India's education system and its girls
For the 68% of India’s population who are said to live on less than 2 dollars per day, education can offer a sustainable route out of poverty and drastically improve lives across the country. An equal education between genders provides a strong foundation to build transferable skills that can lead to diversified career paths, as well as significantly increase female empowerment and ultimately improve the often-dampened perception of a woman’s role within society.
However, without this equality, a vicious cycle can develop whereby generations upon generations are trapped within dreadful levels of poverty, unable to escape as a result of their unequal treatment and opportunities. Sadly, India has had a historic struggle with achieving equality within its education system. Let’s find out why this is happening, and -more importantly- what can be done to solve it.
Strong correlations between inequalities and castes
Poverty and rigid religious traditions, specifically those related to Hinduism’s caste system, are deeply rooted in the country. Women in India’s poorest and lowest caste, Dalits, make up 16% of the country’s female population. Common injustices and challenges to this group include access to healthcare and education, legal status, and responsibilities associated with childcare and marriage. This has had profound effects on their socio-economic well-being and living standards as their opportunities are tremendously limited and they remain confined to the bottom of the social ladder.
Take literacy rates, for example, this stands at a worrying 56.5 per cent for Dalit women, compared to a national average of 73 per cent. These women are also subject to an exceedingly higher likelihood of dropping out of education, and the rate stands at a relatively concerning 81% for Dalit’s aged 6-14 years old. This is due to social norms associated with unpaid domestic and care work, a duty that girls are expected to take on typically when they start menstruation and forces them to sidestep school. The women are also more likely to experience social discrimination against their caste, sometimes verbal, but often violent, making some schools an unsafe and deterring environment. And, partly due to their lack of education, this makes these women’s voices weaker and their ability to address the problem harder.
Getting girls to school
So, on a more positive note, a lot is being done to address the inequalities riddled throughout India’s education system. Sincere internal efforts led by the Indian government are made possible by the Gender Inclusion Fund to provide “quality and equitable education for all girls”. For example, the fund is building safer and more reliable transportation to get girls to and from school, as safety concerns over their commute infringes on their ability to attend schools. Where travel to schools is becoming less dangerous, it protects groups such as Dalit women who are often victims of abuse, and eventually reduces fear-induced dropouts.
Besides this, Tejas Asia, a non-profit institution, has curated a fascinating initiative called Hope Buses. This provides free education and free hot meals for India’s most marginalised groups and where schooling facilities would otherwise be lacking. The classroom-style buses host lessons that teach basic English, mathematics, and Hindi. They aim to bridge the gap that was especially widened by the current COVID-19 pandemic, for those pupils struggling to access education, given India’s lockdown efforts forced all schools to close for prolonged periods. So far, several thousand girls have benefitted from the immensely valuable programme which promotes inclusivity and safe learning.
The social stigmas around menstruation
The social norm of dropping out of education once a girl begins menstruation is also being addressed by Hinware, India’s primary sanitary-ware brand, which is trying to ensure girls go back to school safely and with dignity. Action is being taken in their “Build A Toilet, Build Her Future” campaign, facilitating female-only toilets that are well-supplied with sanitation supplies, hoping to address the stigma around menstruation. To date, over 50 toilets have been built, covering 19 schools, and addressing the mammoth problem of nearly 20 million yearly dropouts by girl students due to a lack of proper and private sanitation facilities within the school premises.
Girls who code
Aside from reducing dropout rates, ‘Girls Who Code’ are a non-governmental organisation addressing the alarmingly lower literacy rates and aim to boost the prosperity of a career in science and technology - a typically male-dominated industry. 110 coding clubs have been set up so far, and are available before, during and after school to build a strong tech-related skillset, aiming to create a 180-degree perspective pivot from unpaid care work to a prosperous career path that conquers gender-related norms. They also work with parents to reinforce the idea that girls have the potential to map out a future that goes beyond low-paid agriculture work or caregiving. They emphasise a focus on getting a tertiary education that unlocks medium to high paid jobs and attaining financial independence, in the hope of reducing dropout rates.
Next steps: Lifting individual projects to levels of nation-wide changes
These projects are all relatively recent in their implementation, all within the past 5 years. So, whilst efforts remain strong, we can only patiently wait to see whether the benefits of pledges and collective actions will allow India to rise beyond the tricky history. It is undeniable that the gender gap is a profound issue in India, but initiatives across the country are taking some necessary steps towards addressing the challenges and creating more prosperous futures for India’s girls. Slowly but surely, the nation is waking up to the problem, and India’s government, alongside national corporations, and non-governmental organisations are striving towards a truly brighter future where the nation’s relationship with inequality may become a conversation for a history class.
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