Will India’s Second COVID-19 Wave Reverse Gender Equality For Years to Come?

From fears of dropping out of school to getting married young, Indian girls brave the worst of the pandemic.

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18-year-old Aashna says she worries the extreme financial crisis India is facing due to its second COVID-19 wave will lead more parents to prioritize their son’s education over their daughter’s. “A boy’s education is considered more important,” Aashna says. “And most families can’t afford both.” 

One in four of the world’s COVID-related deaths were in India last week. COVID-19 case numbers have now surpassed 27 million, with hundreds of thousands of new infections each day. Crucial oxygen is growing more scarce by the day. The country is in economic turmoil. And the status of women and girls could take a heavy toll. 

The World Bank says the female labour force participation rate in India has dropped from 30.27% in 1990 to 20.8% in 2019. India’s second COVID wave has been predicted to reduce the country’s GDP by 11% in 2022 and 1.5% in this quarter alone. A recent report by McKinsey suggests India could add $770 billion to its GDP by 2025 by encouraging more girls to study and participate in the workforce. Despite this, many women are being laid off from their jobs in order to stay home and care for their families, even as the country’s economy spirals and COVID-19 cases continue to rise. 

“COVID is kind of a relief for families who were looking to marry [their daughters] off. Now, they’ll do it without anything stopping them,” says Varuni Trivedi, a journalist based in Agra, about 200 km south of the capital New Delhi. “Childbirth and pregnancy rates have been rising. We have a maid who recently gave birth to her seventh child. Her family lives in one room and she barely makes enough to live. She is now looking for a groom for her eldest daughter, who is not even 18.”

UNICEF estimates that an additional ten million girls will marry between now and 2030 globally, due to the impact of the pandemic. “COVID-19 has had a brutal impact on South Asia and India, especially for young girls and women. Millions of girls are never going to return to school or have a chance at gainful employment.” Shipra Jha, Head of Asia Engagement for Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to end child marriage, tells Thrive Global. “COVID-19 restrictions also provide an opportunity to plan low-key weddings that go unnoticed. The usual services for girls that were already extremely limited are now unavailable. Meanwhile authorities are preoccupied as they fight the disease.” 

An estimated 1.5 million underage girls in India get married each year, making it the country with the largest overall number of child brides. A 2016 report shows that out of every 28 child marriages that occur per minute globally, more than two take place in India.

“But there are actions we can take now to protect girls that will yield lasting benefits,” Jha adds. “Girls must have access to education and healthcare as soon as it is safe. Their families must also be buffered from the economic shocks that are pushing them to make these choices.”

Before the pandemic hit, nearly 40% of girls in India aged 15 to 18 were out of school. Now, Malala Fund says that ten million more girls are at risk of leaving school if things don’t turn around soon. Statistically, 23 million girls in India drop out of school each year after they begin menstruating, often due to a lack of access to sanitary menstrual products or the cultural stigma that accompanies menstruation. This might lead some to believe that online learning is a suitable option, though a study by the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies and Malala Fund shows that since education turned entirely digital, many Indian girls are unable to access school, as only 31% of families in India own smartphones and it is generally the boys in the family who use them. 

“If online learning is to become the new normal, there has to be greater focus on the digital literacy of girls. Governments should consider supporting free smartphone distribution for girls and young women,” says Mitali Nikore, founder of Nikore Associates, a research group focused on creating better public policy in India. “The Indian government needs to increase education expenditure from 3% of the GDP to 6% – ensuring that at least 50% of funding directly supports girls’ education.”

As the war against COVID-19 wages on, putting millions of lives at risk, many young Indian women are taking matters into their own hands to fight for their futures and the futures of their daughters. 

“We cannot lose sight of girls and young women even though death, lack of oxygen, and hospitalizations have taken front row seats in India,” says Olivia Deka, the 24-year-old founder of She For Change, a nonprofit organization focused on empowering the next generation of female entrepreneurs in India. “Right now, we need a movement to enable and empower more girls to be change-makers and meet the needs of girls in their own communities. We need to find solutions to the problems girls are facing locally, and mobilize resources to reach girls who need them now.”

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