Outspoken and feisty, 13-year-old Nargis knows exactly what she wants: to complete her schooling and join a non-governmental organization (NGO). “I want to help other girls,” she says.
Nargis, who uses only one name, is unaware that she is part of a heart-warming statistic. She is one of the thousands of girls across India who, for the first time in history, are enrolling in larger numbers than boys in school.
The spike in enrolment rates of girls is most dramatic at the Class I-VIII level, show government statistics for 2014-15 analysed by Mint’s data partner How India Lives.
But girls outnumber boys even at the secondary Class IX-X level by gross enrolment rate—the measure that looks at total student enrolment in a given level of education as a proportion of all those of the eligible official age.
This goes against the grain; girls have traditionally dropped out of school after attaining puberty due to various factors, including early marriage and lack of separate toilet facilities.
If a gap exists, it is at the higher secondary Class XI-XII level, but even here girls are fast catching up and the gap is now just 0.8 percentage point, compared with 5.60 percentage points in 2008-09.
In as many as nine states, including Jharkhand, West Bengal and Telangana, and four Union territories, including Daman and Diu and Puducherry, girls have surged ahead of boys at all three levels of schooling.
The school where Nargis studies might have the answer to how girls are beating the odds.
The Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya caters primarily to a cluster of slums in Saket, New Delhi. Parents prefer sending their daughters to study here, not because it boasts of particularly high standards of learning, but because it possesses that invaluable bit of infrastructure: toilets.
“Earlier, students would use the grounds and the teachers would use the gap that separates the two school blocks with a student standing guard at each end,” says Nargis.
Moreover, because the school had classes only till the fifth standard, students had to shift to another school at Tughlaqabad, 8km away, if they wanted to study further. “The girls would either have to walk or use public transport,” says Jaya Chatterjee of Nav Srishti, an NGO working for children’s education in the area. “Most students would drop out as it was impractical to get there.”
A campaign by Nav Srishti, the efforts of municipal councillor Kalpana Jha, and the aspirations of the parents and their daughters finally led to an expansion of the school from Class V to X by the simple expedient of running the school in two shifts, one for boys and the other for girls. The toilets were built alongside.
“The lack of a toilet was inconvenient, but manageable,” says Nargis, who talks of how she and her friends would avoid going to the lavatory during school hours. “But obviously, if we had to continue going to school in Tughlaqabad after the fifth standard, that wouldn’t have been possible.”
It was the outspoken Nargis’s exhortations to councillor Jha that also resulted in the construction of a pucca road at least part of the way to school. These days, she says, apart from her studies, she is busy trying to get admission for a cousin to a local private school under the Right to Education Act.
“You don’t have to be an adult to realize that these are not the sort of conditions—lack of toilets and water—where anyone should have to go to school,” says Nargis. “But it’s also a question of mindset. One of my teachers was still using the gap between the blocks as a toilet. When I questioned her, she stopped talking to me and refused to mark my papers. Should things be this way?”
They should not, especially at a time when “female aspiration is finding a voice”, says Meeta Sengupta, founder of Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Education Strategy. Girls are doing exceedingly well—in Lucknow, 15-year-old Sushma Verma, the daughter of a sanitation worker, is India’s youngest PhD student, and in Odisha, 13-year-old Lalita Prasida Sripada Srisai has just won an award at the Google science fair for her project utilizing waste corn cobs to purify water.
“The stories of these role models are widely reported and are inspiring girls across the country,” says Sengupta.
But alongside rising aspirations, expanding infrastructure, too, has had an impact. Between 2008-09 and 2013-14, an additional 58,420 government and 70,718 private schools were built.
Moreover, says Sengupta, the effort by NGOs through measures like funding, coaching and advocacy has had a “huge impact”.
“Girls want to fly,” says Neelam Raisinghani, senior manager at Educate Girls, an NGO in Rajasthan. “As an NGO, it is our job to kindle that flame within local communities and make them realize that they have a stake in the school; they can take decisions and ask questions in a manner that no government department can.”
A former deputy director in charge of girls’ education with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the government’s flagship programme for achieving universal elementary education, Raisinghani acknowledges that government programmes have gone a long way in plugging gaps in the education of girls, particularly in rural areas.
Still, infrastructural gaps have not gone away. For instance, she says, toilets have indeed been built, but in many schools that she has visited, they are either non-functional or being cleaned and maintained by the students themselves.
“The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan gave a lot of kids access to schools,” says Yamini Aiyar, a director of Accountability Initiative, part of the think-tank Centre for Policy Research. “A large proportion of those children are now entering secondary school. It’s a continuation of that movement.”
But increased enrolment does not result in better learning outcomes. Only 48% of Class V students can read a Class II text, finds the 2014 Annual Status of Education Report, facilitated by the NGO Pratham. Despite the enactment of such laws as the Right to Education and increased spending on infrastructure, the real challenges no longer seem to be about getting girls to school, but in teaching them basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Yet, despite absent teachers, overcrowded classrooms and unsanitary conditions, girls are attending schools in larger numbers than ever before and, for the first time, in larger numbers than boys at least at the primary and secondary levels.
Perhaps the answer lies with the mothers who themselves never went to school and are now determined to see that their daughters are financially independent.
For Nargis’s mother, Shabnam, who never went to school and works at a tailoring unit, there is huge consolation in the fact that “at least my daughter will finish her schooling”.
But after Nargis completes Class X, then what? How will she commute to the higher secondary school at Tughlaqabad? Mother and daughter are clear: they will find a way.
Or, as Nargis says, “Ghar toh nahin baithoongi (I will not sit at home)”.