How Online Education Has Disadvantaged Girls in India

Social Commentary

How Online Education Has Disadvantaged Girls in India

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a substantial part of education going online. Teachers had to adapt to online tools overnight and children had to ensure they had access to technology that would help them attend classes on the web. News reports came in of parents going to the very extreme to ensure their children’s education didn’t suffer, in one case, even selling a cow to buy a smartphone.

Millions of Indians live in poverty and the pandemic managed to expose the inequality in our health and education systems like never before. Administrators have struggled to reach the last child when it comes to education, many students have dropped off for various reasons. However, as data points out, the differences aren’t only among the rich and poor, but also gender-based, among boys and girls.

According to The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020 of Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, only half of the women in India use mobile internet compared to men—21 per cent among women compared to 42 per cent of men. A study by Centre For Catalysing Change points out how adolescent boys had better access to digital infrastructure, whether it was smartphones, internet service, radio, and media.

Trends in India have been consistent with global observations, that there is a gender imbalance when it comes to digital access. A study by Young Lives, an international research project on childhood poverty, claimed, “Boys in India are much more likely than their female peers to use a computer and the internet (as well as other forms of technology, such as a smartphone) regularly.” Samples collected by Young Lives in Andhra Pradesh paint a bleak picture, pointing out that 80 per cent girls in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have never accessed the internet, while 62 per cent have never used a computer.

About 37 per cent of girls from poor households are uncertain whether they would be able to return to school after the pandemic, according to a study which also found that as compared to 37 per cent of boys, only 26 per cent girls in such families have access to mobile and internet to attend online classes. “In low and middle-income countries, women are 8 % less likely than men to have a mobile phone and 20% less likely to use the internet on it. Finally, school closures have led to increased child care and chore responsibilities at home, which are likely to disadvantage girls more,” a report by UNESCO stated.

Trends in India have been consistent with global observations, that there is a gender imbalance when it comes to digital access.

The coronavirus pandemic threatens to further accentuate the problem. There is already gender bias in vast sections of Indian society, where women are expected to do more housework or single-handedly raise children or take care of the elderly. Compounded with the issue of lack of access to education, it could end up leading to more girls dropping out of school. Early marriage and child labour are also potential disastrous side effects of girls dropping out of school.

Schooling is not merely a place for education, but also a source of nourishment for a significant population. India’s mid-day meal scheme is among the world’s largest state-funded school feeding programmes, providing nutritious meals to approximately 100 million children, aged six to 14 years, across 1.3 million government primary and upper primary schools, for at least 200 days a year. As schools remain shut, the walls are closing in on the poorest sections of society. Migrant workers have seen their job prospects dented and schools are struggling to provide meals to their children. Add to this the digital divide, and prospects of girl’s education among poorer sections of society appear grim.

India has made vast strides to ensure more equality in education over the past decades. Political will and targeted action can ensure we don’t compromise the hopes and dreams of future generations. Now is not the time to slip up.