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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #032 – Khan & Lall

By CEID Blogger, on 24 June 2020

COVID-19, Child Labour and Education: Hidden Gender Issues in India

By Feroz Khan & Marie Lall

The nationwide lockdown to protect citizens from the spread of COVID-19 has impacted 300 million students in India who were enrolled in 1.4 million schools and 51,000 colleges. At the time of this writing, it is unclear when schools will reopen; a review of the situation has been promised mid-August. Temporary school closures and shifting to ‘online teaching’ affect girls and boys differently. Women have less access to technology in India compared to boys. The absence or limited access to technology and resources also decreases the possibilities of the girls continuing their schooling, particularly girls belonging to low income families, living in remote and rural areas. The incidence will likely lead to an increase in the number of girls dropping out from schools in India. Previous evidence shows that in the situation of a crisis – such as natural disasters or economic upheavals – the incidence of girls dropping out from schools increases.

The reverse migration of Indians living abroad (comprising both skilled and unskilled workers) due to the lockdown and financial crisis induced by coronavirus may further intensify the occurrence of girls dropping out from schools. This is mainly due to the projected fall in remittances. India, the highest-remittances receiving country, could witness a 23 per cent decline possibly only receiving USD 64 billion in 2020 as compared to 83 billion USD in 2019. A reduction in remittances will likely lead to a reduction in investment in education, especially for girls. This is because, under the patriarchal system, the wellbeing of boys is prioritised over that of girls in the family.

In addition, many Indian living abroad are expected to return and get involved in agriculture, retail or small family shops and businesses. These areas promote unpaid child labour. According to India’s last Census in 2011, child labour in India constitutes 10.1 million of which 5.6 million are boys and 4.5 million are girls. Moreover, the invisible and the unpaid nature of their work hide away their rights and undervalued their work. Children who get involved in these activities may be less attentive or show less interest in their studies due to work pressure. The exact impact on girls from declining remittances and unpaid child labour should be carefully watched in the coming weeks and months by researchers and government alike.

The return of people from cities to areas of their origin – or what is termed as internal migration –may also further escalate the challenges of job and livelihood in India, placing additional burdens on girls. The shutdown of factories, businesses and markets in cities have reduced the job opportunities and a large section of casual workers or daily wage earners are losing their jobs in the informal economy. Once families are back in villages, far from the cities they used to live and work in, many children may not get a chance to go back to school when they open up again. Moreover, families with large numbers of children or elderly or sick people may encourage girls to discontinue their studies to take care of chores at home.

Insecurities and Vulnerabilities

 For most girls in India, learning household work is a part of their socialisation; these norms become their entire reality. From a young age girls are instructed by their mother or other members of the household how to behave and work. In this process, they gain the skill of homemaking and internalise traditional gender norms. Because of the coronavirus, the duties and responsibilities of girls and young women such as taking care of elderly, sick people within the family, or parents and siblings along with their daily household chores has increased. Further, the epidemic has intensified their challenges at home, including possible domestic and sexual violence.

The economic stress on families due to job loss can put children, especially girls, at higher risk of entering the labour market. In fact there are already reports of children selling vegetable to supplement family income and child trafficking. For many families, particularly from the informal sector, the small income that children earn, will be required to feed the family and to meet the expenses on essential commodities such as medicines. Girls are mostly engaged in work that is largely invisible in nature; such as agriculture, domestic help, brick kiln work, slavery and prostitution. Engaging in such invisible work can make a worker the victim of isolation and neglect. They often work for long hours with no day off in a week.

The unavailability of authentic data or any government or non-governmental reports make it quite difficult to control the situation and the nature of invisible working children, especially at the time of COVID-19. For girls, the limited ambit of the Child Labour and Protection Act makes them more vulnerable to exploitation. Child labour deprives them of access to education and exposes them to violence, child marriage, teenage pregnancy, and trafficking ending in a vicious cycle of poverty. Moreover, child labour deprives these children of their childhood and hampers their physical and mental development. The Indian government needs to step up and develop gender sensitive policy measures before child labour becomes an even bigger concern for India.

Feroz Khan is a Research Associate at Institute for Research & Development in School Education (IRDSE). Marie Lall is a professor in education and South Asian Studies at the UCL Institute of Education.

Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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