India has the largest adolescent population in the world – about 243 million, which means that challenges during the pandemic and in days to come, are far too great and need immediate attention. Breakthrough works in 5 states and 17 districts of India, reaching out to over 543,000 adolescents in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana. As we hear from the ground, some of the challenges faced by adolescents during the lockdown are – long closure of schools, lack/absence of access to e-portals for education, stress and social isolation, violence at home, lack of access to health care.
Breakthrough hosted a town hall on 15th May, “Another Pandemic : The Question of Adolescent Well-being”, with adolescent girls sharing experiences during the lockdown during the first session. The second session deliberated on what could be probable strategies, tools and recommendations to address the challenges shared by the adolescents specifically and in general the larger question of adolescent well being.
You can watch the full discussion here:
The recommendations that emerged from the discussion are as follows :-
Access to Education :-
- India is already grappling with a strange nexus of gender-poverty-digital divide and coupled with the pandemic crisis, the worst hit will be children and adolescents. School closures due to the lockdown have a more consequential effect on girls as compared to boys. Primary evidence from the ground suggests that drop out rates for girls are going to increase, along with a rise in early marriage probabilities. Though digital form of education is popular in many of the urban schools, we have to also look into the suitability of such a form of education for rural areas/schools/families. Most of the rural villages do not have internet connection, the phones are always the prerogative of the male members of the family. Under such circumstances ‘access’ and ‘availability’ of online educational facilities seems to be a challenge.
- India is characterised by a very stark digital divide and it is necessary to address that if digital education has to be taken to every adolescent irrespective of location, social status and place. Public investments and efforts are needed to create an ‘optic highway’ so that more number of people can access efficient internet connection.
- In many families especially the poor and underprivileged, phone is still a luxury and hence digital education is a far off probability. A Donation Library can be co-created – where everyone contributes their old phone for education purposes.
- Continuation of education is crucial for adolescents especially girls. They should not be made to drop out of schools and colleges due to the current crisis. We need to collectively work to ensure that the learning process continues. Involving the front line workers for speaking to the communities, families etc can be one of the mechanisms to achieve this.
- Teachers also have a very important role to play in providing a supportive and soothing environment for adolescents. There are positive examples from NGO led schools, where teachers are reaching out to students through phone calls, short videos and messages to inform them about the corona virus, safety precautions, messaging around better tomorrow etc. Fear management through phone calls, interactive messaging, positive interaction will help break the isolation of children.
- In the wake of the current pandemic the learning crisis will even go deeper – hence the need of the hour is to engage with not only adolescents, but also their parents, the community in order to work collectively for robust education systems. Feedback from parents regarding education and learning methods, community based approaches to education, meaningful conversation with adolescent groups in order to make positive changes in their lives are essential. Strong campaigns and messaging around Back to School, Education vis-a-vis Aspirations needs to be advocated for.
Health and related issues :-
- Policy interventions and budgetary allocations should be channeled to issues affecting adolescents especially young girls for eg: nutrition, menstrual health, mental health, redressal of violence etc. Multiple helplines along with other systemic support needs to be in place to address the complaints raised by adolescent girls and boys such as early marriage, abuse and violence at home etc. There is a need for awareness as well as strong response mechanisms around these issues.
- Women’s collectives and adolescent collectives should be strengthened and they can reach out to the heads of families and discuss the need for continuity for education. In the post-lockdown period, the dropout rates from school for adolescents, especially girls, is feared to be extremely high. Such collectives also have an important role to play in fore fronting the issue of health, nutrition and hygiene in the wake of the current crisis. Consistent conversation and engagement with parents and families is necessary.
- Hygiene and safe sanitation practices are of utmost important to control the spread of the pandemic. Majority of the schools in rural areas either have a shortage of toilets, or no separate toilets for girls at all. There should be adequate number of toilets in school and separate ones for girls, and it should be made accessible for students as well.
Well-being and emotional resilience :-
- Migration from the cities back to the villages will have serious socio-economic implications. Fathers, brothers and men of the family who were earlier away, are now back and will have control and restrictions imposed on the girls and children of the family. We need to engage with men and boys of the families to take care of such challenges.
- Since social distancing as a measure to contain the spread of the coronavirus is likely to continue, innovative use of technology should be used for outreach and awareness on gender and adolescent issues. Many of the toolkits and educational kits can be translated/taken to a digital mode and also taken to new communities and places.
- Digital volunteers – people who are expert in handling digital mediums can volunteer their time and efforts for engaging with the adolescents on accessing and acclimatising digital mode of education. Due to the lockdown many of the adolescents have felt isolated, stressed etc. Tele counselling mechanisms have to be set up to deal with mental health issues. It is quite possible to speak to them as well as their parents through digital medium and address the mental health issues of the boys and girls.
- It is crucial to engage adolescents in various ways especially in times of lockdown and social distancing. Peer to peer learning and interaction needs to be nurtured which can motivate the adolescents in such times. The role of parents is crucial here as well, and hence parents and families are an important stakeholder in supporting the children.
- In the light of the current pandemic, we should ensure that earlier work and interventions of NGOs and civil society at the community level should not roll/curtail back. There should be a strategic engagement with the government at different levels – village, district, state and national, for sustained and impactful interventions.
- The PRI (Panchayati Raj Institutions) is an important institution and a crucial link between government and community and civil society. Strengthening of work at gram panchayat level by sensitising the pradhans and PRI members on adolescent related issues and challenges which have become of grave concern due to lockdown and pandemic is important.
- India is a young nation in terms of its adolescent population – “yuva ki nagrikta aur yuva ki netritwa” should be the way ahead – adolescents are rightful citizens and they will be the future leaders as well. They will lead the way in imagining a just and inclusive society in days to come.
- Awareness and sensitisation around digital mode of education needs to be taken to the lowest level of administration – till about the panchayat level for collective ownership and smooth operationalisation.
- A three way partnership between government, civil society and community to reframe our social fabric currently and also after the pandemic crisis is over and address the well-being of the adolescents is required.