The alarmingly high number of rape cases registered in Haryana in the recent past, and the statements and reactions of some community leaders has brought the issue of women’s rights and gender parity in Indian society to the forefront once more. Discussions and debates on the status of women and girls in India continue, yet gender disparities cannot be considered in isolation.
Gender bias pervades all spheres of life and society – a cycle of disadvantage that starts before birth and continues into old age. The problem is further aggravated when class, caste and religious discrimination compound gender disadvantage. Poverty reinforces gender inequity. Women belonging to scheduled castes, tribes or minority communities have fewer opportunities. Cultural and social constraints when coupled with poverty set up barriers –often insurmountable – to girls’ equality.
Through all the discourses however, consensus on one aspect does emerge – Education Equals Equality. Yet for India, this is where the problem germinates. Reports show that in 2006-2007, 61.5% of girls dropped out of school between classes 1 and 101.
There is no dearth of affirmative policy responses to the educational needs of diverse groups of girls, whether from scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, nomads, urban poor, etc. India has launched many targeted programmes for girls – in education and in other sectors that impact education. There is a constitutional commitment. There are central and state policies. There are schools, teachers and welfare schemes. Nevertheless, many girls are still out of school, and even today, quality education remains an elusive dream for many of them.
The Indian Government has made critical changes in the last decade in the education sector. There is a mission mode in its approach which has led to significant changes particularly in terms of reviewing and setting up institutional mechanisms like setting up Commission for protection of Child Rights, upgrading the Department of Women and Child Development into a full-fledged Ministry, raising public awareness and changes on the ground. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (known as RTE) Act, 2010, charted a new roadmap for gender equality in education in India. However, there is still a long way to go.
For a country like India with its complexities and disparities, it is a huge challenge to design a fool-proof policy or legislation. In the end it all depends on the country’s organizational capabilities to translate `education for all children’ into action, deliver on the ground and respond to every child on the ground – especially girls.
India has made rapid strides in universalizing primary education. The enrolment of girls in primary and upper primary levels has grown steadily over the last two decades. The gender parity index (GPI) in primary education is currently at 0.94 (94 girls for every 100 boys) and for upper primary education it is at 0.92. The improvement in gender parity: completion of primary education from 2001 to 2006 stands at 11%.
According to the Economic Survey 2011-12, tabled in the parliament, noted that under the SSA, the number of girls in schools in the age group of 5-14 years has increased from 79.6% in 2004-05 to 87.7% in 2009-10. Similarly, the number of girls in the educational system in the 15-19 years age group increased from 40.3% to 54.6% for the same period. The proportion of girls (age 11-14 years) who are still out of school has declined from 6.8% (2009) to 5.9 in 2010. This number was 11.2% in 2005.
The tremendous progress made in the universalization of primary education is encouraging, and stands as testament to the State’s efforts to ensure girls receive an education. In the last 10 years there is a tremendous upward spike especially in enrolment figures and the demand for schooling. It is largely the outcome of sustained interventions under Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA), the Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDM) and programmes and schemes from other ministries or departments with directly run education related programmes or programmes that indirectly impact education of children especially girls. Nevertheless, there are many issues that still need to be overcome.
One of the most pressing problems faced in the sphere of girl child education today is that of the sharp drop in the secondary school attendance. According to the Ministry of HRD’s report – Statistics of School Education 2007-2008, the percentage of girls dropping out of school from classes 1 and 5 is 24.41. Between classes 1 to 8, the figures rise to 41.34 and to a staggering 57.33% drop-out rate between classes 1 to 10. Furthermore, according to the NSSO 64th round: “Education in India: 2007-08, Participation and Expenditure”, 32.3% of girls in the age group of 14-15 years are not attending any educational institutions.
There are a number of factors that push girls out of school, including poverty – where a young girl is often required to stay at home to help the family with essential household chores or for subsistence wage labour. But, the problem that weighs most heavily on the education of adolescent girls in school is the onset of puberty. The absence of separate toilets for girls and the absence of women teachers at the secondary school level pose substantial problems for teenage girls. Distance also contributes to the high drop-out rates among adolescent girls, as secondary schools tend to be much farther away from villages than primary schools. Parents also fear for the safety of their daughters as they travel further to go to school. The gender bias also plays a strong role, where parents prefer to keep young girls at home or marry them off early – in which case, a young girl’s schooling takes a back seat, or is stopped entirely.
The high drop out rate poses a much bigger problem than it initially appears to be. Primary education will only guarantee that girls are literate. For a complete education, girls must not only go for primary schooling, but also stay in school for further schooling.
The link between a well-educated woman population and the overall growth and development of communities, societies and nations at all levels is well documented. According to a United Nations report, when a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children2.
According to an analysis done by CRY in India, the percentage of children who are underweight is almost three times as high for children whose mothers have no education than for children whose mothers have completed at least 12 years of education. The education differentials are almost as large for stunting.
Almost half of Indian children suffer from one or the other form of malnutrition, so enhancing female literacy is likely to help a great deal in tackling the issue of malnutrition. In India, 49% of mothers of children under the age of 5 years have never attended school and only 9% have completed 12 or more years of schooling. Education among girls and mothers also has a strong relationship with the prevalence of anaemia in the children. The prevalence of anaemia decreases from 75% among children whose mothers have no education to 55% among children whose mothers have had 12 or more years of education.
Educating women and girls helps a society to move towards economic development and inclusive growth more steadily, speedily and effectively. After having improved primary education and enrolment for girls, the State now needs to focus on ensuring that girls stay in school and complete their education. Implementation and monitoring of policies already in place is crucial. Addressing key issues like safety and discrimination effectively at the policy level will impact not only the number of girls going to school today, but also the way society perceives these issues.
Gender parity for the girl child will not arise from policy alone. It needs a social change to come about. Yet, forward-thinking policies and programmes play a huge role in setting the context of this change. For that, the Indian girl child looks for her ally in the State.
1India, Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation, Central Statistical Organization (2006), Women and Men India 2007, New Delhi
2United Nations Population Fund, State of World Population 1990