Why are Indian Girls out of School?

Rajkumari is one of 60% Indian girls out of school. She sees her brother go to school every day while her aspirations are moulded to fit the 'homely role' she will eventually play. 

Rajkumari is eighteen years old. Every morning she wakes up early and starts doing household chores: collecting dung, cutting hay, making cow dung patties to be used as fuel and then cooking. Meanwhile, her brother Shubham, eight years younger than her, gets ready to go to school. Subham studies in the sixth standard. When she was around the same age as her brother is now, Rajkumari dropped out of school. The father of the two clearly articulates why he withdrew his daughter from school. “I sent her to school till the fifth standard. What will she do studying? In any case, she’ll go to someone else’s house [future marital home] and will have no relationship with us. She won’t earn or anything,” the sixty-year-old Bhagwati Prasad says with conviction.

There is a clear pattern that emerges from Rajkumari’s story. Overall in India, 60.39% girls are out of school by or before reaching the upper primary level and 81.72% girls drop out by or before reaching the secondary level. One major reason for this is hitting menarche. Almost 23% of the girls are out of school with the onset of their first period in the country. But the story does not end here. High rates of girls are out of school to have more complex reasons than poverty. A compelling reason is the lack of safety. Less than 60% of rural households had access to upper primary/secondary schools within 2 kilometres. In fact, nearly 84% habitations are located 8 kilometres away from the nearest high school on an average. Long distances of travelling made girls vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence. Recently, 80 female students of a government high school in the northern state of Haryana sat on hunger strike to force the government to take action on the routine street sexual harassment they faced while travelling to their school. Even the possibility of sexual harassment serves as a deterrent to sending girls to school: their ‘honour’ might get tarnished, damaging their marriage prospects.

The real overarching reason behind so many girls are out of school is patriarchy which sees them as repositories of their families’ honour. Moreover, as Bhagwati’s testimony indicates, girls are seen as ‘unproductive’ members of the family and therefore, burdens. They are to be married off presumably with the paying of hefty (and illegal) dowry. Even young girls are burdened with care work and household responsibilities that their male siblings are exempt from. This is reflected in the fact that Indian men rank among the lowest in the world in terms of their contribution to household work. Research further shows that rising household income does not necessarily mean girls get put back into school.

Patriarchy invisibilizes the contribution of female members to the wellbeing of the household. This then contributes to the idea that unmarried daughters are non-earning, non-productive members of the family, and a burden to it. The child is easily bothered as paraya (belonging to some other family). Her only true function is seen as her sexual and reproductive roles as wife and mother which she can only fulfil as part of another household--the one into which she is married.

Uttar Pradesh has the highest rates of school dropouts. While the Ministry of Education is reaching out to improve school distance and infrastructure of schools, it is important to bear in mind that it’s not just material disincentives that deter the education of the girl children. There are also barriers in the patriarchal attitude towards girls. In fact, a research report from World Bank reveals that progressively fewer women are joining the labour force even after finishing education.

The policy for retention of girls in school needs to take into account the barrier that patriarchal mindset pose towards. In fact, the Ladli Laxmi Yojana first implemented in Madhya Pradesh and now adopted all over in India was specifically designed to retain girls in schools through monetary incentives. Beneficiaries receive small amounts after completion of primary, secondary and higher secondary education and after eighteen years of age they receive a lump sum amount of 1 lakh rupees provided they have not yet married. Some state government website openly declares this is for expenditure in the girls’ marriage. How is this changing attitudes towards girls’ need for education and productive work outside the sphere of the family? Schemes like this instead encourage treating girls as cash cows and then letting the state bear the expense of marriage while leaving unchanged the notion that a woman’s only role is in providing care work and sexual and reproductive labour within the household.

These schemes are just focused on increasing the enrollment of girls in schools. Reports continuously attest to the extremely poor quality of education imparted in government schools. So what is the government trying to achieve by increasing number of girls in schools?  It will certainly improve India’s ranking in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Human Development Index.  But until the government is ready to tackle the real barriers to girls’ education, nothing will functionally change for girls like Rajkumari, who are treated as lesser than their male siblings, and as wholly dispensable.

Article by Madhura Chakraborty.

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