Where schools are a ‘fragile lifeline’ for girls…

Even as RI President Holger Knaack advised the incoming district governors at the zone institute aptly titled ‘The Odyssey’ to embrace the digital era, the organisers managed to pull off a remarkably impressive virtual institute. Rotary India’s trio comprising RI director Kamal Sanghvi, RIDE Mahesh Kotbagi (who chaired GETS) and institute chair PDG Sanjay Khemka harnessed solid hard work, creativity and some slick and creative technology to give the feel of a physical event. You logged in, took a virtual walk to the central auditorium and other areas. The whole experience left you marvelling at the constant innovation that technology enables.

As I traversed the galaxy, session after session, Sanghvi’s statement that the institute team had tried hard to get the best women speakers too, in consonance with Rotary’s goal to not only increase women’s membership but also leadership, rang true. Some of the women speakers really dazzled, giving us hard truths about the pandemic from both a professional and a gender perspective. WHO chief scientist Sowmya Swaminathan, in her signature, no-fuss fashion, explained to the delegates how and why some of the most developed countries had recorded high Covid infections and mortality rates. This was because of failure to invest adequately in a robust public healthcare system so essential to deal effectively with epidemics and pandemics. Her message was clear — such investments do not give tangible results but are crucial in prevention and control of a plethora of diseases.

Both Sowmya and UNICEF India head, Yasmin Ali Haque, tugged at the heartstrings of Rotary leaders attending the institute with shocking figures on how this pandemic has been much harsher on girls and women. Sowmya pointed out that both domestic violence and trafficking of women have insidiously increased in the Covid-19 era, and urged Rotarians and world leaders to also deal with the corona aftermath with “compassion”. Haque painted a grim scenario of how severely the education of girls has been affected. She said UNESCO estimates that globally 11 million girls might not return to school this year due to the unprecedented disruption in schooling during the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, “an estimated 30 million children in India were out of schools; 40 per cent being adolescent girls.” Also, in India girls get 4.4 years in school compared to seven years for boys. “This indicates the threat to decades of work in gender equality and also puts girls at the risk of adolescent pregnancy, early forced marriage and violence. We, of course, have the dubious distinction of having one of the largest shares of child brides in the world, and this is predicted to rise due to the pandemic. In June and July 2020 alone distress calls to Childline India related to early marriage of girls went up 17 per cent. You wanted to cry when she said: “For many girls, school is more than a key to a better future. It is a lifeline, albeit a fragile one.” Ponder over this….

As also the inequity in accessing digital learning tools by girls compared to boys, and how disastrous this will be in an era in which more and more learning will shift to online platforms in the future.

Even though fragile, let us provide the lifeline of education to our girls, and then handhold them to safer shores and a future filled with hope.

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Rasheeda Bhagat

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