As schools across the country remain shut for the fifth consecutive month this year, Khabar Lahariya reports from on the ground in rural UP on how the pandemic is affecting young girls’ education and future prospects.

“Online matlab?” asks Anshu, a befuddled 6th grader studying in Karvai, Banda. He doesn’t realize that he is playing truant from school, because for him – school as a concept ceased to exist once the coronavirus lockdown hit the country. Almost five months into the lockdown, its effects continue to percolate, affecting an oft-overlooked, but extremely vulnerable population: students. While Anshu may be able to enjoy the perks of no school for a while, his female classmates are experiencing a host of disastrous effects; gendered disempowerment, centuries of treating women like second class citizens – and a pandemic is proving to be a noxious cocktail indeed.

Most drastically, instances of early marriages have shot up after poverty exacerbated by the lockdown has compelled many families into pulling their daughters out of school to sell them into marriage. Families do this in the hopes of both being relieved of a financial ‘burden’ and gaining monetary compensation in exchange for their daughters. Fortunately, Shanti, a 12-year-old, managed to escape such a fate due to the timely action of local authorities. However, we spoke to her family to try and understand how the situation got so dire.
Sunita, Shanti’s mother says, “They gave us money, we thought it’d bring us out of poverty. They said they would support us financially, that they’ll take care of our family. Make sure we have food and basic necessities.” For families already struggling, the unemployment hastened by the lockdown has led to desperate times.
Shanti’s father Phool Kumar, who works as a labourer says, “I told [the potential groom’s family] that I’m not interested in forming any familial relationships with them. One day he came and threatened me asking me to give him my daughter otherwise he’d bring men here. I retaliated by saying take her if you want, I don’t care. After that, he said that if something were to happen, my family or I would not go to jail.
I told them explicitly that I was not interested in forming any family relations with them right now, but my daughter will come to their family after some years. I don’t want my daughter to say I sold her off…I was in no hurry to marry her off, I just thought they’d help me out in these times. If someone powerful tries to intimidate me or if I go to work in the city, they’d take care of my family because then they’d be our relatives. It made sense to me to take their offer. I was earning a living, supporting my family, by doing some labour work. Many times we all go to bed hungry…we’ve all been starving, that’s why we went there.” 
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act was enforced in November 2007, which makes the marriage of girls under 18 an illegal offence. However, the law reigns supreme only on paper. According to United Nations estimates, India has seen 102 million child marriages, with cases in Uttar Pradesh constituting a whopping 36 million of these cases. Shockingly, 898 such cases have been reported and stopped in Uttar Pradesh alone since the beginning of the lockdown. One shudders to think how many cases have slipped under the radar.
Children’s Security Officer, Saurabh Singh clarifies, “We have a Women’s Welfare Organization working for us…on our group, a message via Childline Chitrakoot was dropped, and we received a call about a child marriage taking place in Naini Bangar village. Taking quick action on the matter, I talked to the Gram Pradhan. Once the Gram Pradhan Mahesh Gautam told us that the situation was under control, I talked to the Child Welfare officer, Yogendra Patel of Rajapur Police Station.
I informed the SHO about the whole situation and urged him to call both families and conduct a proper investigation. He assured me he’ll take care of the matter. He called both families to the police station and stopped the marriage. A notice was sent reminding the entire village that child marriage is a criminal offence. Strict action will be taken against anyone who is found involved in child marriage.”

According to United Nations estimates, India has seen 102 million child marriages, with cases in Uttar Pradesh constituting a whopping 36 million of these cases.

However, Abhimanyu, the Director of Childline Chitrakoot draws attention to the larger social structures leading to this spike in the outlawed practice in the region: “In a sad turn of events, a family was marrying off their 10-year-old daughter because they didn’t have any food in the house. This is raising questions about poverty and hunger. Even the young girl said that poverty was the reason she was being married off on May 17– a wedding that was stopped by the police.
The wedding was stopped no doubt, but one does wonder about the future of the girl, the future of that family. After questioning everyone here regarding the incident, one realises that government campaigns aren’t helping them. I mean, not even government housing was given to this family. Even their ration card hasn’t been made. Once the mother came back after begging for food, the person who had given the food decided to take advantage [of them] by presenting an offer. Because there is such a serious hunger crisis in the family, as a solution, they decide to marry off their daughter. The government efforts for Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and protecting young girls– why have they failed to reach the interiors of Chitrakoot district?”
Shanti is a child who didn’t even know what marriage was when she was being sold off to support her family. School is often a haven for vulnerable girls like her since it offers them resources to empower themselves, while also providing them with meals and school supplies as an incentive to their families to educate their girl children.
Some schools, such as the one run by Virendra ‘Sam’ Singh in Anoopshahr, also offer the girls who enrol clothes, books, transport, and a monetary fund that they can access once they graduate class 12. However, with the lockdown disrupting regular schooling, and classes supposedly moving online – girls are being forced to return to a life of domesticity. Their schooling is seen as an unseemly interruption and unnecessary luxury in these tough times when their labour is allegedly valued more than their intelligence, education, independence, or future prospects.
Lockdowns across the world have pushed about 1.5 billion students out of school since March, according to a United Nations Children’s Fund report citing data from UNESCO – including 111 million girls in the world’s least developed countries. The UNESCO-backed Global Education Coalition, warns that continued disruption of regular schooling will exacerbate existing inequalities and increase the likelihood of many children never returning to the classroom– most of whom will inevitably be girls. Heather Simpson, Chief Program Officer of non-profit educational organisation Room to Read, says in an interview with The Telegraph, “We know that with school closures, girls, especially in low-income communities, are at higher risk of increased gender-based violence, early marriage and a higher rate of [child] pregnancy.”
Yet, the pandemic hasn’t spared even those girls who have managed to escape this vicious cycle of poverty and gendered disenfranchisement to pursue their education in big cities. These girls were preparing to make waves as mechanical engineers, IAS officers and a gamut of other professions. However, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into their well-laid plans.

Lockdowns across the world have pushed about 1.5 billion students out of school since March, according to a United Nations Children’s Fund report citing data from UNESCO.

Anshika Gupta, who has been preparing for the SSC-JE in Prayagraj for over two years states,
“The pandemic has seriously affected our studies. There are some free online classes which are helpful, but the others that aren’t free hamper me from fully preparing for the exam. The internet works alright, but my data gets over pretty quickly, and because our classes are 4 to 5 hours long, it becomes a problem for me.”
Pratibha Tiwari, a fellow student, concurs – “Yes, the lockdown has severely affected our future prospects, because, for instance, we were going to apply for apprenticeships, but many companies are shutting down because of the lockdown. Now we won’t get a chance to be apprentices, which would have eventually led to a job, so that’s a big problem.”
Parimala Nishad looks despondent when she says, “The lockdown has greatly affected my studies; I’m not able to study at all. We can’t do this online, nor are videos reaching us regularly. And we can’t even find websites online– everything is partial, glitchy and incomplete. On our phones, we have network problems, but also battery issues. And so many people also don’t have phones. To study online, it is necessary that everyone has a phone.
These are very serious problems hindering our studies. In fact, from July 11 onwards we have exams, but how do we even write them? I’m actually very worried because this is my last semester and if I get a ‘Back’ [fail grade] then my last three years of effort will go to waste, and so will my future prospects. We can’t even leave to go study elsewhere because of the coronavirus. I just wanted to study diligently for three years and then land a government job.”
Even before the lockdown, the girls of Bundelkhand have been alienated from the world of smartphones and the internet, while they watched their brothers devour the wonders of the virtual age. Parimala shines a light on the fundamental inequality that underlies dreams of online education and instruction: the precarity of access, marked (at the very least) by gender and class.

While online classes may demonstrate the wonders of technology for richer students in metropolitan cities, it seems almost laughable in rural Bundelkhand. On top of that, some private schools in Chitrakoot and other areas sent home fee slips during the lockdown in May – despite clear instructions by the authorities to waive off school fees for three months.
“How do we pay? We are being asked to pay for three months at once. The poor populace has no means to clear the dues right now, only the well-off may be able to continue these kinds of payments,” complained Vimal Kumar Gupta, a student guardian. On the schools attempting to disseminate online education, he says: “Not every person is roaming with a smartphone here. It just means that a few students are studying and the rest are not. Won’t my kids be left behind in their studies?”
If the students are so deeply affected, the situation isn’t better on the teachers’ front either. Shiv Varan, a teacher from Banda comments wryly, “How can we teach online when we don’t have money to buy a phone? Even if we get a loan to buy a phone, no shops are open.” In the meantime, the Education Department is convinced that the 1392 primary schools and 640 junior schools of Banda are functioning without a glitch. However, they too admit that they cannot include students who are poor and who cannot afford phones.

Harishchandra Nath, an education officer states, “There are many challenges with regard to online classes. First off, we need to motivate students from poor families, that’s our biggest challenge. Also, several students and families don’t have android phones. We are looking into these issues to ensure maximum participation and benefit to the students.” Nath insists that “The students who can’t study well, or who cannot access this education will be provided with remedial classes when schools reopen, in order to rectify the imbalance.” However, given the government’s track record at breaking their promises, we might as well predict the burgeoning of further inequalities – those of the rich and poor, men and women, the haves and the have nots.
Also Read:
Domestic Violence Cases continue to spike, but who is Listening?
Meet the brave women frontline fighters against COVID-19 in rural UP
In Banda- Men may not work but women’s unpaid work has spiked up
Reproductive needs still falling short in UP’s quarantine planning
COVID-19 Spells doom for an already shrinking Rural Female Workforce
Co-published with Breakthrough.