Giving the girls their birthright

Her Education

Giving the girls their birthright

“What can girls really do by getting educated?” is still the cynical attitude of rural parents. This must change, stresses Anita Rampal 

A good school education cannot be based on a meaningless chalk-and-talk routine and textbooks that don’t encourage students to think. What, after all, is the purpose of learning? It is not just about getting a job or social recognition; it is about an individual’s development. Yet, in a lot of communities, that larger purpose is still not acknowledged, especially where girls are concerned. 

What can a girl do?

The presumption continues to be that girls are not going to really do anything with their schooling and that nothing much can be expected from them. This, in turn, impacts negatively on their self-perception and capacity to persist with schooling. There is also the divide between private and government schooling that impacts girls from disadvantaged homes disproportionately. Girls tend to get relegated to poorly-run government schools. Often, even in relatively prosperous families, a daughter will get sent to a government school while her brother attends a better resourced private institution.

Girls and responsibilities

One area of education that is very weak in India is our early learning systems. If we don’t have good systems to ensure that younger siblings are better looked after, then the responsibility of caring for them falls on their older female siblings, which may even have the effect of taking them completely away from their schooling. Yet, we know that if girls manage to stay on in the system and access higher secondary schooling, they often show more consistency in their performance than their male counterparts.

Quality of teaching

Interestingly, over the last few years, the highest level of dropouts we have had is actually in Class Two or Class Three. Children, especially girls, come to school and then, within a couple of years, leave it. This is because their schooling just doesn’t seem relevant to their families. It is a vicious cycle. If no learning is taking place because of the lack of a proper system, then parents and the community will not be motivated enough to send the girl to school. So we have the case of the girl being placed in an indifferent educational environment to start with and then, when the results don’t show, it becomes an argument for withdrawing her altogether from school.

Regularity of learning

While there has been progress in terms of girls’ enrolment, no one really knows about their levels of participation. There is, in fact, a mismatch between the actual enrolment of girls and their regular attendance. Any development within the family – an illness at home, a ceremony, someone coming down for a visit – can affect their regular attendance. Once there is a break in their education, even a short break of say a week, it becomes extremely difficult for them to catch up. So it is not just the quality of learning that is crucial, but also the regularity of learning. Middle school more or less replicates the situation at the primary level. We find here that few teachers have high expectations with regard to their girl students. 

Gender in education

To change this, we need better curricula and a different kind of teaching. For a long time, addressing gender bias in school education meant dealing with it at a superficial level, like having more illustrations of girls in textbooks. But such measures will take only take us this far. What is needed is a major restructuring of power equations. Gender bias in school education is really a cluster of many issues. They include methods of teaching, family aspirations, and, of course, the textbooks used. So while it is true that we must have more representation of girls in textbooks, we should also have different kinds of representation.

Undo stereotyping

Addressing gender stereotyping is a complex process. You find that even very young children have very fixed notions of what a woman should be doing. You will find eight-year-old boys saying, “This is not what ‘ma’ has to do, this is what papa should be doing.” How do we address this? We can always write a paragraph about social stereotypes, and leave it at that, but that won’t change anything. Only when teachers engage with students through conversation and encourage the active participation of all the children, regardless of their sex, can change come about.

The idea is to end the old top-down approach to teaching. Children, instead of being passive consumers of information, need to construct their own knowledge. Only then can the various biases within the system, whether of caste, class or gender, be addressed.

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