Rope in clergy, fight female illiteracy

Rope in clergy, fight female illiteracy

Census figures reveal that Hindu and Muslim women are lagging substantially behind their counterparts in other religious communities when it comes to learning to read and write. Just 51.89 per cent of women in the Muslim community and 55.97 per cent among Hindus are literate. The smaller religious communities seem to be doing better, with Jain women topping the literacy list with 86.42 per cent women literates followed by Christians (74.34 per cent), Buddhists (71.83 per cent) and Sikhs (67.50 per cent). Across religious communities, women trail men. While the male-female gap in literacy has narrowed among all religious communities over the decades, it is a matter of concern that such a large proportion of women in the two largest communities – Hindu and Muslim – are illiterate. And rural women are lagging far behind their urban sisters.

Merely opening more schools in rural India isn’t enough to attract girls and women to become literate. More female teachers need to be hired and toilets built for girls in schools. While the fact that Jains, Christians and others are largely urban-based may be responsible in large measure for higher female literacy in these communities, the role of community norms in preventing Hindu and Muslim women from becoming literate must be explored and targeted. Resistance from conservatives in these communities is to be expected. The way to weaken their opposition is to rope them into the programmes in leadership roles, thus turning potential saboteurs into supporters. The campaign against female foeticide in Punjab benefited from the involvement of Sikh priests. Muslim clerics who once led the resistance to the Pulse Polio programme, played an important role subsequently in convincing the Muslim masses to immunise their children in Uttar Pradesh. This must be attempted in the battle against female literacy as well.

Illiteracy narrows a woman’s opportunities for employment. Even if she isn’t using her education to get a paying job, literacy is important as it is empowering and improves a woman’s capacity to make decisions related to the family’s health, nutrition and financial matters. Surveys have found that infant mortality is inversely related to the mother’s educational level in India. Education will enable a woman to fight the debilitating restrictions imposed by outdated social norms and superstitions. This underscores the need for the government and non-government organisations to tackle female illiteracy with renewed energy. As the census figures show, almost half the female population in the Hindu and Muslim communities is illiterate. Are there lessons these communities can learn from the Jains, Christians and Sikhs?

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