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If we want peace in a world where families who do not particularly wish to send their girl children to school are compelled to do so, the school itself has to be a safe place. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
If we want peace in a world where families who do not particularly wish to send their girl children to school are compelled to do so, the school itself has to be a safe place. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The link between schools and peace

The appetite for educating the girl child remains inherently limited, because her natal family undertakes all the sacrifice and gets no commensurate gain

The Nobel Peace prize to be jointly awarded next week to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi carries a powerful message. Gender-neutral access to school education, unobstructed by early induction into the labour force, will undoubtedly make the world a more equal and peaceful place. But there remain difficult issues to resolve.

Although opposition to schooling for girl children is not usually expressed as viciously as it was against Yousafzai, it is far more widespread than we imagine. There are gradations to that opposition. There are those who oppose any schooling at all for girl children; those who will permit it only until puberty; and those who will support it beyond puberty, but see a need to truncate it at some point.

Much of this opposition is not voiced, but surfaces every time there is yet another criminal assault on a girl child in school, or on the way between school and home. As incidents of this kind become alarmingly commonplace in all parts of India, not enough attention gets focused on the kinds of regulation that would prevent them from happening, while those who would protect girl children by preventing them from going to school are more convinced that they were right all along.

The difficulty, of course, is that once enough families voluntarily send their girls to school, reversing that process becomes difficult to enforce. Which then raises the question as to how it was that families volunteered to send girls to school in the first place.

Literacy transmission to girls did happen before schools, within households so inclined and equipped. The business of outsourcing literacy transmission to schools open to all, with or without a fee barrier, is a fairly recent historical development. What moved the process was economies of scale. It was quite simply more cost effective to have the cost of a teacher defrayed over a larger number of children.

Two hundred years ago, in England for instance, public schools open to all were far fewer in number than private schools operating within homes, with outside children limited to the extent space permitted. (The term public school in the Indian context today more commonly denotes government-funded, but is also used in that earlier sense of admissions open to all fee-paying students.) For example, as we learn from biographies of Jane Austen, her family ran a private school at home for boys. Room for boarders from outside was created by turfing out the girl children of the house, Jane among them, to other families which ran private schools for girls. Fees for boys’ schools were higher than the fees charged by girls’ schools, and this difference contributed towards the Austen family income. Schools for girls charged lower fees because the teaching and facilities were inferior to what the boys got. Schooling for girls simply did not matter as much.

That brings us back to the question of why schooling for girls happened in India at all, when the benefits of doing so were by no means clear. Perhaps historians will document the process, but oral history from people who were young a century ago provides sketchy evidence of what might have happened. To hear them tell it, in the days before schools provided a disciplined channelling of the energies of children first beginning to flex the functions of speech and movement, the task of controlling male children was a nightmare until they reached an age when they could be inducted into the performance of adult tasks. In rural India where there were large cohorts of boys who ran wild in packs, horrific corporal punishment was employed to keep them at heel.

School was the answer to this parental nightmare. It offered an enclosed space where children were incarcerated, and where their herd instinct to do the same thing was used to make them accept a common template of alphabets and numerals, and the sound that went with each curlicue. They emerged tamed and tractable.

Girl children did not pose as much of a discipline problem, and were therefore not seen to be requiring schooling. But the few sent experimentally to the same institutions, seated apart or in the back of the classroom, displayed a similar impact. They became more accepting of convention, since literacy itself calls for acceptance of conformity to convention. In the marriage market, a premium developed for girls who had been given some (but limited) exposure to school education, because they were expected to become more manageable wives.

In time, the benefits of keeping male children in school for longer than the few initial years needed to discipline them began to be visible.

There were job openings for literate boys, and earnings from writing letters on behalf of non-literate people. These benefits did not accrue to girls, except where girl child attendance had grown sufficiently to create a demand for female teachers in girls’ schools. There even developed openings for girls to become medical doctors with a specialization in gynaecology, to preside over childbirth in royal and aristocratic homes.

Teachers and doctors—these were the avenues initially open to girl children lucky enough to receive the long years of education and training required. Today, this has expanded into a very wide set of opportunities. Indeed, Yousafzai has spoken of how she rejected the notion of teaching and medicine being the only acceptable jobs for women. Even so, these rewards do not usually accrue to the natal family since, by the mainstream convention, the girls get married and go away.

The appetite for educating the girl child thus was (and remains) inherently limited, because her natal family undertakes all the sacrifice and gets no commensurate gain. What has become today a demand for gender parity in school access, moved powerfully by global institutions like the United Nations, derives its justification from the social gains of educating girls. But even with free uniforms and mid-day meals and school texts, the incentive for the family which sends a girl child to school is very limited. When this is added to by the possibility of the child being assaulted in the school premises, or in transit between school and home, the burden becomes unbearable.

This disconnect between a socially imposed demand to send girl children to school for 10 years at a minimum, and the lack of a social assurance of her safety in those very premises, has to be urgently addressed. The toilet issue is closely related, because sequestered institutional spaces are precisely where the probability of assault is highest.

Female foeticide is a way by which families seek to wriggle out of the impossible demands placed upon them to educate a girl child, where that process is fraught with daily anxiety and yields no certain financial reward. Female foeticide rates are lowest among tribal groups where girl children stay on in the natal home after marriage, or among other groups where school education, if given to girls at all, is truncated fairly early. There are, of course, many other factors driving female foeticide.

If we want peace in a world where families who do not particularly wish to send their girl children to school are compelled to do so, the school itself has to be a safe place, and provide functioning toilets and safe drinking water. Free mid-day meals and free tuition are clearly welcome, but cannot replace the need for safety and toilets.

School inspections, on a random roster like the new labour inspection system that has just been introduced; compulsory display of inspection certificates signed by public officials who may be called to account by parents of school-going children—these are necessary for peace to co-exist with schooling for girl children, going forward.

When children are switched from child labour servitude to (hopefully) schools by the heroic efforts of Satyarthi and other activists like him, they certainly enter an environment that is far better for them in the long run. But it may not necessarily be more benign. Without remedial preparation, school could be a humiliating experience. If there is a family knowingly sending the child to work, and dependent on the child’s earnings, they will support the move only if compensated fully for their income loss. Continued monitoring will be necessary to ensure that the child is not sent back to work, particularly where the child himself may prefer to go back to a known environment from one that is new and threatening.

As for the girl child, schools in many regions of the world are characterized by fundamental deprivations of rights like physical safety and access to functioning toilets, unlike the school Yousafzai was fortunate enough to attend. The social compulsion to send girls to school in the face of such dangers may force families to decide not to have that girl child at all.

Indira Rajaraman is an economist and is currently on the board of directors of the Reserve Bank of India.

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