Author and Former Academic, Delhi University
The recently released Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2019, based on a survey conducted in 26 districts across 24 states in India, covering over 36,000 children in the age-group of four-eight years, concludes that deficiencies in India’s pre-primary school system are resulting in a learning crisis. This is especially true of girls’ education. In six out of the 24 states, it found only 25 per cent or less of girls in rural areas to be literate. An inherent gender bias in the rural society against female education is regarded as the main reason for not getting females enrolled in schools. It also observes that when it comes to education, parents prefer private schools for the education of boys and government schools for girls, if at all.
According to Census 2011, women constitute 48.5 per cent of the country’s population, but the female literacy rate is only 65.46 per cent — as opposed to the male literacy rate of 82.14 per cent — of the total female population of India. This finding also corroborates the recent report on the ten years of the working of the Right to Education Act, 2009, which had assured free and compulsory education for children between the age of six and 14 years. This report similarly indicates that 30 per cent of the girls from poor families have never set foot in a classroom, and nearly 40 per cent of the adolescent girls in the age-group of 15 to 18 years of age are not attending school.
Despite some progress, there continues to be a persistent gap between female and male access to education, and continued neglect of girls’ education remains a hard reality, particularly in rural India. The rural and urban areas present a contrast as in the former, there is a discernible difference in the opportunities that girls get for education as well as employment. The urban female literacy rate is 64 per cent and rural women literacy rate is half of it, i.e., 31 per cent.
Girls’ lack of access to education emerges from expectations, attitudes and biases in communities and families, social traditions, religious and cultural beliefs, all of which limit girls’ educational opportunities. Economics plays a key role when it comes to coping with direct costs such as tuition fees, cost of textbooks, uniforms, transportation and other expenses. Wherever, especially in families with many children, these costs exceed the income of the family, girls are the first to be denied schooling. In rural India, the foremost factor limiting female education is poverty as a majority of the people are poor and cannot afford to give education to their children and when they have to make a choice, they prefer the son over the daughter. The notion behind this is that the girl will eventually get married and leave the house and the son will take up their responsibility in old age.
A significant factor behind the illiteracy of rural girls or limiting their literacy is their utility in performing household and agricultural chores. Cleaning the house, preparing the food, looking after the siblings, the elderly and the sick, grazing the cattle and collecting firewood are some of the key tasks they have to perform. There is also some apprehension that education might create resistance to doing domestic chores.
Moreover, lack of educational institutions near the villages makes it difficult for girls dwelling in rural regions to travel long distances. The physical safety of the girls, especially, is a matter of great concern. Fear of sexual harassment is a reality that impedes girls’ education. Also, many parents do not feel the necessity to educate girls as they do not really want their daughters to work. In any case, early marriages are majorly responsible for depriving the girls of attending school.
Why is it crucial to ensure education for rural women? What changes are expected that educated rural women will bring in their lives? This is, perhaps, best answered by UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, 2013. According to this report, girls with a higher level of education are less likely to get married at an early age — if all girls had a primary education, there would be 14 per cent fewer child marriages and if all girls had a secondary education, there would be two-thirds fewer child marriages. Moreover, girls with higher levels of education are less likely to have children at an early age — 10 per cent fewer girls would become pregnant under 17 years if they all had a primary education. Almost 60 per cent fewer girls would become pregnant under 17 if they all had a secondary education.
Educated women are also less likely to die in childbirth. Even primary education would reduce maternal deaths by two-thirds. Educated girls can also help save lives, as there would be fewer child deaths specially, as mothers’ education improves child nutrition and their stunting from malnutrition. Educated women also have a better awareness of personal hygiene, menstruation and childbirth, and, consequently, lesser chance of developing uterus and other reproductive system related diseases. With better awareness of contraceptive and birth control options, they can prevent unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions.
Consequently, education is considered as a milestone for women empowerment because it equips them to respond to the challenges, to confront their traditional roles and alter their lives. Girls’ education is the most powerful tool to change their status not only within the family but in society as well. Educated women are more likely to find work and they are also known to devote more income to the family’s welfare as compared to men. Schooling enables a girl to efficiently engage in both market-focused and household activities. These affect her family’s welfare and enhance her potential contribution to the development of the household, local and regional economy.
Education is widely recognised as the gateway to economic security and opportunity, particularly for girls and women. There is little denying the fact that investing in human capital through education is one of the most effective means of reducing poverty and encouraging sustainable development. In fact, one is hoping that a recent news report that the Haryana government, after closing 2,502 government schools in the last three years, may well close another 1,026 primary schools which have less than 25 students, does not become a reality. Instead of closing these down, the government should take steps to ensure the attendance of the girls. However, what needs to change this scenario are not just governmental efforts, but also a change in societal norms, in cultural and traditional biases, and in the general mindset of people. And in this, the media, the civil society, and the youth, including women, have a lot to contribute towards making Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao a reality.
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