Does girl child figure in Swachh Bharat?

How do we attract girls to schools? Ask any educationist this question. It has been discussed and debated in countless meetings, workshops and seminars.

 Long-term solutions like providing better access to schools or improved methods of teaching or even changing school timings have been suggested and implemented. The Centre has earmarked and spent huge amounts of money on providing these amenities, in addition to mid-day meal programmes to attract them. State governments have not lagged behind in these matters.

Philanthropic organisations have donated books and learning material to encourage girls to enrol in schools. Everyone knows the old adage that if you educate a girl, you educate a family.

Yet, in spite of all the five-year plans and the allocation of funds – not to forget the learned discussions on public platforms by eminent educationists – nothing has been done to provide the girl child with the most important and urgent need in every school, which is a clean, usable and accessible toilet. Now that the prime minister has taken up this topic, let us hope that she will not be neglected in this respect any longer.

According to a shocking UNESCO report, statistics from 157 countries indicate that only one out of every three had even considered school sanitation facilities for girls. In countries like India, the Human resource development ministry has identified a mere 8,91,455 schools as having separate toilets for girl students out of 10,65,056 institutions. Whether these are usable is another question. 

Even in the most progressive states, schools lack separate toilets for boys and girls. In a progressive state like Karnataka, more than 50 per cent of schools have no sanitation facilities at all. In several high schools, girl students have to share them with boys. Naturally, the drop out rate after primary school is high among these students, despite all the mid day meals and other attractions. 
If only our educators understood that lack of basic facilities like access to clean drinking water and comfortable sanitation facilities impact girls’ education more drastically than missing a free meal! It is a well-known fact that of the hundreds who flock to primary schools in India, more than 50 per cent drop out after Class 4 for this very simple reason. And still, more do so after Class 7 for the same reason.

 Besides, the lack of proper sanitary facilities places them at risk of infections or worse. Private schools which are prepared to spend huge resources on more classrooms and blackboards, which mean more admissions and more money, also ignore this vital need. 

They are only a little better off than state-run schools in this regard. Sadly, basic amenities for girls is not on anybody’s agenda even though diseases like diarrhoea kill nearly 80,000 children while 8 lakh get hospitalised - many of them girls - in a year in India, mainly due to unsanitary conditions. Highly publicised programmes like the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan and similar projects seem to exist only on paper. If the Centre really spends the promised Rs 1,340 billion rupees on building proper toilets in schools, there is hope still for future generations of students.

Multiple obstacles

In a country like ours, girl students have several hurdles to cross before they even complete 10 years of schooling. Poverty, coupled with social stigmas, dogs their education every step of the way. If they are children of working parents – as they invariably are – they face the added responsibility of housekeeping and caring for younger siblings. While their brothers are made to stand in long queues to collect kerosene and other rations for the family, the girl child in poor households has the added burden of cooking, cleaning and feeding her younger siblings. 

The second biggest hurdle is her own safety. If the school is miles away, as it usually is, in remote rural or hilly areas, her parents prefer to keep her at home, unlettered and unschooled. When the girl child is lucky to be sent to school, it is usually only up to the end of primary class. Fear of sexual harassment or molestation by classmates or male teachers is a big deterrent to her further education. 

Added to all these hindrances, if she does not even have access to a clean and usable toilet with adequate privacy, how do our education planners hope to enroll and retain girls in schools? We are not talking of rural India alone. Even urban schools in large cities have the same limitations to discourage girls from studying. Under these unenviable circumstances, how dare we talk of women’s rights and privileges? 

Unless we provide the barest facility to a girl to study peacefully in school, all other talk – even the Right to Education (RTE) becomes a meaningless slogan. Let us hope that the present move to “clean” the country does not turn out to be another feat of public posturing.Schools and sanitation facilities, especially for girls, will tell all. 

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