In India, when a child isn't in school, they may be forced into child labour or married off as a minor. Or worse, pushed into sex work. Sonal Kapoor, the founder of the Delhi-based NGO Protsahan, says she is already seeing such patterns emerge in Delhi. With schools shut intermittently for over two years, and parents of lower-income groups unable to make ends meet, many will never be able to return to their classrooms.
"There are many hindrances to a child's education. When we talk about poverty, the issues are multilayered, for a child who has no food at home, things get difficult. That child, in return for two kilos of rice or five kilos of atta may be forced into sex work," Kapoor told BOOM.
Schools reopened on February 7 in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha and Bihar for students of Class 9 to 12 and will reopen for Nursery to Class 8 on February 14. This was after two months of being shut because of the third wave of the Coronavirus.
While the shutting down of schools has hindered the education of children across the country, it is going to have a long-lasting impact on the children of lower-income groups. Several studies and news reports over the last few months have pointed out that children are dropping out of schools because online classes are just not an option for them. While authorities were already struggling to keep children in schools, the pandemic has worsened the crisis.
In March 2021, a year since the pandemic began, a UNICEF report had warned that keeping schools shut because of the pandemic would mean millions of impoverished children across the globe would permanently drop out of school. The report said that in India, 1.5 million schools shutting down had affected 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. While over six million children were already out of school even before Covid, the report warned that things would get worse as online education was not an option for many.
The findings of the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2021 (ASER) confirms UNICEF's apprehensions. The ASER report from 2020, conducted during the peak of the first wave, showed that the rate of out of school children in the age group of 6-14 years significantly went up from 2.5% to 4.6% between 2018 and 2020. The largest drop in enrollment was for the youngest age group, with the proportion of 6-10-year olds not currently enrolled rising from 1.8% in 2018 to 5.3% in 2020. This, the report said, was perhaps because parents were waiting for schools to reopen. The proportion of children aged 6-14, who are currently not enrolled, remained the same at 4.6% in 2021. This was despite schools opening up for a bit after the second wave.
This means a large number of students are still not coming back to school despite the economy opening up.
In August 2021, education minister Dharmendra Pradhan said that 150 million (15 crore) children were out of school, a massive jump from the numbers that UNICEF projected before the pandemic.
Why Are Kids Dropping Out Of School?
Kavita Mangnani of the HAQ Centre for Child Right said, "A lot of people have dropped out because of financial issues."
From what the experts say, it seems the pandemic-induced job losses became the first casualty for education of children at home.
"Because of a resource crunch, a lot of people have moved back to their native village, their admission got cancelled. This is also one of the reasons why a lot of children have dropped out from schools," Mangnani said.
The situation began to improve after the second wave in 2021 only to come to another standstill because of the Omicron variant that caused the third wave in India.
"If there is no food in their stomachs, what learning will they do with a digital device? Now the child has been put to work because there is no social protection. They don't have savings that will last them for months, at most, it can last for a day or a week," Kapoor said. She added that when the child becomes a means of income for the household, "that child cannot focus on education".
While UNICEF pointed to the lack of access to the internet or not having a digital device, the barriers that children face in India are multilayered and more complicated.
The ASER 2021 report found that even if a smartphone was available at home, it did not translate to access for children. It found that even though over two-thirds of all enrolled children have a smartphone at home (67.6%), over a quarter have no access to it (26.1%).
Often, even if there is a smartphone in the household, there's no stable internet connection. If there is an internet connection, because the child is a first-generation learner, they may not have an understanding of how to use the device.
"The next part of the intersectional vulnerability comes into the picture if she is a girl. We have seen that if there are five, six children in the household, and the parents have somehow gotten hold of a phone, it will always stay with the man of the house," said Kapoor.
Online classes in itself are difficult, but when sharing their space with multiple people, often children of poor socio-economic backgrounds are unable to engage in a way that would actually amount to any significant learning. Kapoor said, "When we're looking at school dropouts we have to understand that these children live in houses that are 8 feet by 8 feet, it is not even a house, it is a shanty."
Mangnani said, "It is especially difficult for children who are weak in studies and this could be for various reasons. This could be cognitive difficulties or difficulties at home. There are different ways that children learn, and it is very difficult for them to understand the concept in the method that they teach online."
Will It Be Difficult To Get Children Back To School?
The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) set up an 'early warning system' in September 2021 for government school absentees and dropouts. The system is supposed to send an automated SMS to the guardian if they have missed school for seven days or have less than 33% attendance. This is followed by an IVRS message. If the parents still don't respond, the teacher gives them a call.
DCPCR Member Ranjana Prasad told BOOM that there was no data available on this initiative yet. However, she said, "If the children have problems at home, we're counselling them and bringing them back to school."
Prasad said that because many could not attend online classes, the school provided hard copies of assignments for homework for parents to pick up. "It's not only online classes. The schools are providing hard copies and the parents can go to the school and get it for the children also. It's not like children have to attend online classes," Prasad said.
While this is an option, this may not be the best way for children to get their education.
As Mangnani pointed out, "In government schools, what I have been hearing is that teachers are not taking classes as such. They tell us that they are sent homework on WhatsApp and they do the homework. The students say we just copy it. In that way, one can say that there is an issue because someone who is studying in the 9th standard or 11th or 12th standard, these are very crucial classes for the children."
Manganani mentioned that she was able to get financial help for some families through the DCPCR helpline.
Rote learning and copying assignment is not giving these students the understanding that they need. When asked if this will affect the studies of children, Prasad said, "Yes, things aren't happening in routine like they would earlier. At least something is going on. Something is better than nothing."
In terms of nutrition, Prasad said that all children between the age of 0-6 and pregnant and lactating women can get ration food from Anganwadis twice a month. But this may not hold true for mothers who are not over the age of 18.
Elaborating on how the basic rights of children can be hampered when they drop out of school, Mangnani cited the case of pregnant child brides.
For a lot of girl children in India, marriage means pregnancy follows soon after. And many of them are below 18 years of age. "They will not get the benefits that otherwise a married woman gets or a mother gets from Anganwadis," Mangnani said.
Prasad also said that the nutrition of children was also being taken care of through the distribution of dry ration. "It's not like nothing is happening. They are getting dry ration from the school and Anganwadis as well. There is no reason for school dropouts. Ration is sufficient and they are also getting basic things."
The Global Hunger Index ranked India 101 among 116 countries in 2021. India fell behind its neighbours like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Highlighting that many still cannot avail ration even in the national capital, Kapoor said, "So when there is no social protection, when you say people are getting grains and ration free, how many people are being able to avail this? There is a waiting list for ration cards since 2019 because there is an upper limit to the number of ration cards they give out."
As children's education remains affected even at the beginning of 2022, Prasad said that the DCPCR is in touch with all related stakeholders to bring children back to school. As for the future she said, "As I said that if the child is going into child labour we are taking leads to rescue them and monitoring them. But definitely, education has been affected. We will only be able to bridge the gap once schools open. I'm the sure government will have some new plans to bridge the gap. Let's see once the schools open."
A Long-Term Crisis- Why?
The lack of social protection pushes a generation of children out of the education system, never to come back.
Kapoor said that in Dwarka's slums a community originally from Rajasthan's Ajmer, mandate their women to beg while the men do odd jobs. Now, the pandemic has exacerbated their poverty and if the women cannot cobble together enough money, families have to push young girls and even boys into transactional sex as a last resort. Children as young as four to six years of age are being put to work.
This deprives the children of their basic rights. Children involved in child labour will often do exhausting physical work without proper nutrition, while child brides will get pregnant when their bodies are not ready. This has long term physical and mental health consequences.
"There are parents who tell me how they got married very early at the age of 15 or 16. By 25, they already have three children. There is a lot of domestic violence. I have seen such parents going through depression, anxiety or very poor self-esteem," Mangnani said.
The impact of dropping out of school will affect the children later, the same way it has affected the parents as they miss out on the chance to better their own lives. "If they study, there is a chance that they will get a job or raise their standard of living," Mangnani said.
However, with the bleak situation, that may not happen for a lot of children in India.
This story is a part of a BOOM series on Covid-19 and children.
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