Battling effects of pandemic on female literacy in India — have all efforts been reversed?

Battling effects of pandemic on female literacy in India — have all efforts been reversed?

Battling effects of pandemic on female literacy in India — have all efforts been reversed?

Stakeholders of the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya initiative fear that the unprecedented gap away from school during the pandemic would result in a large number of dropouts and early marriages of young girls from marginalised communities

Bengaluru: Chottan Paswan lived in Mustafapur village of Punpun block, 15 km from Patna. His 15-year-old daughter Pinki* Paswan had been a beneficiary of the central government’s education initiative, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV). The teenager had hoped to pass her exams amid the pandemic, but her school had been shut, like all other educational institutes nationwide. It was difficult to cope with the syllabus without any face-to-face academic guidance. 

Belonging to one of the most marginalised sections of the country, the Dalit community, Pinki was a first-generation learner of her family — neither Chottan nor anyone else in her house was educated to provide her the academic assistance she needed. The result was obvious yet disappointing — she failed. Had Pinki passed her assessments, she “could have escaped the early marriage her parents were planning for her”.

At its inception in 2004, KGBV was a visionary flagship programme by the Government of India. It aimed to bridge the literacy gap among girls from economically backward blocks (EBBs). The idea was to identify the blocks where the female rural literacy rate was below the national average (i.e. below 46.13% as per Census 2001) and the gender gap in literacy was more than the national average of 21.67% — and target filling this gap for girls belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and minority groups, as well as those from below-poverty-line (BPL) backgrounds.

KGBVs were sanctioned as residential schools from class 6 to class 12 and later integrated with Samagra Shiksha, effective from 2018-19. At least 75% of the girls enrolled had to belong to SC, ST and minority communities, the remaining 25% to the BPL category. The residential nature of these schools was to ensure that the girls did not drop out due to social and financial issues associated with EBBs, such as lack of toilets, poor nutrition and unavailable electricity.

KGBV enrolled girls in rural Bihar (Photo Credits- Avinash Ujjwal)


Even 18 years since its constitution, KGBVs still hold relevance, considering the lower female literacy rates as compared to the national average of 64.63% (as per Census 2011) in states like Bihar, which has the lowest female literacy in the country at 51.50 % (as per Census 2011), 13.13% lower than the national average. Uttar Pradesh ranks 31 among all the states and union territories, with female literacy rate at 57.18% (as per Census 2011).

According to government data, factor such as poverty, gender and social inequities are impeding female literacy in these states. KGBV had been established to address these very factors. There’s no doubt that the gaps still exist, but it’s a way forward as explained by the principal of KGBV of Gorthan village, Kalpana Bhoir. Set up in Gorthan of Palghar district in Maharashtra, this KGBV had been acting as a bridging school to admit girls who had dropped out and giving them another chance to pursue studies — something they “had to abandon due to domestic responsibilities and a financial crunch”.

“I believe the real progress is when a girl child gets educated. What we teach them gets reflected back in their homes,” Bhoir said.

She cited instances of young girls informing her of their marriages being arranged. She and other teachers would then “personally meet and counsel their parents”. And to motivate the girls and their families to send them to the residential school was one of the key components of the KGBV programme.

“We would emphasise that they are bright students, deserving and capable, and must not be made to marry. They should rather be allowed to pursue higher education,” she said, adding that she would witness “a change in their mindset” after counselling the parents. “The parents would be happy to continue their daughter’s education after speaking to us.”

However, as the Covid-19 pandemic hit globally, KGBVs felt its effects, too. This impact could be seen on girls like Pinki, who despite the will to study had no access to resources — both technological and human — to continue.

A student attending class in KGBV residential school, rural Bihar (Photo Credits- Avinash Ujjwal)

Like Pinki, 18-year-old Manju* from Punpun block’s Tarwa village had been going to school before it was ordered shut during the pandemic. Her routine had involved studying and sports activities, but with classes suspended, she had taken upon herself chores that were tedious labour for a child her age.

The teenager was one of the thousands of girls whose routines had drastically changed during the pandemic. The 18-year-old, who studied in Class 8 at a KGBV, had taken up working in the fields harvesting wheat with her father and household chores with her mother.

During the pan-India lockdown, online teaching was accepted as an alternative to the classroom experience. KGBVs, too, adopted this model of education. However, the drawback was that these economically backward blocks, the fulcrum of KGBVs, were not financially strong enough to afford online education. The basic requirements to access digital learning — a smartphone and an internet connection — remained out of reach for these marginal communities. 

Till December 31, 2019, only 29.83 in 100 had an internet subscription in rural India. Here, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh registered even lower figures at 21.69, 21.64 and 23.88 percent.

Citing his past experience, Akhileshwar Sharma, the Director of the KGBV in Punpun block and also the principal of Punpun Secondary School, had been worried.

“Even pre-pandemic, girls would drop out after a long holiday and not return once the school would reopen. [Sometimes] they would rejoin school after many follow ups,” he elaborated his worry. 

There are fears that the pandemic will worsen the situation, given the unprecedented disconnect these girls have had from their schools.

“Our school was announced shut on March 13, 2020. There were 100 girls enrolled back then. There’s a possibility that due to financial crunches and poor awareness, their parents will get them married. We could call them dropouts because it would be very difficult to bring them back,” Sharma added.

The Punpun KGBV director realises that the girls enrolled at his school were “far behind in educational levels” and needed to be pushed. Though despite a few  success stories, wherein the efforts of teachers like Bhoir and Sharma brought these girls back to the residential school, the challenges will persist.

After dropping out and rejoining, teachers like Manisha Patil often had to “begin their lessons from scratch, which included teaching them the basics like alphabets”. An English teacher for over 10 years at the KGBV in Gorthan village, Patil had been “giving classes to girls from tribal communities”, most of them first-generation learners from their families.

The pandemic-induced lockdown had given Patil plenty to worry about. Communicating with her students, for instance, had been a challenge. The students “would not understand any other language but their own dialect”.


“Sometimes we would use their dialect to make them understand subjects like manners and etiquette,” she added. “The biggest challenge would be to get them mentally prepared to study because all of them, after such a long gap, would have forgotten much of their studies.”


Across the country, more than five lakh girls from disadvantaged groups receive education through KGBVs, improving the overall female literacy figures for India. However, Sharma fears that all the efforts of KGBVs to educate girls from the marginalised communities of Punpun block would be reversed due to the challenges of the pandemic. 


Pratima Paswan, the founder of Gaurav Grameen Mahila Vikas Manch, an NGO working towards social upliftment of Mahadalit girls, echoed these fears: “Female dropouts from schools would widen the gender gap, which would then result in their marriage at a younger age and early pregnancy.”


*The names of all minors quoted have been changed to protect their identity.

(Inputs from Dev Kotak and Avinash Ujjwal)

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