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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Härmä

Covid-19 scratches the thin surface of girls’ improving lot in life

I don’t know how many times I have heard people say that Covid-19 is a great leveller, but I have yet to see any evidence of its being anything of the sort. In London, Edinburgh and myriad other cities the pandemic has thrown the careers of the increasing numbers of the self-employed middle classes off course, and has brought extreme stress and uncertainty. For the young and poor pushed into ‘self-employment’ in what we now call the ‘gig economy’, it has brought destitution, but the effects cannot be more severe than for those in the slums of Delhi and Mumbai as their landlords, acutely aware of their tenants’ daily wage-earning status and the over-night evaporation of the possibility of earning daily wages, have made it clear that they will not be suffered to stay on in their shoddy homes beyond their last rental payment.

The pandemic has made the lives of the poor worse in every possible way, it seems to me, and certainly with regard to studying. Overseeing MSc students’ dissertation development at Edinburgh University I have learned how hard it is for many to concentrate on their dissertations from home – and these are post-graduate students whose parents have prioritised their education to the point of paying £23,000 for a one-year course. I cannot imagine trying to cope in the types of conditions brought to our attention via television news: stories of families of four, five and six in one- or two-bedroom dwellings in London or elsewhere, trying to share one internet-connected device between them. It should be considered an insult to those facing such adversity, to compare their lockdown conditions with those of the middle- and wealthier classes in any country.

In rural western Uttar Pradesh, similarly unequal effects of the pandemic can be seen in the condition of girls versus boys – far from being a leveller, Covid has turned the clock back with regard to the priority placed on girls and their needs. Improving social conditions over the last two decades appear to be evidenced by school enrolment rates, and the much greater rate at which girls have been transitioning to secondary school. When I interviewed parents in 250 households 15 years ago, a large proportion of the mothers had never been to school, or had attended for a year, or perhaps two or three. Their children, however, were another story. Virtually all of the girl children about whom I was interviewing were attending school; nearly all parents wished they could send their children, including the girls, to private schools, but the majority at that time could not afford to do so. This would seem to evidence a quite massive jump forward from the generation of the mothers of 2005, to the generation of their daughters (some of whom will now be mothers themselves). However, the veneer of increasing value for the girl child and her education appears to have been very thin indeed. All it has taken is the pandemic brushing up against it to scratch it and reveal the true colours that lie beneath. I characterise it as a ‘brushing up against’ rather than a full-on collision, because the virus has not exploded in our area of UP: farming continues and there has been no mass illness or death (although this is not to say that these communities are totally unaffected).

Parents wanted their children to carry on with their schooling after Covid put an end to school attendance. Some even equipped their children with smart phones so that virtual classes could be followed. Our school ultimately managed to offer some bare minimum classes to keep especially secondary school children on track, even if they progressed slowly along the rails. Paying for this was another matter, however, and something parents were not interested in doing for their girls, no matter how much their daughters wanted to take part in the small amount of class time on offer, and no matter (to the parents) that a teacher had to be paid to conduct lessons and set homework. One village even (very recently) became the site of a parental pact not to pay a single rupee to any of the various private schools that children in the village attended. When it is explained to parents that whatever minimum of class time children can get is important to stop them from forgetting everything, they are largely unmoved for their girls.

When asked about what they now intend for their daughters the abiding picture is of the management of a troublesome liability. Girls are on a spectrum from being viewed as ‘somewhat of a liability’ to an ‘extreme liability’, with the abiding impression that a father must get his daughter to the finish line of marriage as fast as possible, and without any damage, reputational or otherwise. The supposed value now placed on girls’ education is all about the marriage market, while girls being unoccupied at home due to school closures makes finding ways of damaging their own reputations via unsanctioned mixing with local young men all the more likely. Generally rising standards of living and societal conditions have led to changing marriage market expectations, with most parents feeling that it would be shameful in this day and age to have to admit to having an illiterate daughter-in-law. Grooms’ families can now hold out for a bride with some certification because of their own improved socioeconomic conditions.

This change has resulted in pressure on parents within the same society to send their daughters to school in the hope of off-loading them as successfully as possible. A common line amongst fathers, stated openly whether their daughters are present or not, is that they just want to get the girl ‘done with school’. She can then ‘do her graduation [bachelors degree] from home, these days they don’t even have to go to college and then I will just marry her off.’ This appearance of wanting to hand off a hot and awkward potato as soon as possible and in one piece, is common amongst the middle class of our surrounding villages, not just the poor. The message to any daughter could not be clearer: you are a burden and a liability, to be funnelled towards a pre-determined outcome. Very liberal parents will let the girl ‘try something’ (such as teaching in a private school or trying to get a government job) for some time, but getting her married off is constantly in the background, while any prospect for civil service employment can only help in securing a ‘good match’.

My suspicion* is strong that education for girls has come as a result of the improving economic conditions of the region, not the other way around. Education is the luxury good that comes as a result of improving economic conditions and so, greater earning power of parents. The word around the global community is that education brings development, prosperity, and improving social conditions. What we have seen speaks of the path of causality leading the other way: as our area of western UP has improved economically, so the educational prospects of our villages’ children have also improved. If causality ran the other way, then the poor would have had to depend for any improvement in their lot in life on their free and easy access to government education which was the only schooling the poor could afford in the early 2000s. Yet it was abundantly clear in 2005 that the quality of education that was prevailing in government schools at that time would not lead anyone to prosper. The schools were so dysfunctional that for social progress and economic development to rely on them would have meant a long wait indeed for these improvements to arrive. These impressions about the quality of these schools have been backed up by the findings of successive ASER rounds in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, which have shown deterioration rather than improvement.

What has really happened is that private school enrolment, including for girls, has become just another positional good, just as families’ dowry expectations have steadily appreciated from a bicycle, to a motorcycle and now increasingly to a car. The certificate the girl bears (secondary school completion, BA, MA and so on, and from what type of institution) is akin to the make and model of the car, while the former is often less indicative of true erudition than the make and model of the car is of the quality of motor inside. Parents in our area are asking for this academic year to be written off, and for their daughters to be passed to the next level. No matter how it is explained that the building blocks of the curriculum, particularly at the secondary level, do not allow for such large chunks of material to be simply skipped over, they remain unmoved. It is, after all, just the certificate that is needed, belying the very superficial and thin veneer that has been the ostensible improvement of the conditions for girls in places like the villages of western Uttar Pradesh.

Just as risky, low-quality mortgages were granted to so many financially insecure households in the run-up to the financial crash of 2008, because it was never expected that the original mortgage granter would own the debt to the end of the life of the mortgage, so it is for girls’ education. If the prospects of a family were seen to depend on the quality of the learning that their own daughters accumulated and internalised through their education, then more care and attention to girls’ learning and development would be evident. What we are seeing now is the result of market and growing consumerist imperatives (indeed, even my dissertation students refer to themselves as customers of the University and consumers of a service), pushed through a wider political economy picture. The education of girls is proving a casualty of Covid, just as eating out in restaurants has fallen by the wayside for the privileged, while the truly important things – food prepared and eaten at home and the education of boys – continues.

*A prime example of British understatement/hedging.

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