India needs to pull off a ‘class’ act for its girls

By Ashraf Engineer

Education levels offer one of the starkest examples of gender discrimination in India – effective literacy rates (age 7 and above) in 2011 were 82.14% for men and 65.46% for women.

Women’s empowerment cannot be achieved without commitment to the education of the girl child.
UNICEF points out that even basic education can empower greatly, enabling girls to exercise greater choice over their lives – for instance, educated women are likely to marry at a later age and have fewer children. Importantly, the children of an educated mother are more likely to survive. In India, the infant mortality rate for mothers with a primary education is half that of children whose mothers are illiterate. This is a critical statistic in a country where the girl child aged 1 to 5 years is 75% more likely to die than a boy, making it the deadliest place in the world for the former.

UNICEF data shows that between 1970 and 1992, primary and secondary enrollment for girls in developing countries rose from 38% to 68%, with East Asia (83%) and Latin America (87%) leading the charge. In the least developed countries, however, enrollment rates average 47% at the primary level and 12% at the secondary level.

While India can boast of significantly ramping up primary school enrollment, the fact is that a large number of students drop out. This is particularly true of girls. In my home state of Maharashtra, in 2013 more than 14% of female students between the ages of 7 and 16 dropped out of school; in 2012, the number was 11.7%.

India, it seems, has legislated education as a right but doesn’t have the ability to deliver where it counts.

Girls drop out of school for a variety of reasons:

  • Society-defined roles: The advent of the millennium hasn’t deterred village councils from ruling that women can’t wear pants or carry cellphones. Girls are still married off younger than boys and many are trained only as wives, mothers or daughters-in-law. Families that have working women are looked down upon – often even in educated circles.
  • Security: The ‘Nirbhaya’gangrape of 2012 found much space in the media, but such incidents occur with frightening regularity across India and are under-reported. Generally speaking, the safety of girls travelling alone – especially in the evening and at night – is a worry. Victims of harassment or sexual assault are often shunned by society and treated worse than the culprits. This is one of the reasons families fear to send their girls to school.
  • Hygiene, sanitation and infrastructure: In 2012, roughly 40% of government schools lacked functioning common toilets and another 40% lacked separate toilets for girls. This is a deterrent for families. Also, many schools don’t even have a building for classes; students learn in sheds or in the open. Water and electricity are conspicuous by their absence.
  • Access: Students often have to travel long distances to get to school, a problem compounded by the lack of good roads and transport. Again, safety concerns force many parents to pull their daughters out of school. It is estimated that 10.21% of our villages don’t have either a school or alternative facilities within a one-kilometre radius.
  • Problems with mid-day meals: The Mid-day Meal Scheme has as its core objective the boosting of enrollment and retention rates in primary schools. However, the scheme has been beleaguered by problems – from the poor quality of the food to teachers showing little interest in it.
  • Teacher absenteeism: A World Bank Report has said a quarter of teachers in government primary schools are absent on any given day, while only half of those who do attend actually teach. Also, there have been reports that recruitment of female teachers is inadequate, making girl students less comfortable.

While the government can legislate education norms and push hard for girls in school, it can’t succeed without a change in social attitudes. Critically, the focus needs to shift from enrollment and retention numbers to the quality of education. This is a necessity, if the National Policy on Education is anything to go by: “Education will be used as an agent of basic change in the status of women. In order to neutralise the accumulated distortions of the past, there will be a well-conceived edge in favour of women. The National Education System will play a positive, interventionist role in the empowerment of women… This will be an act of faith and social engineering… The removal of women’s illiteracy and obstacles inhibiting their access to and retention in, elementary education will receive overriding priority…”

So, what can we do to not just get more girls in school, but to ensure they last the course? A drastic change in societal attitudes will take time and is a mammoth, ongoing task. There are, however, more achievable targets in the near term that could make a difference:

  • It’s more difficult to build a road than a school. Given the lack of rural transport infrastructure, building schools such that girl students have to travel less than a kilometre is achievable. Effective collaboration between central and state governments on this front is in both their interests.
  • Ensure all schools have functioning toilets and water supply.
  • Enroll more women teachers, thus raising parents’ and girl students’ comfort levels.
  • Form real partnerships with communities, educating them on the need for girls’ education and ensuring that classes are held in the local language.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights… India is a signatory to several such commitments that recognise the right to education – free and mandatory – for all. These have been complemented by national policies and judicial assertiveness. However, making the commitment has been easier than fulfilling it.

One of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals is primary schooling for all children by 2015. Can India achieve this for its girls? First, a recognition that education involves more than just building schools and hiring teachers is essential. It will require long-term commitment, investment and dialogue with communities to ensure our girls enroll – and stay – in school.

The author was a journalist for more than 16 years with some of India’s leading media houses. He is now Vice-President – Content & Insights at MSLGROUP, a global strategic communications firm. He is also a professor of communications and media studies at several leading colleges

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