India’s efforts to close the gender gaps in education were starting to pay off. Female literacy and enrollment went up, which are both telltale signs of progress. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, undoing 70 years’ worth of growth.
Four factors are stalling improvements in girls’ education in the country — disruptions in funding, school nutrition, access to schools, and unemployment rates, according to a report published in Forbes India on Monday.
It is estimated that nearly 10 million secondary school girls in India could drop out of school due to the pandemic, putting them at risk of early marriage, early pregnancy, poverty, and violence.
School-provided meals have helped keep girls in school by reducing the cost of schooling and girls’ nutrition. Without the perk of free meals, families might choose to take their daughters out of school during school shutdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19, causing higher dropout rates and less re-enrollment.
The Supreme Court ordered states to continue serving lunch meals, but only a few states have followed through.
While better access to schools for girls living in rural areas in India has curbed families’ safety concerns about sending their daughters to learn, the pandemic highlights the digital divide continuing to put them at a disadvantage. Girls are less likely to have access to technology for remote learning, and in rural areas, only 28% of women have access to technology while in urban areas 33% have access.
High unemployment rates are also discouraging women from continuing their education during the pandemic. In April and May alone, 12 million women lost their jobs — 9 million in rural areas and 3 million in urban areas — contributing to a 30% unemployment rate for women.
Lastly, funds are being diverted away from girls’ education to address the pandemic. Over the past four years, nearly a third of corporate social responsibility investments were made in education, but this year they are being redirected toward COVID-19 response.
To ensure that the crisis does not rob millions of girls of their future, education advocates urge India to address the digital divide, restructure curriculums to reflect the current state of the world, and empower teachers to continue teaching.
The organization Global Partnership for Education recommends all countries set up systems now to track re-enrollment, gather data, and incentivize at-risk girls to return to school. The international community must also prioritize girls’ education funding in COVID-19 recovery plans.