Youth perspectives on education and employment during COVID-19
Within the world population of 7 billion, 1.2 billion are the youth (16 per cent of the global demographic) (UN, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2019). In India alone, the youth account for 19.1 per cent or one-fifth of the total Indian population (Youth in India 2017). With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and extended lockdowns, India’s youth face far too many challenges. Those in urban slums have been among the worst affected. While there were existing gaps in access to basic services and rights, the pandemic has exposed and weakened the broken system. This article looks at the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on youth education and employment, drawn from conversations with youth leaders across communities in Mumbai. The article also points to some important youth-led initiatives undertaken recently.
Impact on education
With the pandemic, schools across the nation moved to online teaching. While children and youth from middle and upper middle-class families adapted to this new form of learning, those from urban poor households were often forced to drop out, given the economic pressures at home, lack of devices, network connectivity issues, no support from the government and other factors.
‘Out of every 100 youth, we can say only about 25-30 could attend online classes’, said Daraksha Shaikh, a youth leader from Mumbai. She remembered how one of the youth in her community, a good student who had scored 86 per cent in her class 10 board examinations, was forced to drop out since the pandemic given the economic pressures at home. Her mother, a domestic worker, was the sole income earner in the family, and with restrictions her work and earnings were under threat too.
Agreeing with Daraksha, Asma Ansari, a youth leader shared, ‘Most families comprise five members; at least three are school-going children and youth. With only one smartphone in the family, it is impossible for all to attend classes. Although parents are worried about their children’s academic future, they are also helpless. It’s unfair!’ ‘Moreover, with the pandemic-induced lockdowns, many people could no longer earn. Yet, school fees were never reduced. Where will it come from?’ asked Kisan Salbul, a youth leader in Mumbai. Asma also shared that even if children have access to smartphones and the internet, they are often distracted and learn little from online classes in the absence of some supervision.
Another point of concern is that since children use phones that belong to adult members in the family, they get exposed to various sites on the internet that are not suitable for their viewing. This often happens in the form of notifications from harmful sites that come up on screen while the child is attending online classes. ‘Some of this content could be sexual in nature, or depict violence and abuse’, says Swapnil Manav, a youth leader from Pune, who has seen a rise in such cases in recent weeks.
The situation has been worse in many adivasi padas where there is no electricity at all and hence smartphones or internet is out of the question, resulting in most students becoming dropouts once the online classes started. In the Sanjay Gandhi National Park area, students have to travel two kilometres to access network connectivity. How is this sustainable?
Some schools in Maharashtra opened up for in-person classes last week. However, there is a lot of confusion regarding attendance requirements, class schedules and examination dates. Additionally, it is not clear whether pre-tests will be taken for higher secondary school admissions or it will happen directly.
Moreover, with many school education boards scrapping class 10 and 12 final examinations, results were calculated based on overall performance. Many students who had expected to do well in their board exams received unsatisfactory results. Not only are they confused about their future, they are also doubting their own capabilities. ‘Confidence levels among the youth have really been affected. It is one thing to discuss the future and careers with friends in schools and colleges, and another to just be directly promoted to the next class without exams. The youth feel that they are being viewed differently’, said Sachin Nachnekar, Youth Development Coordinator at YUVA.
Impact on employability
Daraksha shared how so many youth keep asking her if she can connect them to a job. ‘They are well-educated, and yet with trains not accessible for all, they are unable to travel to Mumbai from the far suburbs, and they don’t have the resources to work from home. Some have taken up daily paying jobs in the meantime’. Swapnil mentioned how he has come across ads for jobs which openly state that they are not looking at students who have passed exams in the pandemic years. ‘People have the skills, but if employers discriminate in this way how can they hope to find work?’ he asks.
In some cases though, the youth have also been able to use this time well to plan careers that they may not have otherwise chosen. Asma referred to a youth who used this time to understand his prospects in mechanical engineering from the point of working in airports. He was able to find a university that allied with his interests, and was also able to get a scholarship.
Helping youth in communities cope with increased stress and anxiety
As the pandemic spread in India, anxiety levels among the youth rose. ‘My brother, in his first year of college, felt frustrated at home. He wasn’t able to get his books, he wasn’t getting an update on what would happen. I tried speaking with him, ‘ said Daraksha. She added how their youth group organised a session on mental health online to help the youth understand and navigate existing challenges. Kisan also mentioned reading about rising suicides among the youth and how he has seen the change in body language in a young family member who lost his job during the pandemic.
The youth shared how they feel the pressure of finishing their academic journey or getting a job within societally prescribed age limits. The pandemic forced them to take a break from their academic and career pathways, adding to their anxiety. With parents forced to look for additional work, many older siblings were expected to look after younger family members, adding to their stress. The lack of in-person interactions, detachment from daily life and friends and the anxiety around their futures have kept building.
Within their homes too, the youth have often experienced increased cases of domestic violence, abuse and confinement (Patra, Patro 2020). While boys still have more liberty to meet and talk with friends, girls have been far more restricted (Nalawade 2021).
The youth are trying in their own way to help their friends and community members address anxieties, by organising forums where people can freely talk and by sharing more information with one another about support helplines and other supportive infrastructure. Their efforts are in an early stage, offering ongoing support as they seek more deeper interventions for the well-being of their friends and community.
Initiatives by the youth
The youth are inhabiting trying circumstances, yet they are determined not to let challenging realities overpower their commitment to change.
In two adivasi padas in Mumbai, for instance, 13 youth regularly visit the 68 students in the area and teach them. This is being planned for a one-year period to start with, to help the local youth complete their education. The youth groups are also encouraging those who have dropped out to take admission under open universities. Youth leaders and the YUVA team are also connected to many of the youth via Whatsapp groups where they share information on local employers and their job requirements.
Anubhav Shiksha Kendra, an experiential learning programme by YUVA, has also been running a ‘Me to Diary’ online discussion series, where youth lead sessions for other young persons on subjects such as personality development, self-expression, handling criticism and so on. They have been able to tackle sensitive subjects and encourage the youth to share their fears and worries.
The medium of theatre has also helped the youth express themselves says Kisan, who helps organise workshops with local groups. ‘Self-expression allows people to better understand themselves so that they can move ahead with more strength’, he says. Asma adds about another learning initiative she is a part of with YUVA. ‘We are trying to set up 50 community libraries so that the youth can access knowledge more easily and near where they live’, she says.
The youth are brimming with ideas and the agency to drive change. They have immense potential yet they need adequate opportunities and enabling environments to thrive. On International Youth Day 2021, here’s recommitting to a more nourishing ecosystem, to let the youth lead change, and make their dreams of a safer and enabling city come true.
This blog is authored by Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA)
YUVA is a non-profit development organisation that enables vulnerable groups to access their rights. YUVA provides solutions on issues of housing, livelihood, environment and governance at the community level through an integrated 360-degree approach.
Photo: Papaioannou Kostas, Unsplash