Several countries are now struggling with the post lockdown situation while addressing the health hazards that surfaced after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. Lifting lockdowns, then imposing further restrictions to contain the rising coronavirus cases has been a regular phenomenon being observed all over the world. It is imperative that all forces work together to fight this disease, but it is equally important to give full attention to how this pandemic is impacting the future generations worldwide. The Government of Nepal has given importance to child education with a priority on girls mainly from the marginalised communities. However, now international data and Nepal specific statistics are raising alarm that the good work done so far could be undone if proper strategies are not applied. According to UNICEF, while the available evidence indicates the direct impact of COVID-19 on child and adolescent mortality to be very limited, the indirect effects on child survival stemming from strained health systems, household income loss, and disruptions to care-seeking and preventative interventions like vaccination may be substantial and widespread. As per a study by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health covering 118 low and middle income countries, an additional 1.2 million under-five deaths could occur in just six months due to reductions in routine health service coverage levels and an increase in child wasting. Wasting is a form of acute malnutrition characterised by a loss of body weight in relation to height, which increases a child’s risk of infection and death and decreases their ability to learn. The same report cites that as many as 132 million people may go hungry in 2020 out of which 36 million are estimated to be children. Due to COVID-19, about 80 million children under the age of 1 in at least 68 countries may miss out on receiving life-saving vaccines. According to the latest analysis from UNICEF and Save the Children, the ongoing crisis could increase the number of children living in monetary poor households by up to 117 million by the end of 2020. Immediate loss of income often means families are less able to afford basics, including food and water. They are less likely to access healthcare or education, and are more at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse. When hardships befall, it has been seen time and again that the most vulnerable people are hit the hardest. All children are affected but girls and children with disabilities are impacted more by pandemics like COVID -19. A survey conducted among low-income communities in eight countries of Asia and Africa gives alarming statistics that around 1 in 2 girls, or approximately 49 per cent, are at higher risk of not returning to school once they are safe to reopen. This research was conducted in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Tanzania from April to June this year by Room to Read, an NGO working on Girls Education in low income societies to help them stay in school and realise their dreams of improving their and their communities’ livelihoods. The research was conducted while many countries were under lockdowns imposed by their governments to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The same research exposed that in Nepal the risk was slightly more than the other countries. Here too, the rounded figure came to be 1 out of 2 girls, but, approximating to 53 per cent. Pushkar Lal Shrestha, Nepal Country Director at Room to Read, said that most of the girls in the communities they were working with were currently involved in domestic chores and did not have access to the remote education that other children were getting. As their families were having negative economic impact of COVID-19, they were being pushed into financial hardships and that there were possibilities that these girls would not be able to keep up with their academics and might not return back to schools after they reopened. He hoped that the findings of the survey would help local and national governments and other similar organisations to develop strategies on how to retain these girls who were at high risk of being dropped out, thus pushing them into the vicious cycles of poverty. The Room to Read survey shows that among the 3,992 girls surveyed in Banke, Bardiya, Nuwakot and Tanahun districts through June 2020, 45 per cent of girls reported their households had lost a job or income during the pandemic – a factor that leads to school dropout of girls. In the communities where the organisation works, even a minor disruption to income can have devastating effects on family well-being and opportunities for education. Sixteen per cent of the girls said they had stopped learning since school closures, introducing the risk that girls will hesitate to return to school or will have difficulty catching up and passing important gate-keeping exams when they do return; and 7 per cent of girls state they are already concerned that they will not return to school. The reasons include the need to work or provide care, lack of parental support and limited financial resources. Salina Tamang, Manager, Girls’ Education Programme, Room to Read Nepal, says that keeping girls at school is already a difficult task, but this pandemic is keeping girls away from school and is putting them at higher risk just because of the gender roles they tend to play. The data revealed by this survey is extremely alarming and that now is the time for the government and the civil societies to come up with strategies for ensuring that children from marginalised communities and economically-weaker ones stay in connection with education.
(Namrata Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights and can be reached at email@example.com Twitter handle: NamrataSharmaP)