The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people profoundly across the world, regardless of age, education, income, or gender. However, the negative consequences have hit already vulnerable populations the hardest. One of the most damaging impacts of the pandemic on communities worldwide, has been the disruption to educational institutions. As per UNICEF, at the height of the global COVID-19 lockdowns, around 1.5 billion schoolchildren were affected by school closures1.
The potential negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on girls’ education and learning in particular, are numerous and diverse. The pandemic has led to higher workloads for girls at home and further limited their mobility; extreme poverty has resulted due to loss of livelihoods; cases of gender-based violence have increased, with girls and women having no way of escaping the violence or reporting it due to tensions in the home; and early marriages have increased, due to people losing their livelihoods and the need to alleviate poverty.
In partnership with BT, we co-created a three-year strategic programme using technology to inform – and transform – the lives of adolescent girls in India. This joint programme - designed to empower students through information and skills-building and directly improve the lives of 100,000 girls and reach a further 500,000 over three years – has allowed us to positively intervene and support young girls through the pandemic.
As the pandemic took hold during 2020, we at the British Asian Trust together with our partner BT, recognised the challenges being faced by young people, especially adolescent girls in India. With support from BT including more than 200 staff volunteers, our NGO partners, Etasha Society, Mentor Together, Going to School, Transform Schools, IT for Change and Breakthrough India were able to pivot their work in simple yet innovative ways to ensure young girls continued to learn.
Through telephone surveys and door-to-door visits by those with access to the communities, our NGO partners gauged the levels of digital access and infrastructure among project participants. While a digital-only solution is seen as a way to access students when schools are closed, partners were aware that girls were unlikely to have easy access to devices. Instead, partners chose a mixed approach where digital solutions were complemented by low-tech and offline solutions. The following outlines some of these.
Going to School’s Map of Me programme increases the employability and aspirations of young girls across Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata, through a comprehensive curriculum and bite-sized fun content that connects employability and skills training with changing gender stereotypes. Besides digitising their content and curriculum for digital reach, the team also created a unique TV show to reach those students without access to digital solutions. Map of Me TV which airs on local Doordarshan channels, is a talk show hosted by young students themselves and explores the theme of women at work in the city. BT volunteers have contributed fun videos with helpful tips and highlighting skills needed for young women to navigate and succeed in the workplace. The programme has already reached more than 17 million young people across India, helping them learn new skills even during school closures!
Transform Schools’ who digitised their STEM-CODE curriculum, chose to build the capacity of the teachers instead of directly intervening with students who were grappling with low digital access and competing demands on their time. The STEM CODE curriculum supports government school students in Kolkata to improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) compatibilities, teaches critical digital skills and helps young girls break gender stereotypes that limit their potential. The team focused on building the capacity of science and maths teachers to deliver digital teaching-learning and engaged students through WhatsApp groups. Teachers were also supported with resources customised to the student cohort. This capacity building also incorporated gender-sensitisation training to help teachers understand how gender disparities were exacerbated by the pandemic and enabled teachers to support girls to continue learning during school closures. So far, more than 4,000 girls have been reached through these digital lessons. A team of BT volunteers are working closely with the partner to design and code a micro-site to host all the newly digitised teaching-learning materials. This site will not only ease access but also scale up the reach of these resources to multiple states where Transform is working.
Breakthrough digitised their content, but knowing the reality of digital access in their communities, chose to deliver it in-person using tablets and smartphones. Breakthrough works across schools in Jhajjar and Gurgaon to build positive gender norms for adolescents to respond to gender-based discrimination and access critical life skills around their aspirations and career. Once lockdown eased, Breakthrough worked with community members to source devices and identify spaces such as homes and Anganwadi centres (community childcare centres) to hold small group sessions. Older youth, who were previously beneficiaries of the BT programme, helped coordinate with community members and parents, and encouraged students to attend sessions. On occasion, siblings and even parents have listened in or participated in these sessions, encouraging dialogue on gender and discrimination. Breakthrough with support from BT, will be building the capacity of the older youth who stepped up to help, become local youth leaders and drive change from within the community.
These initiatives and others supported by the BT-British Asian Trust partnership, have helped us drive the narrative about the need to change mindsets and increase focus on developing new skills, as key to young people building agency and sustainable opportunities for the future. We have seen that tackling gender-based discrimination and giving girls equal opportunities, has resulted in young women and men adopting positive gender norms. And when girls have the knowledge and skills to speak about gender equality and assert their rights and agency through digitally-enabled capacity building, the sky’s the limit.
As we welcome 2021, we are determined to work towards achieving our goal of creating a favourable educational ecosystem for girls to go beyond limits.
The British Asian Trust and BT have an ambitious three-year CSR partnership that aims to empower 100,000 adolescent girls across India through innovative tech-based projects. These projects are improving outcomes for girls during the critical stage of adolescence, across health and agency, education, and economic opportunities. In addition to working with the young girls directly, partners also work with critical stakeholders, and gatekeepers in the young girls’ lives to drive change in behaviour and attitudes to create an enabling and safer environment for adolescent girls.