The 'Great Unequalizer': How the Pandemic is Impacting School Education Among Girls in India

Uddipta Roy - Intern ( Gender Equality Mandate)

Shreya Anand - Intern ( Gender Equality Mandate)

Picture Credit: David Lofman/Save the Children

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from being the ‘equalizer’, it is actually a ‘great unequalizer’. There are multiple ways in which the pandemic interacts with the existing social cleavages to further disadvantage the marginalized in unprecedented ways.The year 2020 poses the risk of irreversible setbacks and lost progress, especially for girls. Our failure to respond promptly will result in disastrous consequences for girls in India, leaving them at risk of exploitation. According to the 'Lives Upended' report launched by UNICEF, school closures have had a massive impact on the 247 million children enrolled in schools, there is strong evidence of increased dropout rates, especially amongst girls.

Moreover, the existing socio-cultural position of women in a patriarchal society also plays a role in increasing dropout rates during the ongoing pandemic. In India, violence against the girl child begins even before she is born, evident from the gender ratio itself (1000 men for every 940 women in India, as per the 2011 census). Due to this societal preference of the male child over females in India, the ongoing crisis is more likely to affect female education. Additionally, according to Emily E. Tanner Smith & Sandra Jo Wilson in their paper , an impending economic slowdown will increase direct costs and opportunity costs of sending girls to school in an already unequal society. This paper seeks to elucidate on the variegated ways in which COVID-19 is affecting school education of women and girls in India.

Locating the Female in Indian Classrooms:

The Gross Enrollment Rates(GER) and the Gender Parity Index (GPI) based on GER (2015-16) in the Educational Statistics at Glance 2018 published by the Department of School Education & Literacy Statistics Division, Government of India suggests a rather overly optimistic picture-indicating that gross enrollments have been favorable to the female. The apparent advantage decreases in case of SC and ST populations. There are notable levels of variation in the GPI values across different states.

Source: Educational Statistics at Glance, 2018.

The data for literacy rates presented in the same document states considerable gender gaps ( for instance, more than 15% difference in male and female literacy rates across rural and urban spaces combined for populations above 5 years of age). In the article - Struggling to Learn1 , Dr. Jean Dreze, highlighting the major findings of the seminal PROBE2, notes that school enrollment does not indicate regular attendance; in fact, almost in all the schools surveyed, children’s attendance was lower than enrollment rates. This, along with multiple factors, lead to a complex situation where even the formally enrolled and often promoted pupils remain illiterate, a fact admitted in the National Education Policy, 2020.

Citing the findings of PROBE, Dr. Amartya Sen, one of his essays3 states that unwillingness of the parents to educate their girl child is a wrong diagnosis of gender gaps in education; the high or complete absence of teachers and lack of physical facilities like deficiency of lavatory facilities or rooms could indicate the disinterest of the girl child or her family in schooling. In this disproportionate system of schooling in India, the COVID-19 has significantly affected the lives of the female pupil.

Picture Credit/India Today

COVID-19: Dislocating Opportunities, Deepening Unfreedom

According to the UNDP report - COVID-19 and Human Development: Assessing the Crisis, Envisioning the Recovery, high out of school rates coupled with the dearth of access to the internet and online resources indicate that primary education is set to drop at rates equivalent to the mid-1980s level. In India, COVID-19 has also widened the gender gap in education. As schools in India have shut down due to the lockdown, and learning has shifted to the online mode. While a large population of the country lives without internet access, there is also a significant gender gap in terms of internet access- 43% of men in India use mobile internet while the number is as low as the 23% for women. Hence, the female child is at a greater risk of social exclusion.

The problem is deep-rooted-multiple unfreedom unleashed by the COVID-19 and the lockdown have large effects in deepening the gender gaps in primary education. For instance, despite free primary education, in many parts of the country, some amount of money is required in order to access textbooks, school uniforms and the loss of livelihoods during the pandemic would certainly mean that families would be unwilling to pay for these expenses. Given that we live in a gendered society, the girl child would be at a greater risk of being rendered out of school due to this resource constraint, especially in families with where they have to make a choice between either educating the male or the female child. The closure of school has stopped the access of school going children to mid-day meals, which means lower child nutrition levels, which in turn would not only generate lower participation in education in a loop reaction, but would also increase the burden on households to additionally fund meals for their children. Gendered norms would imply the male child would get a better share of the limited food at home over their female counterparts, disproportionately affecting their participation in schooling in the long run. The pandemic thus creates negative feedback loops and relational deprivations that affect school education of the female child in a network of complex processes.

Picture Credit/ Economic Times

Possible Implications for future

Education is an economic as well as a social lifter for any group, as it provides access to valuable information, the support of peer and mentor groups and increased employability rates. An increase in rate of exclusion can lead to –

1. Unequal access to information

To highlight this issue, UNICEF in a paper on 'Gender Equality and Covid' declared that there has been a considerable increase in mobile ownership. Women are still less likely to own a phone, compared to their male counterparts. 'Approximately 443 million women are "unconnected" from the digital space' according to the report. This number significantly rises amongst women from low economic backgrounds. Thus, creating a digital divide and, denying the female population access to necessary information further exasperating the gender gap in society.

2. Rising rates of child labour

According to the 'Global Girl Hood' report published by Save the Children, children who are losing out on education are growing more impoverished and at-risk to becoming employed as child laborers. The report suggests, girls are more likely to work double the hours, including household chores and caregiving during the pandemic, and two-thirds of the children involved in child labour are girls: this significantly impacts their mobility, freedom and education.

3. Child Marriage and early pregnancy

According to the World Bank, education is likely to reduce the cases of early marriage and pregnancy by five percentage points in countries. With increasing economic vulnerabilities and additional burden on households, there exists a greater risk of girls being forced to marry and increase in incidents of early pregnancy, according to a paper published by UNICEF. During the lockdown, families living in closed quarters in already cramped households are more likely to marry off their daughters to 'ease their economic burden'. The paper probes that married and pregnant women are less likely to return to school due to social stigma and increased household responsibilities.

4. Trafficking

Save the Children in the 'Global Girl Hood' report, also suggested during a pandemic, girls from marginalized communities and conflict areas pose the risk of being engaged in worse forms of child labour such as sexual exploitation and trafficking. Due to the pandemic and school closures monitoring these cases become harder, these numbers are grossly underrepresented by the state and closure of courts further makes seeking redressal harder.

5. Increased cases of violence

As girls spend more time at home during the pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in cases of domestic and sexual violence. According to an article by the New York Times, the restriction of movement has a direct impact on this violence. These occurrences will further entrench gender disparities diminishing the position of women and staggering their growth.

6. Higher Unemployment Rates

The ILO, in Rapid Assessment of the Impact of the Covid-19, highlighted the impact of the pandemic on employment rates, especially amongst women as the implications for the unorganized sector is far more significant. Amongst 18 million casual workers in India, 92% of the women employed in India work within this sector according to a report published by The Wire. Thus, the pandemic is going to impact the employment rate amongst women drastically, and the decreasing literacy rates will further exacerbate their position.

Picture Credit/ Save the Children

Areas of Concern:

Women can act as drivers of the economy during this impending economic crisis, considering their education and opportunities are included within the pretext of financial and developmental planning. Following are a few areas of concern that can be considered while devising policies to help increase women and girls' economic and social position and mitigate some of the risks –

  • Enhancing community engagement and participation, leveraging community peer networks and working on effective availability of teacher support to sensitize parents in order minimize chances of child marriage and illiteracy and multiple inter-related unfreedom that are associated with the same.

  • Reducing the gender digital divide and making technology equally accessible to girls and boys by active intervention of the state in facilitating equitable ways of online learning.

  • Adopting innovative distance learning practices within the Anganwadi and community surrounding, making education available even during a pandemic.

  • Creating legal and redressal services for women, as they experience increased cases of violence during the pandemic.


The pandemic's influence on school education among girls has been a testament to the idea of social exclusion as relative deprivation, where one capability deprivation influences and triggers multiple other deprivations. As education offers a break away from social atrocities, therefore must be leveraged as a tool to empower and liberate marginalized groups, especially women. Societies must use their resources to advocate for equal access in furthering the eradication of multiple social cleavages.


Uddipta Roy is an Intern for the Gender Equality Mandate at CRRSS. He is currently pursuing Master’s in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. Currently also a Research Associate at LexQuest Foundation,New Delhi, he has previously interned with multiple organisations including the Government of West Bengal and has been involved in various academic projects.

Shreya Anand completed her Bachelors of Arts in Sociology (Hons.) from Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. She is currently working as a consultant to the campaigns team at Save the Children India. Shreya is an ardent advocate of child rights and gender equality. At C.R.R.S.S, she is working as a part of the gender equality mandate as a Research Intern.

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