Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Aspirations bring girls to schools, lack of toilets drives them away

47% schools in the country do not have toilets for girls, forcing them to skip classes or drop out totally

New Delhi: Rukiya Khatun, 16, often skips breakfast before going to school, and feels tired and sleepy in the classroom, missing out on important lessons. The reason: lack of clean toilets at her school. Khatun is not alone. Scores of her schoolmates prefer to skip breakfast or a meal during recreation period to avoid having to use the toilet.

Sanitation is a key problem for these girls. Those “who don’t know how to manage it", like her sister, miss out on regular schooling, says Khatun.

But unlike her sister, Khatun is more persistent in pursuing education. “I don’t want to drop out. My sister was a little less motivated as a student and problems in school prompted her to drop out," says Khatun, a Class XI student in Seemapuri, in north-east Delhi.

Archana Yadav, 17, a Class XII student in the same locality, goes a step further and suggests that if schools can provide clean toilets, more girls will be able to complete their schooling. “Whenever we complain, there is a staple answer: it will improve," says Yadav, whose father is dead and her mother provides for the family as a daily-wager.

“Poor people like us cannot afford the fees at a private school. And the situation in government schools is really bad, often forcing girls to skip classes or drop out," says Yadav. Nearly 76% of India’s schools are operated by the government, but nearly half these schools don’t have usable toilet facilities for girl students. The situation is relatively better in private schools.

Despite the Right to Education (RTE) Act coming into force on 1 April 2010, the situation has not improved much.

More than six decades after independence, half our citizens—over 600 million Indians—simply do not have access to a toilet either at home or in their communities, Census 2011 found.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2013, published by education non-profit Pratham, the percentage of usable toilets for girls has increased from 32.9% in 2010 to 53.3% in 2013.

“If the government wants to promote girl education, they have to improve basic facilities for girls in schools," says Delhi-based Nazma Parveen, whose daughter completed Class XII from a government school.

Three years ago, Parveen shifted her daughter from a private school to a government school for financial reasons. Ever since, she says, her daughter has been reluctant to attend school and almost every day Parveen has to motivate her about the benefits of education.

“It’s aspiration, not the facilities available, that is taking children to schools," she says, pointing to a bigger shift India is observing and what experts refer to as “despite government not because of government".

“My husband is illiterate and I am school educated, but we want our children to study and become successful," says Parveen.

“Sanitation is a clear public good," says Yamini Aiyar, director of Accountability Initiative, part of the Centre for Policy Research. “When we are shaping the future of the next generation in schools, we need to provide basic facilities."

Aiyar is not sure whether there is a relation between the lack of toilets and education outcome and dropout rates at the primary school level. But there is a correlation between the two at the middle and high school levels, she says.

“Since the government has committed to it, they need to deliver. Let teachers take care of education, not physical and peripheral infrastructure," says Aiyar.

The ministry is aware of the situation and is working to improve it through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme and the RTE Act, said a human resource development ministry official.

The official, who requested not to be named, said that while the central government can support the financing of basic facilities, state governments need to monitor the situation on the ground.

The official pointed out that nearly 97% of children now have access to education at the elementary level shows the government’s commitment.

School education in India caters to more than 220 million students. Each state has its unique problems, both economic and social, said the official. “But everybody is committed to improving facilities and the government realizes the importance of girl child education," the official added.

The 2013 ASER report indicates that nationally, the proportion of girls in the age group 11-14 who are not enrolled in schools has fallen from 6% in 2012 to 5.5% in 2013. Yet, among all those entering school, nearly half, or 49.3%, children drop out by the time they reach Class X. Among girls, this number is 47.9%, according to official data. The dropout rate among boys stands higher, in most cases due to financial reasons.

“Toilets are highly inadequate in schools and are definitely one of the reasons for dropping out. But more than anything it’s a dignity issue and an issue of security for girl students," says Sachin Golwalkar, programme director at Child Fund India, a non-profit organization working in the field of school improvement, including building toilets in several states.

The issue does not limit to just older girls, but younger ones, too.

“My daughter dropped out of school after Class III largely because her school did not have toilets two years ago," says Yogika Dilip in Pune. “This year when the school established usable toilets, my daughter rejoined."

Mridula, a health and hygiene officer with Action India, a non-governmental organization working for improvement of schooling among girls, says girls often confide in her about the problem they face at school.

“It’s a menstrual health issue for grown-up girls. But schools often fail to recognize this. So, even those who don’t actually drop out, end up missing school for a week every month," says Mridula, who uses only one name. “Going outdoors to answer nature’s call poses a serious threat to the dignity of these girls."

Khushnabi Begum, who lives in Delhi’s new Seemapuri slum cluster, got her elder daughter married two years after she dropped out of school. “When a girl does not go to school, there is constant pressure on parents to marry her off," Khushnabi Begum says, adding that this is the situation in most poor families.

There is a bigger side-effect of girls dropping out of schools. According to a 17 June report by philanthropic organization Dasra, India accounts for 40% of total child marriages in the world.

Dasra’s report says 61% of women in India in the 25-49 age group were married off before the age of 18. Overall, 47% of Indian girls are married before they turn 18 and 22% of these girls give birth before turning 18, said the report titled Marry me later…

“The cost of lost productivity due to adolescent pregnancies in India is $7.7 billion a year. Whereas girls who pursue secondary schooling are 70% less likely to marry as children," says the report.

Golwalkar of Child Fund India agrees. Dropping out of school has a direct correlation with child marriage, he says. “If a girl goes on to study in higher secondary and colleges, it will cut down the menace of child marriage significantly. It’s a socio-cultural issue," he adds.

But Aiyar of Accountability Initiative is a little sceptical about the issue. She says more study is required to establish whether dropping out leads to child marriage, or child marriage leads to dropouts.

Khushnabi Begum, however, is clear: “Poor people like us want our girls to study more and get well-settled in life. But if they drop out due to several reasons including toilet facilities, the parents come under social pressure to get them married. It’s a mix of aspiration, reality and pressure from the society."

This is the third part of a Mint series on Toilets for India.

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