Independence Day 2020: Learning under the shadows of COVID-19

Why education is all the more important in disastrous times

By Puja Marwaha
Published: Friday 14 August 2020

“I dream a lot — of standing on my own feet and earning respect for my family.”

‘Respect’ is a big word for Chameli (name changed) and coming from a girl who has just crossed her teens, it instantly touched a chord. As she went on with her story, I knew why.

Hailing from a small village in Rajgarh (Madhya Pradesh), Chameli belongs to the Bedia community — a community that has a tradition of involving its women to take up commercial sex work to support their family’s income. It is a century old practice in this community; one that initially started as a means of survival.

Today, this survival tactic has become a tradition, where the families continue to survive solely on the income from commercial sex work. Girls born to these families are groomed to take up this profession and are vulnerable to be pushed into it as they grow older, while the men usually remain unemployed or assume the role of the mediators.

No matter what our position is about occupations and their dignity, it is a given that Chameli has grown up experiencing a lot of disrespect in life. But she has turned it around, and how! Today, she is pursuing her training and moving towards becoming a paramilitary officer — the first girl in her village to achieve so.

While we celebrate the 74th Independence Day, the two words that stayed with me from Chameli’s story were ‘dreams’ and ‘respect’. A trail of thoughts followed — while she has been able to find her way to freedom, many of our children, millions of them, are still struggling to break from the shackles of sexual exploitation and how a huge section of them still do not have the freedom to dream, let alone make it come true. 

Add to this, the reality brought about by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). In these five months, besides the pandemic, we have also been living with the disparity between the haves and the have nots growing increasingly apparent with every passing day.

With an unprecedented blow to the economy, I wonder how many children will be pushed into exploitative situations of varied kinds. For me and for all the people working to ensure children’s right to a happy, healthy and safe childhood, this definitely is going to be an August 15 of a different kind — a kind that will define celebration to be figuring out the best solution to the raw deal the pandemic has handed our children.

Chameli’s life changed because of timely intervention by CRY — Child Rights and You and its partner organisation Samvedna. In her community, she had seen women been compelled to get into commercial sex work — a fate that she dreaded. She had always wanted to complete her education and become someone her family could be proud of one day.

She was good in studies but with no one to help her with lessons at home, she had started to fall behind. With CRY and Samvedna’s intervention, she was enrolled in their remedial classes that not only helped her catch up with her studies but also groomed her to pass her 10th grade exams with flying colours!

As her village didn’t have a senior secondary school, Chameli was enrolled in a school with hostel facilities in Bhopal, in a bid to continue with higher education.

When she was studying in 12th standard, she was introduced by one of her teachers to a government scheme that ensured a 30 per cent reservation for girls in India’s paramilitary forces. She immediately signed up to give the physical and written examinations — it was truly a watershed moment for her parents when she cleared both!

This was before COVID-19 caused a closure in schools of all kinds, regular and remedial. While online classes have become symbolic of the ‘new normal’, it is surely not a solution for children coming from marginalised families like Chameli’s.

Neither do they always have access to the technology that enables them to attend virtual classes, nor is it enough to provide them the safety schools offer. That is why, from the very beginning of the countrywide lockdown announced to curb the spread of the coronavirus, there has been a lot of public discourse on the importance of figuring out means to bring the classroom to the children who are vulnerable to dropping out due to this sudden gap in schooling.

While we celebrate an Independence Day in a very different way, it’s time to reiterate why it is so important for education to continue, especially during adverse times.

Education does not only act as a barrier between economic exploitation of children, but also gives them an opportunity to break-free from the vicious cycle of inter-generational poverty. It ensures that we create an enabling environment for children to identify their potential, acquire skills that they would want to and pursue their dreams. Most importantly, education opens their eyes to dreams, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds.

Education also brings awareness. Awareness about the current scenario, about what needs to be done and what should be avoided. Awareness, more importantly, about the rights children are entitled to, and about what freedom actually means.

Once aware of their rights, children understand that the solution to their household problems is not getting into forced labour or underage marriage, for instance. This helps them stand up to their parents, and their communities against this social issue and argue with logic, rather than accept their fate. Education teaches children to question unfairness.

Coming back to the situation at hand, I want to leave you with a thought of the importance of education during our battle with COVID-19. For our children, who are grappling with this new reality — being stuck at home for months, no schools, no friends, no outdoor activities and a nagging sense of fear — education can be an agent of freedom.

It can lead to that constant engagement of mind and creativity so that children do not fall prey to the gloom that is taking over our world. It can create the equal platform for our citizens that independent India has been striving for.

A gap in education during times of distress can push back several children into the clutches of economic, physical, sexual and mental exploitation. It is only through innovation that our children can learn ways to break free.

And who knows, it may turn out that children of the COVID-19 times come up with the ultimate survival tactics during times of disasters as these that has the world reeling under its pressure? Me, I like to think positive and I believe in children. I believe they will set us free from all things pulling us back.

Puja Marwaha is CEO, Child Rights and You

Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth 

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