The coronavirus pandemic presents a very real risk of girls dropping out of school in large numbers, setting back years of progress. If we are to stop the slide, we need to act now.
Her family has always “believed in education,” Vidhi Kumari, 18, tells me on the phone from her home in Mangolpuri, Delhi. So even though her mother never went to school and her father, a driver, studied only up to the 10th grade, four of her five sisters are graduates, one is in the 12th grade and the youngest, a brother, is in the eighth.
Even in these extraordinary times, Vidhi tries to keep up with her online BA classes. It’s not easy. “My sister and I share a phone so when she attends her class, I miss mine, and sometimes it’s the other way around.”
With only half attendance, Vidhi is one of the lucky ones. Many girls in her neighbourhood have dropped out — someone doesn’t have a phone, another has no money for recharge and someone else had to take up paid work. “This is a slum area,” says Vidhi. “There’s a lot of financial hardship here.”
If sex education is too loaded a term for educators and policy-makers, call it something else — value education, life skills, consent education — but we can no longer ignore how desperately we need it in India’s school curriculums
In 2018, Mini Saxena, a lawyer, moved back to India from the United Kingdom (UK) and learned for the first time just how tough it was to get schools to accept the idea of consent education.
Saxena had volunteered with a consent project in middle and high schools in the UK and wanted to bring the idea to India. It would teach kids why they needed to respect boundaries, and what their protections were under the law when these were crossed.
A 2007 Government of India survey had found that 53% of children, boys as well as girls, had been abused. Surely, such a project would be welcomed.
Not quite, she says: “I approached many schools. Nobody said ‘we can’t do this’ but they kept stalling under various excuses including, ‘we need parental approval’.”
The rise of fundamentalism, chauvinistic nationalism and macho leadership has made defending women’s rights that much harder, I report from Bangkok at the Beijing +25 review.
Away from the tight-lipped silence of government officials locked in negotiations, some 150 people sat huddled on the floor outside one of the cavernous conference halls of the United Nations (UN) building in Bangkok. The group was plotting and planning steps to take at the Beijing +25 review, a conference held to take stock of where the world stands on promises made on gender equality 25 years ago.
The mood of civil society organizations (CSOs)—meeting on the floor because there wasn’t a room available to them—was combative. After initially being locked out of the negotiation process, they had managed to get in—but only as observers. “Negotiations are never so hush-hush,” said Subhalakshmi Nandi, director, policy analysis, International Centre for Research on Women, Asia. “It’s common practice to have CSOs in the negotiating room.”
Government officials, deadlocked for 24 hours straight, quibbled over the words of an all-important outcome document that would be parsed for their country’s stand on gender rights. Premised on what this document might contain or omit, plans were being hatched on how best to protest: singing, chanting, holding signs, or even a walkout.
The anxiety of 230 CSOs from 35 countries in the Asia-Pacific region had been palpable since their arrival in Bangkok on 24 November for three days of stock-taking.
More girls than ever before are now studying. But this is not necessarily translating into jobs.
To call Sunita Khokar’s resume impressive is an understatement. Khokar, the daughter of a farmer who never saw the inside of a classroom, has a list of degrees that includes three MAs (economics, political science and sociology), a B.Ed, an M.Ed and an MPhil. And, yes, she’s currently working on her PhD.
Khokar, 41, married with two children, would certainly figure in the government’s latest findings on higher education where the gap between women and men is at its lowest. Female enrolment in colleges is up from 47.6% in 2017-18 to 48.6% in 2018-19, the All India Survey on Higher Education found. In Uttar Pradesh, there are 90,000 more women than men in higher education.
The surge of women and girls in education is an ongoing trend that every year makes tiny, but significant, gains. In 2015, Mint did a series of articles that documented how girls breached the gender gap in primary and secondary school, with a gap of just 0.8% remaining at the class 10-12 level.
That generation of girls is now headed to college. This is reflected in the growth of universities from 903 in 2017-18 to 993 for 2018-19.
Nearly 30% of engineers who graduate from India every year are women. So, why do their numbers plummet when it comes to the prestigious IITs?
Among the earnest faces, you’d be hard pressed to spot the girls. The snapshots in the advertisements by coaching classes, of students who recently cleared the advanced Joint Entrance Exams (JEE) to get into the country’s most prestigious engineering institutes, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), are nearly all male.
Of the 38,705 candidates, who have qualified for admission into the 23 IITs, 5,356 (13.8%) are girls. Shabnam Sahay, the girls’ topper has an overall rank of 10. In 2018, only 23 girls made it to the top 500, up from 14 the previous year.
Girls are keen on engineering. Of the 15 lakh engineers who graduate every year from 3,000 institutes in the country, 30% are girls. So why do their numbers fall when it comes to the IITs?
Blame social attitudes, says Ashutosh Sharma, secretary, Department of Science and Technology. Boys, encouraged by parents, will single-mindedly pursue their goal of getting into the IITs. The girls have potential but aren’t similarly encouraged. At IIT open houses and science fairs designed to get more female students to enrol, one of the big challenges is addressing the parents’ concerns: Will my daughter be safe? How will she manage so far away from home? Will the demands of the course affect her health?