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OPINION: It's time to undo the COVID disruption to girls' rights in India

Thursday, 18 November 2021 17:32 GMT

A girl, who does not have access to internet facilities and gadgets, uses a microscope as she attends an open-air class outside a house with its walls converted into black boards following the closure of their schools due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Joba Attpara village in Paschim Bardhaman district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, September 13, 2021. Picture taken September 13, 2021. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri TPX

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The pandemic has disrupted efforts to end child marriage and caused widespread damage to the financial prospects of girls

Safeena Husain is the Founder and Executive Director at Educate Girls and Poonam Muttreja is Executive Director at Population Foundation of India

In Northern India,12-year-old Rekha was living a comfortable life when her father lost his job due to the pandemic. The family lost their income and their home and returned to a small village in Northern India, where Rekha had no school to go to, no menstrual products and little food.

Worse, though, everything regarding Rekha’s future had changed. When a social worker visited the family and asked her parents when they were sending their children back to school, “I was left baffled," Rekha's father said. "A man who could barely afford to feed his family will never think of educating them. My priority is two square meals for my family."

Deep gender gaps in education have long existed. But now, COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation. Before COVID-19 there were over 4 million Indian girls out of school. Today, estimates show that 10 million girls are at risk of dropping out, with one in two girls in India’s state of Uttar Pradesh unsure if they will ever go back. 

School closures mean a loss of learning and academic progress. But they also uproot lives. For girls like Rekha, not being in school means no interaction with friends, no sanitary products and no school meals. COVID-19 has also had dire impacts on sexual and reproductive health, where more than two million girls in India have an unmet need for contraception and 78% of abortions among teenage girls are unsafe. The pandemic has disrupted efforts to end child marriage and caused widespread damage to the financial prospects of girls.

These problems existed before the pandemic, but with the ongoing lockdown, progress has been reversed. Forced out of school, girls eat last and least, fall into domestic servitude, and any remote learning opportunities are denied because of the digital divide. Girls are denied their education most often where patriarchy, poverty, and policy gaps intersect. This is indeed a global crisis.

We know, in India and around the world, that girls’ education and self-determination are critical to the success of nations and societies. Investing in academic, vocation, and life skills for girls and young women represents one of the most significant opportunities for sustainable and inclusive development. The World Bank estimates that just a single percentage point increase in girl’s education raises the average gross domestic product by 0.3 percentage points.

But most importantly this is also every girl’s fundamental right. 

As we work to “build back” post COVID-19, we need to meet this challenge head on – with action over words, and a global commitment to a recovery that puts girls' needs first.

Here’s how.

First, we need a convergent approach across government departments, ministries and NGOs. Policies and programs are often created in silos and viewed as the domains of separate ministries and agencies. Girls are best served when traditional boundaries are broken so that stakeholders – including girls and women themselves – can come together and address overlapping issues like violence, child marriage, menstrual hygiene, health, education and work.

Second, we need to promote gender equality initiatives that endorse the inherent value of girls. Girls are mostly under-valued in our society, seen as a liability and too often discriminated against. A fundamental reason for not being able to achieve gender equality is that women and young adolescent girls’ voices are often excluded from decision-making.

Third, we must embrace girls’ potential to lead and support them to take on leadership roles. We must localise responses as much as possible by prioritising the expertise of girls. Earlier this year in Northern India, access to free menstrual health products stopped during COVID-19. A group of girls made a video demanding sanitary napkins be included in the essential commodity list. With the help of local NGOs, their concerns were presented before the district administration, which then made 5,000 sanitary napkins immediately available for distribution.

That is the model for progress: self-determination, leadership and cross-sector response. 

As world leaders continue to debate how to restore the global economy to full health and to achieve progress against the pandemic, we must commit as a global community to regaining the ground we’ve lost for women and girls from COVID. A global comeback should be a girl’s comeback. Let us all write that story together.