Gendered Impact of COVID – 19: From SwaTaleem’s Lens

Mewat district is located in Haryana, a State 40 km away from Gurgaon. While Mewat is a Muslim dominateed community, its residents are described as Meo Muslims: incorporating a mix of both Hindu and Muslim traditions in their culture. People outside of Mewat believe that it is a very backward community, and they have various assumptions about this place that are often associated with the residents being ‘narrow minded’. The literacy rate in this area is really low, and according to NITI AYOG, the District’s five blocks are educationally backward blocks. In Mewat, the importance and value of ‘Formal Education’ is considerably low, and Girls’ education is practically at the bottom of their priority list. Most of the Girls get married close after the age of 14 or immediately following their 12th standards. They don’t even get a chance to consider, if ever complete, their higher education. When we talked with the Girls in Kasturba Gandhi Schools, most of them mentioned that they are the first generation of children going to school in their families. As an organization, our work is primarily with the Girls and Teachers from the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas. These schools are residential elementary schools established under Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan in 2004 in Educational Backward Blocks across the country. In Mewat, these schools are from Standards 6 – 10 and have hostels available for Girls from Standards 6 – 8.

We started our work by forming a cluster of all 5 KGBVs from each block in Mewat; however, we quickly realized that, at school level, teachers needed additional on-site support in order to conduct sessions with the large number of Girls across the grades. As a result, the layer of field coordinators (FCs) emerged to fill this gap. They worked to implement designated program activities as well as to capture behavior and attitude changes on a daily basis and with more nuance. The field coordinators are young women themselves (around 22-25 years old) who are born and brought up in Mewat and have their Diploma in Education from Teacher Training Institute (which they completed from distance learning programs or Regular programs in Mewat itself). These young women are very influential for adolescent Girls, as they have pursued their education. In many communities just the presence of a role model has a tremendous impact on Girls who are growing and have dreams and aspirations because they see that people like them have done it. As part of the Induction on Teaching Practices, remembering their school days, one of our FCs mentioned :

“When we were in school, our teachers would often pass comments that we are in school only to escape household chores and not necessarily to learn. The boys would also mock at us for being in school, saying that they would never send their sisters to school. This wouldn’t make us feel good about ourselves and did not give us interest to put in more of our effort. But when few teachers shared that we are good at multitasking and can also study or work while managing a house too, we would feel good.”

This gives us an insight into the lives of our Girls and the challenges they are facing today. To think of an FC as someone who has navigated societal expectations and now enters the premises of a KGBV on a cold sunny morning riding a scooter, the KGBV Girl dreams herself a different and better future because she has a tangible and powerful example in front of her. As a role model, they are much more influential to these Girls than mainstream unrelatable females figures, comparatively. This is because they are very much the same people: they were born in the same soil and have to fight similar battles themselves. Aiza and Sahina, our current FCs, navigate with resilience; they have conquered the barriers of early marriage, low levels of education and skills, and reduced mobility due to socio-cultural constraints. With these experiences, our FCs can offer solutions, advice, and suggestions for the next generation of Girls to become their best too.

The onboarding of FCs began on 1st March. We knew that our FCs would need support to build their strength on the core content, so induction was an important step to get them started. With the onset of lockdown due to ‘COVID – 19’ on March 19, our team members were able to return to their families in time, but this disrupted our plan of induction as well as the education for our Girls at KGBVs. As part of the FCs induction, the perspective building on Gender, English as a second language and Teaching Practices, were supposed to be covered for them as well. For our Girls, we started off by sending small write ups of comprehension passages and stories to them, and then, they would read those stories and respond to certain prompts and photos via WhatsApp. Being at home creates the family expectation for the Girls to contribute to the household chores leaving only either the afternoon or late at night to study and learn. Initially, when the schools were shut, there was no access to the latest contact details of the Girls for the beginning 2-3 months. In one of the exercises we asked them to conduct an FGD of 4-5 Girls from 6-9 (preferably from KGBVs) on how lockdown has been affecting them. The excerpts from the interview are quoted below: 

  •  जब से करोना से स्कूल बंद हुआ है, घर पर कैसा महसूस हो रहा है ?
    • जब से करोना लगा हुआ है हमें घर पर घुटन सी महसूस होती है और हमारा  जी घबराया सा होता है, जैसे कि हम बहुत ही  बड़े संकट में आ गए हैं और इससे कोई बचाव नहीं हो 
  • उन्हें स्कूल ना जाने की खुशी है या दुख या कोई फर्क नहीं पड़ता ?
    • हमें स्कूल ना जाने का  बहुत दुख हो  रहा है क्योंकि हमारी जिंदगी का सवाल है हमें स्कूल जाने  से शिक्षा मिलती है और हमारी सारी पढ़ाई बेकार हो रही है | जो सिलेबस हमें पढ़ाया गया है, हम उनको भी भूल रहे हैं | हमारी शिक्षा बहुत ही कमजोर हो रही है और साथ में हमारा खेलना-कूदना भी खत्म होता जा रहा है।
  • स्कूल की किस बात को वो सबसे ज्यादा याद करती है ?
    • स्कूल में जाकर हमें अपनी सहेलियों से हंसकर सलाम करना और उनके एक साथ खेलने वो बैठना बहुत याद आता है 
  • घर पर उनका काम बढ़ गया है या घट गया ?
    • घर पर हमारे लिए काम बहुत  बढ़ गया है क्योंकि घर वाले कहते हैं कि आप स्कूल नहीं जाती हो तो आप खेत में जाओ या कोई और काम करने के लिए कह देते हैं।
  • क्या उनको घर पर पढ़ने लिए समय मिल पाता है कब और उस समय में वह कैसे पढ़ पाती हैं ?
    •  घर पर समय बहुत मुश्किल से मिल पाता है अगर मिल भी पता है तो शाम को जब बिस्तर पर आराम करने का टाइम होता है   उस टाइम सारे काम से  फारिग हो जाते हैं अकेले कमरे में जाकर पढ़ाई करने लग जाते हैं।

One can directly see the parallels between the challenges of our FCs and our Girls at KGBVs. On one hand, as a woman, FCs are expected to look after their families, finish home chores, care for the children, and then also find time to work and fulfill their personal goals. On the other hand, Girls at KGBVs are expected to work in Field and finish household chores. The access to digital technology is also gendered, and we see similarities here as well. One of our FCs is married and can only access WhatsApp or Internet and attend classes through her partner’s phone. When he is not at home, she waits for him to return and then only she is able to join a call. Similarly, our Girls in KGBVs, from a family of 5-6, would be the last in line to get access to the phones, only after the Father has come home and her brothers have gotten their chances. We often limit Education from a very reductionist purview of ‘Learning Outcomes’ or ‘Content Delivery’ and the first response of most of the government run systems was to create WhatsApp groups, send course based content to these groups, and then expect that children will ‘Learn’ through this. This is not at all appropriate nor considerate for both our Girls and FCs. One needs to have ‘Safe Space’ (which is an office for our FCs and Schools for our Girls) with a conducive learning environment and a dialogue driven pedagogy to expect this. 

Our FCs are resisting the existing structures in their small own ways by being able to have access to resources. One of them has negotiated with her father and brother to give her a phone and sim, and the other feels empowered to be able to send mails, use WhatsApp voice recording for ‘Read Alouds’ practice, and type in Hindi using Phone. Both feel happy about it because it is a big accomplishment given their restrictions. Most of their learning has been driven through linking their own personal experiences to the work we are doing, and they find it ‘different’. In their own words : ‘we feel different here. And that we are learning in a different way than what we had done in our college or school. It is a strange new experience’ 

We are still making efforts to get connected to our Girls through Low tech mediums like IVRS and Community Radio because our focus is to keep them engaged, to stay connected, to learn from their surroundings, and to not pressurise them with the expectation of Learning  Outcomes. To think beyond “Learning Outcomes’ and ‘Syllabus’ is a really difficult task since we want to maintain engagements with Teachers, and of course, it being driven by the system makes it that much more challenging.  

About the Author: Suganya Sankaran

Suganya Sankaran currently consults with SwaTaleem Foundation, where she works on strengthening partnership efforts to mobilize resources for supporting adolescent girls studying at KGBV schools to have access to contextual and meaningful education. She is a Young India Fellow (batch of 2017) and a Mother Teressa Fellow (batch of 2020).