Notes from a Survey: How Did the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect Female University Students?

Note: The following is a series of observations by the authors based on a survey they conducted among female students of the University of Delhi to understand how COVID-19-induced lockdowns affected them in terms of their studies and life in general. As many as 430 women students of Delhi University took part in the survey, and additionally, 20 interviews were conducted. 

“We are all frustrated,” said our very first respondent while the three of us shook our heads in agreement. It was a regular November afternoon in a Covid-induced lockdown period. The colleges were shut, and the classes went online. We planned to explore girls’ lives at the University of Delhi during the lockdown. “I think I have got social anxiety; I fear ki normally baat kar paungi ya nahin (if I would be able to talk normally or not),” she went on.

The frustrations and the associated anxieties of staying at home were beginning to reflect themselves in the upcoming interviews. Almost all the girls experienced it. We, too, were part of it. The experiences felt like ours. The effect of staying at home for a long period of time and without any certainty of when all of it was going to end took the form of a mental health crisis. During our initial meetings, we expected some of these answers would come up.

Since we were a part of the University at the time and attended its online classes for a period of two years, we expected some answers would elaborate on this too. Online classes were introduced for the very first time in a full-fledged manner only during that semester. While adapting to the new classes did pose a problem for many, these classes soon became a norm. There were interesting stories of both triumphs and defeats.

One of the respondents shared, “I only attend the class if I feel like attending it. Otherwise, I don’t.” Another gushed, “I just attended my favourite class.” The story was similar for many of the students. They all had a favourite or an important class which they believed they were obliged to attend. The rest of the classes just exacerbated their frustrations and anxieties. Hence, they did not attend them at all or attended them only for attendance.

Also read: ‘I Cannot Afford Online Class’: School Closures Spell Doom for Girls’ Education in Rural Areas

While some could attend their favourite classes, others found it difficult even to attend their regular classes. One student recalled her problem of not being able to attend classes during the rainy season. The network would only come on the terrace of her home, which is too small to make arrangements for even a shed, so she had to reluctantly opt out of the class when it rained. Another girl shared with us her problem of having to multitask while taking online classes, saying that “class lete lete khana pakka liya (cooked food while attending classes).”

The problems seemed genuine. These online classes went on for at least five hours each day. Additionally, there were various society meetings and other activities that students engage in during their college life for ‘exposure’. We, too, looked tired after spending the entire day on our laptops. We scheduled at least three interviews daily. We had our personal time constraints. However, working according to the set time limits was a task. Almost all the interviews surpassed our 20 minutes time limit. Going on for an hour and sometimes more. Not because our questions were too many but because our conversations with our respondents went personal.

Almost all that we had wanted to explore and ask, we tried to put across in our questionnaire. However, even after getting 430 responses and studying them, we needed to conduct interviews to better understand the figures we got through our survey responses. It was our personal need that encouraged us to conduct 20 random interviews. But we soon realised that our need to converse with the girl students studying at the University of Delhi through their homes via online classes was actually not ours.

Our interviewees got an ear for the discussion of their life during this pandemic and their problems at home. Their mundane lives hid the complexities of our social reality beneath them. These social realities became more real now. They disturbed them and yet posed a question for them. They made them understand themselves.

Also read: Watch: How Did University Students Deal With the Pandemic?

As one respondent notes, “apne aap ko jaana (I learned about myself).” They made them understand the hierarchies around them in their household. As  another girl explained, “head ka mood kharab hota hai, toh sabka mood kharab hota hai (if the head is in a bad mood, then everybody is in a bad mood).” She exhorted, “papa frustrated hote hai toh ladaai jhagda karte hai (when the father is frustrated, he fights with everyone).”

Soon, we realised that just like their moods, their time was also not theirs, not even the one which was supposed to be occupied with attending classes. A girl complained, “classes ke beech mein udha dete hai kaam karne ke liye (they ask me to get up and do the work in between my classes).”

Another explained her dilemma of maintaining a balance between her classes and family, “stress hoti hai, kabhi bhi classes hoti hai toh ghar me ladai ho jaati hai (There is stress, whenever there are classes, there is a fight in the house).” Maybe that’s why we find 78% of the girls missing their college. Not only because it was a fun place to be but because, at least there, they owned their time. Their time was their own. They could attend their classes for hours without fear of a fight or disturbance.

The time that they owned during the pre-pandemic year could also be utilised to enhance their mobility. Their freedom to explore the city and its people. The escape this time offered them was when they no longer had to indulge their minds in ‘multitasking’ or learn the household chores while attending their classes. This time offered around 72% of students an opportunity to explore new things. However, these good days ended soon, and as one respondent puts, “bahar jaana band ho gya hai (has stopped going out).” They were no longer able to go out and own their time.

Also read: Massive Spike in Mental Health Issues During Pandemic, Govts Not Doing Enough: WHO Report

Their time and mind were further confined by the “ghar ki chaar diwaar (four walls of the house).” They lost the ability to think differently and independently from the people in their house. Their minds were now domesticated in that domestic environment. They were more interested in getting to know what their relatives were doing than what was happening in the world around them. That is why they found themselves more engaged in the familial realities of the household, which they felt would soon play into their lives.

Though the responses from the survey did not generate a response that could direct us toward the increased prospects of marriage, we could find the same in the interviews we carried out. Almost every girl showed the prospect of marriage as an inevitable proposal that is going to be realised soon, as and when they get a degree and a job. These two would ensure an easy path for a good groom and a stable life, as one girl explained to us, “shaadi kar denge. Degree hogi toh easy hoga. Life set, hai. Job mil jaayegi toh ladka mil jaayega (Will get married. It will be easy if there is a degree. Life is set. If you get a job, you will get a boy).”

Almost every girl that we interviewed saw herself getting married two or three years hence. It was not immediate. It was not happening tomorrow. But it was bound to happen. And it was bound to happen soon. Soon here meant two to three years. But before that, they had a mammoth task in front of them – completing the degree and getting a job. It was fraught with hurdles but also included some supporting characters.

These supporting characters came disguised in the form of the eldest sibling, mostly a sister because brothers were too occupied with exercising their privileges or a father who loved her daughter more. They were the ones who often motivated and kept them sane during the hard days. Most times, they were the source of their financial resources. However, hurdles came when their supporting characters faced financial problems. Because then there was a risk that played out in the form of, as one girl said, “sapne tutna shuru honge (dreams will start falling apart).”

Their stories were similar yet different. Because each of these stories offered hope to their characters. These girls had hopes and dreams. Those hopes and dreams depended on someone who supported their dreams within their families. There were many stories. Many characters. There was both a fear of and hope for the future. The colleges did reopen. Students went back to their classes. But we do not know what has happened with these girls and their dreams. Whether or not their dreams fell apart. Or maybe they are living their dreams. We don’t know.

But we realised, sooner or later, that these stories, even though were not new but they needed to be told, stated, and reflected upon. More so in these times. Because these stories shaped the women, we see around us today. The women students we find in our universities today. The women who are working amongst us and those who are not so much in the public eye today.

The experiences and our exploration of the lives of the female students were necessary to trace how the pandemic influenced, affected, and shaped their lives. There were many stories, many layers behind and beneath the responses we received. Many of them are still not known to us. But we know this study becomes even more important today because these experiences and realisations will play out. The effect will be visible very soon in society.

COVID-19 is almost over. And we have also forgotten about this. A lot of us behave as if it never happened. As if nobody died. As if no one lost a job, as if it did not force thousands of students to engage themselves in activities other than just studying online. The young generation has gone through a lot of hardships; our college students and our school children have gone through it. It affected their mental capabilities. It affected their choices. It affected their future course of action. It affected their relations with everyone they had in their life. They have been confined in those ‘chaar diwaars’ of their house. Away from their friends and sometimes in a not-so-lovable environment, they have been bruised by this lockdown.

So next time we go to our classes, as students or teachers, we should remember that many of the people sitting there have suffered in this period of lockdown and online courses. Next time we meet them, we should listen to them, help them, and guide them toward a better future. Be more empathetic and available to their needs. Some of them might still need an ear that can listen to their stories of bravery and courage; and eyes that can see through the mysteries of their mundane lives.

Note: At the time of the survey, Aarushi was a student of Economics at Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi, and Pavan was teaching at the Department of Political Science, JDMC. 

Pavan Kumar is an Assistant Professor at the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun. Aarushi is an independent researcher based in New Delhi.   

This article was first published on The Wire.