Our Efforts To Improve Girls’ Education In Rural Schools Tell A Disappointing Story

While India slides down in the report on global gender gap rankings from 87 in 2016 to 108 in 2017, the youth must be concerned that the gender gap is widening. The report is based on a multi-dimensional analysis of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

We have been addressing the issue of India’s gender gap for at least two reasons. Firstly, we are engaged in the social campaign Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao which is geared to empower girls. Secondly, we firmly believe that educational attainment is critical to achieving the other dimensions.

India ranks 108 is among 144 countries like Iceland (#1), Bangladesh (#47), USA (# 49), and Pakistan (#143). The choice is clear which of its neighbors should be a role model for India. The report touts India’s success in fully closing its primary and secondary education enrollment gender gaps for the second year consecutively. And, for the first time, India has nearly closed its tertiary education gender gap.

The report states ‘education enrollment’ and not the attainment. In fact, India ranks #112 in education attainment which is among the lowest fourth of all nations. My own visits to rural government primary schools tell the story about the low educational attainments – kids write very little, the books are supplied nearly half-way in the school year, teachers’ absenteeism, poor infrastructure, and the instructional aides are in short supply. Perhaps the enrollment on paper is nearly perfect, but how many attend school regularly is a different story with no reliable data.

For our new initiative to provide furniture in four schools, an Education Officer told me to use approximately 80% attendance as a good number for providing the furniture.

The first step toward educational attainment is going to school regularly and continuing it as far as possible. Many girls don’t go beyond 5th grade. Simply put, we leave behind nearly one-fourth of girls at 5th grade depriving them of economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment.

When Vidya Gyan adopted the second half of the government flagship initiative Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, we had a vision that every girl under 10 years of age in all rural government schools must have a saving account as a future financial security while going to school. Today, after opening over 650 saving accounts in rural schools, our experiences tell a very different and disappointing story.

Vidya Gyan offered financial incentives to open the accounts, it coached parents, created a network with teachers and local post offices, and brought the post office to a school site. However, now we are finding out that many parents are not depositing ₹100/month (toward the required minimum of ₹1000/year for the account to have a good standing.) There is an element of denial by parents in changing their mindset about daughters. Perhaps, these parents don’t understand that they are contributing to the widening of gender gap by not having their daughters educated.

We had hoped and assumed that the teachers are our best ambassadors in promoting the program for the sake of increasing gender parity. Many of them proved to be very trusting partners, but others did not see the value in it.  The postal department valued our initiative in meeting its year-end productivity goals, but the postmasters in rural post offices were themselves poorly informed about the saving account nuances; many of them even misinformed parents and asked to deposit ₹1000/month. Being government employees, they are hardly accountable and most do the minimum possible to get by. Apparently, the limited outreach efforts and lack of trust seem to be failing our efforts.

According to the report, a decline in India’s low ranking is largely attributable to a widening of its gender gaps in political empowerment as well as in healthy life expectancy and basic literacy. India also continues to rank fourth-lowest in the world on health and survival. India, once credited to have nation’s first female prime minister nearly 50 years ago, must renew its efforts and make progress on achieving political empowerment with a new generation of female political leadership.

In the meantime, Vidya Gyan continues to move forward with its vision to have rural youth, particularly girls, read, write, and learn to attain gender parity through educational attainment. When I come to India in January, we will reevaluate our initiatives, learn from our failures to become better and put our best foot forward. India must rethink its policies and practices not to deprive the youth of their right to education and thus right to their participation in all economic, political, intellectual, and social sectors.

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