Better educated women tend to be healthier and participate more in formal labour markets.
By Anoushka Adya
Access to education shouldn’t be determined by a child’s gender, yet 130 million girls globally are out of school and 15 million girls of primary school age will never even enter a classroom.
Ensuring girls enter and stay in the classroom is crucial in the fight to eradicate poverty at large scale in India, but there are some key obstacles at the ground level that don’t allow large scale girl child education. These issues may seem minor to the urban educated lot, but are the key factors that are keeping the majority of girls far behind in getting the education that they deserve, and becoming economically independent.
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, textbook costs, 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.
Unfortunately, this proves to be a vicious cycle because not educating young girls further perpetuates poverty. If the majority of young girls were to be educated and enrolled in the economy of the country, India would be far more equipped to tackle poverty quickly.
Educating girls gives them the freedom to make decisions to improve their lives, which has deep social implications. Giving girls access to schooling is a central part of eradicating poverty in India and making these girls financially independent, which in turn makes them less prone to violence and gives them the right to freedom of choice and the access to basic human rights which unfortunately they aren’t aware of if they are not educated.
Better educated women tend to be healthier, and participate more in formal labour markets.
So what action needs to be taken to overcome the complex barriers at the ground level that refrain girls from getting into school and getting a meaningful education?
Barriers for girl child education in India
(A) Child marriage
A key obstacle to girls participating in school life in India is child marriage. Every year 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married.
The reasons for child marriage and a lack of education for girls are complex, interlinked, and the main contributor to this could be the age-old customs and traditions that have been passed down like “gauna”. Parents, especially in the tier 2, tier 3 cities and the rural areas, want to get their girls married young so that they can get through with their responsibilities. They strongly believe that if they delay, they might not be able to find a suitable groom for their daughter. This comes from the base view that a girl’s education is not as valuable as a boy’s education, and that educated girls often become a burden by becoming “inflexible” and “un-marriageable”. If we work on changing these patriarchal local values, we’re not going to see the shift in outcomes anytime soon.
In fact, in most cases of child marriage, the girls aren’t even aware of whom they are marrying and don’t even know the responsibilities that will be bestowed upon them at such a young age.
While child marriage has cultural roots, poverty plays a huge role in this as well. Parents who can afford it would not necessarily hold back their children from going to school, but if they can’t afford it, then they end up making a choice and they feel that marriage is the best option within the limited options. And thus, unfortunately the cycle continues further, without the chain being broken.
Hence, the only way to end poverty and the menace of making unfair choices, is to educate a generation of young girls and break the cycle. It’s all about approaching the challenge from the bottom up, and creating sustainable change.
(B) Menstrual health management
The onset of menstruation is another key pressure point for girls’ schooling in India. A lack of gender separate bathrooms, no access to sanitary products, teasing from classmates, unsupportive teachers – all can disrupt a young girl’s ability to participate in school in India. Usually girls tend to drop out of school when they start menstruating because of shame, fear and embarrassment. They don’t feel comfortable talking about it because of the taboo associated with it in the smaller communities in India.
At the ground level, till the time this factor is taken care of, young girls will continue to drop out of school. Girls need to be taught and educated about managing their periods in school “in a comfortable, safe and dignified way”. We need to work to replace the stigma, silence and shame, with information, dignity and open conversation.
(C) Keeping girls safe in school
Gender-based violence in and around school is a reality in India and this is one of the main reasons that parents hesitate to send their girls to school, and often discontinue their education as they start growing up.
Girls are central to the Indian poverty story and there needs to be a solution to provide safe education to young girls at all levels, in order to break the cycle of poverty once and for all.
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.
(D) Inherent gender bias
An inherent gender bias in the rural society against female education is regarded as the main reason for not getting females enrolled in schools.
(E) Expenses too high for the majority
Tuition fees, cost of textbooks, uniforms, transportation and other expenses are sometimes too high for parents to manage, and the overhead cost to get their child educated. In such cases, they often choose to get their boys educated only.
(F) Utility in home chores
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.
Girl child education is the main 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 work and be financially independent, and they are also more likely to devote more income to the family’s welfare thereby uplifting many families out of poverty.
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.
Girl child education is thus in fact the key to tackling poverty in India.
Anoushka Adya, Founder at Lajja Diaries.
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