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Need for Gender-Transformative Focus in India’s Education Policy

The Right to Education (RTE) Act was enacted with much fanfare in 2009, but even ten years later, it is still struggling to achieve its vision of gender equality as part of universalisation of education. This issue was recently brought to the fore by the RTE Forum in its fact-sheet on the ‘Status of School Education Financing and Its Impact in India’. The Forum, a platform for national education networks, teachers’ unions, peoples’ movements and prominent educationists, was formed to closely track and support the implementation of the RTE Act.

The RTE Forum suggests that the gender gap in education is a long-standing failure of public policy. The fact-sheet, prepared in collaboration with the Centre for Budget Policy Studies, with support from the World Bank and UNICEF, reveals that across the country, an estimated 40 per cent of girls aged 15-18 years are out of school, while over 30 per cent of young females in the poorest families have never entered the precincts of a school. Ironically, these figures emerge despite the fact that enrolment of girls and children from under-privileged families in school is one of the RTE’s key aims. According to the RTE Forum, the single largest factor responsible for the poor track record of RTE in achieving this goal has been the decline in financing of school education at the policy level, from 4.14 per cent in 2014-15 to 3.40 per cent in 2019-20. Undoubtedly, the development of human capital requires investment of monetary capital. However, public spending on education in India has remained stagnant, at merely 2.8 per cent to 3.1 per cent of GDP, in contrast to corresponding figures of close to 6 per cent in peer countries like China and Brazil.

The matrix depicting government expenditure on education in the RTE fact-sheet indicates that the hardest hit states are Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Bihar—the average per child expenditure on school education for the period 2012-13 to 2018-19 was as low as Rs. 5294, Rs. 3518, and Rs. 2869 in these three states respectively. In contrast, Kerala, which tops the matrix, recorded a per-child expenditure of Rs. 11,574 and a female literacy rate of over 90 per cent during the corresponding period. Across the country, not only are millions of girls out of school, but even among those who enrol in school at the primary levels, a large chunk drop out by the time they reach middle school, with the result that Indian girls are twice less likely as boys to receive at least four years of schooling. The reasons for diminished school enrolment and continuation among girls include the burden of household responsibilities and caring of younger siblings, as also less time devoted to out-of-school learning activities.

In this context, it is imperative to examine whether these issues have been addressed in the Draft National Educational Policy (DNEP), 2019, produced by a nine-member team led by eminent space scientist Dr K. Kasturirangan, for implementation by the Government later in 2020. The vision of the DNEP is “to foster an India-centred education system for creating an equitable and vibrant knowledge society, by providing high-quality education to all so that participation and learning outcomes are equalised across all genders and social categories by 2030”. Ostensibly based on a deep-rooted assessment of the intersectionality between gender and education, the DNEP 2019, among its other objectives, attempts to mainstream provisions for ensuring parity, including the teaching–learning curriculum, foundational literacy and numeracy, and training and recruitment of competent teachers to take its agenda forward. One of the key themes of the DNEP is to build a scientific temper among girl students by bridging the male–female gap in research in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). A NITI Aayog Report of 2016-17 also mentions that in the year 2015-16, only 9.3 per cent female students enrolled in Engineering and Technology for an under-graduate degree, as compared to 15.9 per cent male students. The DNEP thus, flags the introduction of special incentives for girls to study Science and Mathematics at the senior secondary level, along with enhancement of infrastructural facilities like laboratories and other resources for girl students.

The DNEP also stipulates that all teachers and educational administrators must adhere to the constitutional mandate of non-discrimination, to offset sexual abuse, verbal abuse, caste and community-based abuse, and physical abuse, especially directed at girl students. Further, it advocates ending the practice of non-promotion of women as head teachers/headmistresses observed in some boys’ or co-educational schools. It is suggested that this issue can be addressed by establishing structures to ensure transparency in appointments of teachers and training them to deal with the cross-cutting theme of gender and sexualities in education. The other policy recommendations in the DNEP include: use of research to counter disparities leading to exclusion of female students; demolition of patriarchal social mores and biases in India’s pedagogical landscape; and providing quality education to girls to uplift not just the present but also future generations. Significantly, the policy also aims to develop a ‘Gender-Inclusion Fund’ for capacity building to provide quality and equitable education for girls across all educational institutions through partnerships with States and community organisations.

The proposed education policy, however, seems to overlook some key issues of concern such as the gap in reading skills among Indian women, which makes India something of an outlier in the area of female education. Scholars using data from the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) have repeatedly asserted that gender inequality in education is a persistent problem in Indian society, especially for girls from rural areas and lower socio-economic backgrounds. The IHDS, a panel study carried out by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in collaboration with the University of Maryland, in two waves, in 2004-05 and 2011-12, assesses the socio-economic conditions and human development needs of Indian society. The IHDS offers an opportunity for expanding educational research literature in India by determining how social and contextual factors influence educational outcomes that discriminate between boys and girls. The survey included reading and mathematics assessments that were administered to school-going children aged 8-11 years. The first wave of IHDS in 2005 was administered by trained interviewers to 41,554 households within 1,503 rural and 971 urban neighbourhoods located throughout India, with an 83 per cent re-contact rate in the second wave of the survey in 2011-12. A 2016 paper based on IHDS data, ‘Educational Inequality in India: An Analysis of Gender Differences in Reading and Mathematics’, finds that relative to boys, the presence of younger siblings reduces the likelihood of girls advancing in both reading and mathematics. This may be due to a hidden opportunity cost of engaging girls in activities like childcare that have economic value for the family. This finding is endorsed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its ‘Education at a Glance 2010’ Report, which demonstrates that girls in most countries, barring a few like India, typically overtake boys in reading abilities if not hindered by family and social constraints. This argument is further ratified by the 2011 Census, which records a literacy level of 65 per cent for women, as compared to a much higher corresponding rate of 82 per cent for men.

It is for these reasons that the RTE Forum has flagged the areas of non-compliance of the RTE Act, and the consistent reduction in the Centre’s overall public spending on elementary education. Ambarish Rai, National Convener of the RTE Forum, argues that the “budgetary allocation for education should not only move towards the target of 6 per cent of GDP but should also become gender-transformative” to ensure higher investment in girls’ education in India. It remains to be seen if the Education Policy and the RTE Forum’s recommendations are implemented in tandem with each other, to bring more girls to school and enable them to stay there till completion of schooling. After all, ensuring education for girls is not only a prerequisite for achieving overall gender equality, but also goes a long way towards improving the well-being of communities and nations.

By Anupma MehtaShe is Consultant Editor at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi. Views expressed in the article are personal.
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