COVID-19 rolls back progress on female education in India

Author: Monika Chaudhary, IIHMR University In the 2011 census, the female literacy rate in India was 65.2 per cent. The school dropout rate for girls was 52.2 per cent. The reasons cited for the high dropout rate included the high cost of education, household or subsistence labour, desire to work, early marriage, school accessibility, safety, […] The post COVID-19 rolls back progress on female education in India first appeared on East Asia Forum.

COVID-19 rolls back progress on female education in India

Author: Monika Chaudhary, IIHMR University

In the 2011 census, the female literacy rate in India was 65.2 per cent. The school dropout rate for girls was 52.2 per cent. The reasons cited for the high dropout rate included the high cost of education, household or subsistence labour, desire to work, early marriage, school accessibility, safety, sanitation concerns in schools and a lack of interest in studies.

The right to education was legislated in India in 2009. A declining poverty rate, expanding school infrastructure and changes in social attitudes have increased enrolments over the last decade. A number of initiatives have been key to pushing numbers up, including the Swachh Bharat Mission, a national sanitation and hygiene program. It contributed to the doubling of schools with boundary walls and usable toilets. In 2008, more than 20 per cent of 15–16 year old girls were not enrolled, declining significantly to 13.5 per cent in 2018. And in 2018, for the first time, the dropout rate for females was lower than males at the primary and secondary level.

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the critical progress that has been achieved. Up to 10 million girls are at risk of dropping out of secondary school due to the pandemic.

Widening gender inequality and increasing poverty is placing female education at greater risk. The gender parity index value — the ratio of girls to boys in education — had long been less than one. In the last couple years, it has equalised, but the pandemic has increased poverty, reversed migration and job losses — risking school dropouts, particularly for vulnerable girls.

Girls are at greater risk of being deprived of their education as they are pushed towards paid and unpaid labour as well as child marriage in times of crisis. It is likely that many adolescent girls who stop going to school during the pandemic will never return.

Populous states such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have lower female literacy rates than the national average. The risk of girls dropping out during pandemic and ending up in early marriage, pregnancy, trafficking, and violence is higher in these states.

In Bihar, a lack of school infrastructure has meant longer travel distances to attend school. In Bihar’s poorer regions, the state government had provided bicycles to girls. This led to good results as the number of girls registering for school increased from 175,000 to 600,000 in four years. But now schools have been closed for over a year and re-registering those from rural areas is set to become a major challenge.

As the new school session begins in July, the government should collect gender segregated data from village councils in rural areas. The change in school enrolments for girls should be carefully tracked. Online education will likely continue for some time, potentially limiting the value of education, and parents who have become used to having their daughters home may not want to send them back to in-person study. Gathering better data about enrolments would help inform the strategies and kinds of action needed to reach out to girls at risk of dropping out.

Home visits by educational representatives including teachers to motivate girls to re-register could be one such approach. Scholarships and cash transfers is another that would make a difference in keeping the poorest girls in school.

The caste system has always been a factor that deters school education for children coming from marginalised communities. Over 50 per cent of Dalit children drop out of school. The female enrolment ratio for scheduled castes has always been low. Providing these families with the monetary means for enrolment will bring more children back to school, and the greatest impact would be felt by females on the edge of dropping out. Educational aids and counselling may also be required.

Midday Meal, a school-based lunch program, was designed to increase enrolments in the spirit of universal access to education. The program has been particularly effective at boosting female enrolment. Over the course of the pandemic, the government issued food security allowances for children forced to study at home. Yet a performance audit has indicated that children still do not receive food at home in some states. It is critical to bring children back to school not just for their educational needs but also for their health and nutritional needs.

Many children missed out on education during the pandemic because they did not have access to online educational resources. Yet the pandemic has made it possible to develop new real-time online education models. The government should increase funding for research into viable online education models, particularly for poor girls in remote rural areas. Digitalisation could present breakthroughs for the future of equal education in India.

Girls’ education is an important factor in economic development — numerous studies have demonstrated that GDP increases with female education. A reversal of India’s progress will bring long-term adverse developmental impacts unless greater action is taken.

Monika Chaudhary is Associate Professor of Strategy and Finance at IIHMR University, Jaipur and Associate Faculty at Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University.

The post COVID-19 rolls back progress on female education in India first appeared on East Asia Forum.
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US Defense Secretary's Troubled Southeast Asia Visit

But China’s hostile policies in SCS also gain it no friends

US Defense Secretary's Troubled Southeast Asia Visit

By: B A Hamzah

The three-day visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to drum up regional support to confront China, which started today (July 28) in Singapore couldn’t have come at a worse time as Southeast Asia struggles to roll back the Covid-19 pandemic. Governments all over the region are preoccupied with matters of life and death – and in some cases, political survival.

The challenge to public health, economy, and the social fabric is unprecedented. There is no regional country which is not worried as Covid-19 is an issue that risks mutating into a political crisis –the P variant – as thousands more people contract the hyper-transmissible Delta variant. The global death toll from this invisible virus is more than 4.2 million with infections totaling 196 million and counting.

Source: ISEAS

Hospitals are full and overflowing. In some countries, the sick must sleep on the floor and along congested corridors. Front-liners are exhausted. They too have been infected. Resources are getting scarcer and patience with inept governments is getting thinner.

The region is further troubled by the adverse impact of climate change. There is severe flooding in some parts of China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Failure to deal with these domestic concerns is slowly taking a toll on regime stability. In Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, many unhappy netizens are calling for regime change. As the trust deficit gets wider, as more people lose jobs, and the hospitals get crowded, we can expect more demonstrations and street protests.

With so many domestic issues on their plates, geopolitics has taken a back seat for many Asean member states. This is not the time to push for a geopolitical agenda like building a coalition against China, our neighbor, which has made 29 percent of its total free vaccine donations to Southeast Asia.

Of course, out of politeness, and as a matter of diplomatic courtesy bordering political expediency, the leaders in the region have lent an ear to the visiting US defense secretary. Nonetheless, while Austin’s choice for stopover in three cities is practical, skipping Indonesia, a key member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is not wise.

The Vietnam stop over makes plenty of sense. Vietnam portrays itself as being at odds with China, a situation that pleases Washington. Vietnam has gone to war with China twice recently, in 1979 and 1988. Despite losing the two wars, Vietnam continues to challenge its neighbor in the disputed Spratly and the Paracels. Although Hanoi and Beijing are at odds with each other mainly at sea, the ruling communist parties remain on good terms and maintain a cordial relationship.

The Philippines has been a treaty ally of the US since 1951 and hence Manila is expected to give unfettered support in the event of a US military confrontation with China. The unpredictable President Duterte has been critical of the US and unlikely to allow the US military to use the Philippines’ territory against China as provided for under the 1951 Treaty. Nor would he allow Philippines soldiers, in my view, to join the US to fight China under his watch. However, his six-year term will expire in May 2022, and he will be ineligible for re-election. Washington is hoping a more friendly person is elected president.

Whoever replaces Duterte as president, however, will find it hard not to continue with his foreign policy of avoiding military conflict with China in its archipelagic waters. On balance, Duterte’s overtures towards China receive a mixed review. China has not been very gracious in returning Duterte’s goodwill. Many Filipinos feel they have been shortchanged despite Duterte’s kowtow to set aside the decision of the international arbitration (2016) on China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Manila expected Beijing to be more forthcoming. On the contrary, Chinese fishermen continue to steal fish from the Scarborough Reefs. The presence of more than 200 fishing boats at Whitsun Reef in March this year – filled with cadres instead of fishermen – is alarming, business as usual.

Singapore is a key military partner of the US in the region. US forces need access to basing facilities and airfields on the island state to support military operations.

There is a presumption in Washington that the countries in Southeast Asia are supportive of the US anti-China policy. Austin’s choice of stopover suggests a US long-term policy of engaging with states in the region that Washington believes will carry the US can. After years of neglecting the region, in my view, no regime in Asean, not even Singapore, would be willing to get entangled in a US-led military confrontation with China. Although many have subscribed to the US-led economic groupings like the Pacific Economic Cooperation Community as well as the scuttled Transpacific Trade Partnership Agreement, no one in the region wants to go to war with Beijing.

Fighting a US war against China is not an option for an Asean that maintains strong cultural and economic ties with China, especially in trade. The US and other anti-China members of the Quad –the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, for example – are transactional powers; moreover, they are not from the region. Unlike the QUADS members, no Asean member states consider China a threat to their security. Even the Asean states with territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnam included, do not refer to China as an enemy state in their official publications.

This doesn’t mean the claimant states tolerate China’s hostile activities in the South China Sea. However, they prefer to deal through diplomatic means and where diplomacy failed, as in the case of the Philippines, they will resort to legal recourse like arbitration, for example.

Two claimant states are likely to take China for arbitration if China continues to intimidate the activities of their companies in the disputed waters. Reports of recent aerial incursions in the Malaysian airspace in mid-June this year have not gone well with a country that has gone out of its way to please China.

As Asean countries review their security concerns and priorities the fact that China has been their neighbor since time memorial is not lost on them. Asean countries will likely stay out of any effort by those who want to wage war against China for reasons best known to them. We, in Asean have no business getting caught in the crosshairs as the US and its coalition members prepare for war. Their war is not our war.

All things equal, however, it takes two to tango. China must not take Asean friendship for granted. It cannot continue with its hostile policies in the South China Sea and hope all the claimant states will keep quiet. There is a limit to Asean patience. The minimum China could do is to stop using force in its relations with all stakeholders as a matter of national policy.


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