An African proverb goes: “If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation).” Education is a vital tool for bringing about gender parity and simultaneously catalysing national development. A UNICEF panel succinctly sums this up: “That women might have the chance of a healthier and happier life should be reason enough for promoting girls’ education. However, there are also important benefits for society as a whole. An educated woman has the skills, information and self-confidence that she needs to be a better parent, worker and citizen.”
Women’s education is a special priority in India, with our history of gender discrimination, inequality in education and the workforce, and our current need to achieve rapid economic development.
It is true there has been a positive trend in female student enrolment at primary levels, which currently stands at 48% girls to 52% boys. Unfortunately, there is a very high drop-out rate at the secondary level, at which point the state does not enforce compulsory education, with a drop-out rate of over 30% for girls, seriously reducing their higher education participation.
What is even more alarming is that female participation in the labour force has dropped from 34% in 1999 to a low of 27% in 2015. This decline in workforce participation in recent times points to the fact that we don’t just need access to education, but access to quality education, in order to overturn centuries of entrenched prejudice against women.
Access to education, one of the most potent tools of empowerment, is out of reach for many women in India, especially those in the low income groups, rural or remote areas. There are several barriers to access. Traditional gender norms result in girls being kept at home to help with household chores or to look after younger siblings. Poor facilities, especially the lack of usable toilets, are deterrents to older girls attending school. Often, concerns for the safety of adolescent females travelling long distances to (secondary) school increase drop-out rates. Under-age marriage and low aspirations for education for girls are also contributing factors.
In recent times, from Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao to Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, the government has taken several enabling, affirmative actions. Initiatives like distribution of bicycles to girls to tackle concerns regarding safety and improvement in infrastructure by adding usable toilets enhances retention of girls at schools.
Digital platforms can also be used to augment access to education and can be delivered through our gram panchayat and rural development systems that are already in place, thereby ensuring access to education for women across India. It is expected that, by June 2018, there will be 500 million internet users in the country, with 87% reach in rural areas. E-learning can be the technological vehicle for women’s groups to handle issues around health, hygiene, child bearing and other information they rarely have access to.
The other challenge is to improve the quality of education. Entrenched gender stereotypes—a woman’s place is in the home or she isn’t as smart as male peers—come in the way of women’s employment. For women to break the gender prejudices that legislate against their employment, they may even need to perform twice as well as their male peers to get hired.
On one hand this calls for improving the quality of teachers, sensitising them to gender concerns, and training them to adopt new forms of pedagogy that engage students. On the other hand it is imperative that education imparts critical thinking skills to students, both boys and girls, to equip them to face the challenges of the fast-changing environment of the 21st century. Education in India must move away from the traditional imparting of knowledge, which quickly gets outdated, to focusing on teaching students ‘how to think’ and to develop the ability to problem-solving in dynamic situations.
Providing women with quality education would break the existing hurdles to their employment, leading to the emergence of successful role models. The advent of these role models and leaders is critical for changing the perception of women in the community, particularly in areas where gender stereotypes are most entrenched. A corollary to this would be the improvement in self-esteem of girls, which would then enable them to actively challenge gender biases and achieve societal change. If we wish to create skilled, globalised, effective human capital based on a revived education system, we cannot afford to leave our girls behind.
Sankar Krishnan, Pro vice-chancellor, Ashoka University