So, how did you meet?

Do you think my blog post title resembles a line you would ask someone at the start of a new founding relationship? Dependent on how you define ‘relationship,’ this blog, this relationship, depicts the start of my journey, my love for social impact and for a country that I’ve visited countless times, India. 

I’m often asked, ‘how and why I started working in India? how often do you travel there? what you do when you are out there? and finally, what’s it like travelling solo? This is not the exhaustive list of questions, but I’ve never realised that my passion and drive of working in international development through volunteering would raise as many questions. I can’t answer all of these questions on this post, honestly, who has the time or the attention span! But I will answer one, why I choose to work in India. 

My relationship with India began in December 2004, I think I was 21, I had just finished my undergraduate degree and I was ‘reassured’ from friends and family that my mum was going to help ‘set me up’ and find ‘the one’ for me. This was all a joke and a complete exaggeration alongside all the ‘Delhi Belly’ comments. But these comments were a classic representation of my ‘preparation’ for my first trip to India as well as being armed with all of the NRI* essentials which we all know has to include Imodium. But oh my, I’m certain that anyone would be well aware and remember their first time they arrived in India. I felt like I was confronted with the biggest welcome slap in the face, one side from the heat and the other, humidity, with a strong dose of strange scents, pollution and noise levels created by honking vehicles all in desperate rage for tarmac rights. But it’s Mumbai, the streets never sleep, and that’s just how Mumbai rolls. 

NRI* Non-resident Indian

I recall sitting at the back of the taxi from the airport to the hotel and I purposefully asked that I could sit next to the window so that I could observe the city. Red light hit, the car stood still and the honking of cars nearby were just relentless. ‘Knock, knock’ on the glass window of the car, I made eye contact with a young girl child, a street child, no older than 8 from my observation. She said ‘didi” (sister)  and pointed at the something she was holding, in hope that I would purchase it. I was startled, she caught me off guard. I can still vividly remember the look in her eyes.

In response, the driver said, ‘don’t give her money and don’t look at her, she will eventually go away’.

I abided, but I was conflicted. Where were her parents? has she eaten? School? Home? 

But this observation was only just the beginning. For the subsequent 3 weeks, my family and I spent numerous car journeys weaving between major towns and cities. I racked up hours gazing outside the window capturing and digesting as many new observations creating my own mental journal. The questions of concern I expressed in Mumbai over the young child, initiated the next set of questions through my observations on my travels. This observation looped the length of my 3 week stint which peeled away a new layer of thinking, paving a new direction and thought process that still remains deeply ingrained in my work today. 

Throughout those journeys, I often wondered how remote and isolated communities along the roadside lived and sustained themselves? This may seem too primitive a question, but I’m confident new visitors to India have raised the same query. These homes or shacks were regularly made out of cardboard and tin sheets, it was common to see large families of 6 or more to a room with no running water or electricity. As my thoughts evolved, I created my own speculations how these local communities met their basic needs. It was these thoughts that planted a seed and developed my passion and love within development and India. 

After my first visit to India, I navigated the next couple of years successfully achieving a new set of academic acronyms beside my name, but my thoughts, questions and mind often wondered back to my observations in India. The following years, I continued to spend my time working and supporting the lives of underprivileged children in various settings and contexts through an international charity in India and developed my own networks and connections, but my desire to work with communities that I observed in 2004 remained.

It was only until 2018 where my vision manifested during a trip to India visiting local schools in a city called Bhuj, Gujarat located in the Northwest state of India. It was this trip I had the opportunity and connections to visit a rural nomadic community. My route and only access to these communities were spent ducking and diving through traffic, off main road intersections and off beaten tracks riding on the back of a scooter. For the first time, I had an opportunity to talk to community members and ask them meaningful questions about their lives. Not only did I feel that this was my calling, it was only just the beginning. In 2019 it navigated my focus for my independent research for my Masters. My research study entitled: ‘Empowerment for All? Exploring gender differences in parental attitudes among the Scheduled Tribes (ST) towards education for tribal children in Gujarat, India. This revealed a new unimagined layer.

Back of the scooter!

With my previous expertise in education and international development, I was aware of the increasing attention and marked gains of investing in girls’ education across the globe, therefore, I used my Masters as an opportunity to listen to voices from marginalised communities about their views towards education. Their responses were enlightening. 

My thoughts and internal dialogue from 2004 that I dubbed too far-fetched in the beginning, has started steering in a new direction, pealing back a new layer. The only way I can describe India is like a magnet, a country close to my heart and one of my greatest teachers, continually revealing itself in layers. I now use my time to explore new education opportunities, one that is both inclusive and transformative for these communities.For me, it’s this next layer that drives my mission to deliver a new long-term change in the lives of girls from marginalised communities for their future, driven by an equity of voices that will one day contribute to change and empowerment. 

How can existing infrastructures be used to support education in low tech and low resource environments in light of the pandemic?

At present, having a computer and an internet connection can be the difference between learning and not learning. Around the world, over 1.5 billion children are currently affected by the school closers ordered by governments to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As a result of school closures, many governments are faced with one profound question: How can ALL children continue to learn and access education? The answer to this question is dependent upon what resources are available.

In most countries, the sudden move to distance learning has forced teachers and students into a digital world away from familiar, well-structured face-to-face classroom environments. While this new change maintains access to learning, it also carries the risk of escalating existing inequalities for marginalized and vulnerable learners. This is particularly true for those living in low resource, poor countries who already struggle to receive quality education and where access to devices and connectivity is lacking. This represents challenges as these communities are not prepared or equipped for the new change. 

Map 1:  Global school closures caused by COVID-19

For many children that live in poor countries, teachers provide education through a ‘blended’ education approach that uses both face to face interaction and online learning. However, this ‘blended’ approach is no longer appropriate at present as social distancing has been enforced by governments. Therefore, there is a need to unpack the use of different tools in developing regions so that education can continue to be accessed for ALL children. One example adopted by some NGOs to support the continuity of education in low resource and low tech environments is through leveraging co-exisiting education programmes from emergency and conflict zones which require little or no technology. However, despite important lessons that can be discovered from adopting educational programmes from other contexts these must be taken with a pinch of salt.

WHY?

Put simply, any educational programmes that are implemented or adopted are conditional on the recipient context. This is evident through my own research on planning for education in low tech and low resource environments in India. The next section below briefly summarises my own suggestions how existing infrastructures needs to be considered within any context when planning for education continuity during the pandemic.

What materials are currently available?

Explore what materials are already available for continuous learning within a context. These channels should be continued to be harnessed to support learners e.g. radio broadcasting or mobile phones.

Equity.

It is also important to consider who has access and who remains excluded to education resources. Many children are already left out of education, therefore there is a responsibility that when education resources are made available during the COVID-19 response, these resources are still distributed fairly among ALL learners.

Access

It is important to recognise WHO actually has access to education resources? Is it just parents? Children? or both?

Literacy levels

Identify the level of literacy and digital literacy among learners, parents and teachers in the community. 

Equipment

In order to sustain any education changes for the unforeseeable future, questions must be raised how former education equipment could be repurposed within a context and how these resources could be used as a long term education investment? Could these resources be used to support catch up or accelerated catch up classes for learners?

This is not an exhaustive list for low tech and low resource environments. However, these are critical starter points when planning for COVID-19 education responses.

WHAT WOULD YOU PRIORITISE?

Thank you for reading my post

Priya

Why are girls hardest hit by school closures due to COVID-19.

If you take away anything from this post, take note of this figure: 89. 

At present, over 89% of students enrolled in education globally are currently out of school due to COVID-19 (UNESCO, 2020).  It’s simply staggering. 

With sweeping COVID-19 lockdown regulations firmly in place,many learners are isolating behind screens through a home digital learning setting. In this post I reflect on what impact these school closures will mean for other groups of children in the Global South. Within your own thoughts, you may have considered how school closures will have considerable impact on children who are either vulnerable or marginalised. However, would you have contemplated the impacts of school closures on gender? 

When gender intersects with other forms of discrimination such as caste, girls are faced with greater prejudice what is also described as a ‘double disadvantage’. Therefore, for girls in the Global South, they will experience the impacts of this pandemic in a different way to boys owing to deep-rooted gender inequalities and norms. Girls outcome is bleak, which evidently will interrupt their education and increase school drop-out rates in the long term. These claims are not new, and have been supported and identified by previous UNESCO reports stating that ‘girls are far more likely to remain excluded from education than boys’ (UNESCO, 2016). Thus, in recognition of these disparities, progress towards girls’ education have continued to remain a central priority within the 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

However, what could this mean for girls education in the these communities in the future?

When school gates reopen, many girls will continue to participate in education, however, others may never return. This shift could be recognised as families consider economic hardships caused by the crisis and therefore have opportunity costs educating their daughters. This will threaten and reverse any gains made for girls’ education. Within the quest to halt these education imbalances, international initiatives and policy makers will now more than ever need to prioritise the needs and specific challenges faced by girls, through gender responsive actions. 

Here are my four suggestions on how to support girls:

  1. Work closely with teachers and communities to support distance learning that includes the importance of girls’ education as part their learning programmes.
  2. In areas where internet connection is less accessible school material should be sent home. 
  3. Ensure that learning structures and approaches are flexible so that girls can continue to support families who often disproportionately shoulder the burden of care. This is also vital for pregnant girls and young mothers who often are prevented from accessing education.  
  4. Within development polices, there should be room to provide spaces for girls to have their voice and make their own decisions about schools.

Transforming for the future together

Thank you for reading

Priya