. Among girls, just 22% knew how to use online learning platforms. Just 12% had access to mobile phones against 35% for boys. More than half the girls surveyed said they did not have essential textbooks. Not surprisingly, more girls than boys felt they were likely to drop out of school.
Further, a high number of adolescent girls reported that they felt vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual harassment during the lockdown. Curbs on their mobility also increased; only 39% of girls said they were allowed to go out alone compared to 62% of boys of the same age. The closure of schools has also led to a lack of a safe space for girls.
All this underscores what practitioners have highlighted: without formal school and Internet access, practices such as domestic work, child labour, and early marriage become the only available coping strategies for families, often enforced through patriarchal norms.
Address the challenges
At this juncture, recognising the impact of the pandemic on adolescent girls can help mitigate some these problems. The Government of India’s ambitious Rashtriya Kishore Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) and School Health and Wellness programmes, for instance, take a community and school-based approach towards health, nutrition, gender equity, injuries and violence, non-communicable diseases, mental health, and substance misuse. This can be harnessed to address the pandemic-induced challenges as well.
Another specific and scalable example is the Kerala State Education Department’s ‘First Bell’ initiative, launched on June 1, 2020. Over 600 classes are now running via the ‘KITE Victers’ television channel, making lessons accessible to students without smartphone and internet access.
While the Government of India has programmes such as Beti Bachao Beti Padao, Skill India Mission and Digital India Mission, a localised approach needs to be worked out, considering the diversity of the country. Coordinated action to end the pandemic-induced crisis for adolescent girls calls for reinforcing programming strategies. Addressing health, empowerment, and education needs this early in life will not only help overturn the disruptions of 2020 but also help go a long way towards achieving the Sustainable Goals for Development.
The writer is the Executive Director of Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3)