Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Gender equity in education

Patriarchal attitudes and gender discrimination are very much within us, in the family and even in classrooms

The inner quadrangle of the school in Gulbarga was huge, and full of shiny triangular frames, wheels and other assembly parts of bicycles. On one of the corridors along the quadrangle, 10 men were skilfully and rapidly assembling cycles. They were all from eastern Uttar Pradesh, and said that in another five days they would move on to a school in Sindagi. Through the summer these people, and many others like them, move from school to school across states, assembling cycles while schools are on vacation. When the schools reopen the cycles are ready to be distributed.

Year after year this massive operation is run across the country, to help the education of girls.

In Karnataka, the cycle scheme was launched in 2006. All girls from disadvantaged families in rural areas in grade 8, in government and government-aided schools, are given free cycles. Unlike primary schools which are within a kilometre of all villages, schools with higher classes are at a distance away from most villages. These distances have a role to play in the higher dropout rate of girls from schools in higher grades. Commute across these distances present problems, for example, the cost involved, the very real troubles girls face in commuting on foot, social norms.

The cycles help with the commute, which also helps the family to make up its mind to let the girl continue studying in higher grades. Many states have a similar scheme, which is one amongst many that help girls get in to and stay in schools.

From the early 1990s there have been sustained and massive efforts to drive gender equity in education in India i.e. a special focus on education of girls. The Union government has played a central role, and the state governments have played their roles. While the matter of gender equity was much talked about earlier, the real push started after the education policy of 1986. The District Primary Education Programme launched in 1994 and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan from 2001, had a specific mandate of achieving gender equity. These nationwide programmes had multiple schemes and mechanisms to help enable this mandate.

One crucial goal of gender equity has been achieved in India. The gender parity index which was 0.76 in 1991 is 1 now for primary schooling. What this means is that in 1991 for every 100 boys in primary schools there were 76 girls, and now there are 100, i.e. complete parity.

In fact, this complete parity was achieved in 2008. To realize the full import of what has happened, this development has to be seen in the context of the dramatic growth in overall student enrolment numbers in the same period. Enrolment has gone up from about 65-70% to 99% i.e. earlier 65-70% children of school-going age were enrolled in schools, now almost all children are in schools. Put another way, just about 25 years ago, 45-50% of girls in India were in school, today almost all girls in India are in schools. This is a commendable achievement. As much as we ruminate over all that is wrong with our school education, we must pat ourselves on the back for this achievement.

In the same period, the gender parity index has gone from 0.6 to 0.9 for secondary schools and from 0.54 to 0.8 for higher education. That has also been significant progress. Its not as though all this progress is the result of only government programmes, there has been significant civil society mobilization around this issue. Overall the improvement has been driven by improvement in access (e.g. more schools, cycle schemes), by changes in core educational factors (e.g. teacher awareness and sensibility, inclusive texts) and by the evolving, changing social norms and expectations, which are partly influenced by the spread of education itself.

Every month I meet parents of students in rural government schools, often, many times a month. I always ask them, why they send their children to schools. The responses are always complex.

In the case of boys, the response is a mix of economic, developmental and social aspirations i.e. he will get a good job, he will gain confidence, there is no respect without being educated, education is the only path to higher status etc. In the case of girls the responses rarely have direct economic aspiration, and have some different developmental and social aspirations, e.g. she will gain confidence, she will be able to take care of herself better, she will go (get married in) to a better family, it’s necessary for respect.

These differences in the reasons for sending girls and boys to school, merely reflects the reality which we know well. Patriarchal attitudes and gender discrimination are very much within us, in the family and even in classrooms. That still must not diminish the achievement of gender parity in primary schools. For it tells us that we can make progress, with sustained and focused effort. Which was what we need to do, on all the fronts in education that are in need of improvement.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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