Will learning alter her quality of life?
There is focus on the education of girls, but will increasing access make women, especially those in the rural areas, educated? The larger question is has it improved the employment avenues of those who can go to schools and colleges?
Sudhamahi Regunathan

Time and again studies are finding the number of girls harnessing undergraduate education to be increasing in areas where they have access to it. Have women benefited from the education they have accessed and if they have, in what way?

The answer is not so straightforward.

Enrolment of girls in local undergraduate colleges is very impressive. Girls all over India in rural areas are grateful they have a college in their village. "Or else our parents would not educate us," they say. College authorities also say something similar, particularly if they offer only humanities for study. Only-girls colleges never have any vacancies in their seats. The reasons for this are many. Boys can go out of the village/town to study the course of their choice or to the college of their choice. Girls are not allowed to leave the village. Boys opt for courses in ITI or professional courses rather than graduation in humanities. Thirdly, many boys do not have the luxury of studying. And lastly, there are places like parts of Punjab where such compulsions of poverty do not engage the youth. It is the problem of plenty. With prosperous farmers as fathers, the youth of Punjab, are taking in large number to drugs, which keeps them away from education.

It is also true that many undergraduate colleges, particularly the privately set up ones opt to be only-girls institutions, both because the national priority has been to educate girls and also because born of the above reason many schemes and grants are available to only-women’s institutions.

If one looks at the enrolment rates as given in the UGC Deliberations of the Working Group for Higher Education in the 12th Five year Plan (2012-17), one finds the enrolment rates of women to men does not show the disparity one would imagine. The Gross Enrolments Rates are poor anyway at 29.6 per cent for men in urban areas and that for women being 30.5 per cent. As the bell of caution rings for men in general in urban areas, look at the rural figures. It shows 8.3 per cent enrolment for women students as against 13.7 per cent for men.

This disparity of about 5 and half percent in the rural areas becomes understandable when you consider that only those girls avail of higher education who have a college in their village. According to UGC figures the number of colleges in the country are about 31324. They are not evenly spread out in the country. In areas where the enrolment rates of girls are low, as in Bihar (30 per cent), Jharkhand(34 per cent ), Lakshwadeep and Chhattisgarh( 35 per cent), Rajasthan and UP (38 per cent and West Bengal, 39 per cent, the number of colleges are much less as compared to states like Goa or Tamil Nadu where the enrolment rates are touching 50 per cent.

College is all too often looked at as a safe "time-pass" for the daughters, particularly in the more rural, remote areas. If in urban areas a "working" bride is seen as an advantage, in rural areas, the idea is still not linked to education. In rural areas, there are often jobs available on daily wages basis for unskilled workers.

Graduation alone does not leave the girl with any earning skill. As per UGC guidelines, many colleges do opt for vocational certificate or diploma courses. But these are all run after college hours. Most girls are not able to stay behind for they have duties at home. In some states the college timing is such that it would get too late for them to reach home and so they do not stay back. It appears that the vocational component should be made a part of the BA curriculum so that all students acquire a vocational skill within college hours.

As the fire of knowledge-seeking mutes into the cooking fire, one realises education alone cannot bring about the desired change. And increasing access is not the complete solution. To move into another level of educated society which recognises that the woman is also qualified to think, earn and work, social changes and changes in the mind set are absolutely essential.

Secure hostel arrangements may be one step in the right direction. UGC is giving grants easily to colleges for the construction of girls hostel. But more importantly, attitudes have to change. While women; urban, rural, eastern or western all face the same problem of finding the right mix of work and home making, the rural woman is still many decades behind. Her ability to work is only brought to fore for menial help. Her thinking skills, her ambitions and aspirations are still unrecognised. Few have paused to wonder what levels of frustration she would experience when after being educated at least up to graduation level, she continues to live a life of an unlettered. Would any ambition have veered its head within her? Does it matter that having aroused that interest, society suppresses it? Does any one think about the silent sacrifice the contemporary rural girl is making, of herself and her kindled intellect?