A girl first, a student later

Removal of deeply embedded gender disparity in our education system needs a sustained effort from all social and political institutions.

UNDP’s Human Development Report ranks India 132 out of 187 countries on the Gender Inequality Index. Even Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are ranked higher than India. This index is defined by the UNDP as a measure of loss in human development because of prevailing inequalities.  Gender equality has profound socio-economic and political implications for any society. The importance of education in mitigating these inequalities had been recognised in India in 1986, when the National Policy on Education stated that “to neutralise the accumulated distortions of the past, there will be a well-conceived edge in favor of women”. Eliminating gender disparities by 2005 in primary education and by 2015 in all levels is also a Millennium Development Goal.


India has made considerable progress in reducing gender inequalities in education. The gross enrolment rate in primary education, helped by the Mid Day Meal and Sarva Shikshya Abhiyan programmes, is now in excess of 100 percent among both the sexes. Even in higher education, 42 percent of the students are girls and their absolute enrolment numbers are increasing.  But these numbers do not present a complete picture of gender equality in education. Because of historical discrimination and socio-cultural milieu, the disparities in the distribution of resources (expenditure on education), sharing of power (representation in the elite institutions) and social interactions among genders remain deeply embedded.

In primary education, the current enrolment ratio of 940 girls per 1000 boys seems perfectly in sync with India’s overall gender ratio of 940 females per 1000 males. But a closer examination brings the disparities to light. There are 1017 girls enrolled for every 1000 boys in government schools and only 804 girls for 1000 boys in private schools. States like Haryana (639 girls per 1000 boys in private schools, and 998 girls per 1000 boys in government schools), Rajasthan (643, and 1060), Delhi (677, and 1019), Gujarat (689, and 936), Punjab (710, and 816) have greater disparity. Some states like Kerala (967 girls per 1000 boys in private schools), Bihar(974) and Assam(980) have lesser disparity but no state except Meghalaya has more boys than girls enrolled in private schools.

Evidently, the parents prefer to send boys to private schools and girls to government schools. In other words, when it comes to private education expenditure, parents spend it on a male child. Studies by Geeta Kingdon, Vimala Ramachandran, and Dreze and Sen have confirmed this observation. Vibhu Tewary of Accountability Initiative thus concluded that “the enrollment of girls in schools for the bottom two quartiles of household wealth (measured as the non-food expenditure by the household) was negatively affected by cost of education, while for boys, this was only true for the lowest quartile. This implies that while lower wealth has an adverse impact on enrolment, girls were affected across a larger wealth spectrum as compared to boys”.

The gender disparity also exists in higher education but in a different form. Women enrolment in Arts and Sciences is relatively better but in engineering and technical disciplines, streams closer to the industry, the enrolment ratio is very poor (388 girls per 1000 boys).  The ratio in rural areas is just one-third of the urban areas, compounded by the problem of access to good higher educational in rural areas. According to 2001 census migration data, while 47 percent of the men migrated for reasons related to employment and education, only 4.8 percent women did so for the same reasons.

The representation of women in elite institutions makes for a sad reading. In 2006, IITs enrolled only 6.21 percent women as students; it improved to 10.94 percent in 2011. Media reports suggest that women enrolment in IIMs is equally abysmal, although the IIMs are now introducing grace marks for girls to increase their enrolment. This is not a favour being done to the girls by the IIMs. Many studies show that a signification fraction of the variance measured in student’s achievement is explained by their socio-economic and cultural factors and these historical disparities should be taken into account to achieve real fairness in admission process.  But the ferocious sense of entitlement among our elite and severe capacity and financial constraints of the Indian higher education system have stonewalled any progress.

While the entry barriers remain a concern, retention and regular attendance is another challenge.  Lack of proper sanitation facilities at schools, expectations of doing domestic chores and early marriage are common impediments to education of women. A survey commissioned by the Haryana education department revealed disturbing details of sexual harassment in schools, with more than 1000 girls in a single district reporting some form of exploitation or abuse. In another study conducted by Plan India, 77 percent of the girls reported sexual harassment. Infrastructural facilities, security, change in perceptions and strong institutional support is required to overcome this vicious cycle of discrimination.

“Societies that expand freedom for women,” as Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, “create greater opportunities for participation, and provide a safe and enabling environment, flourish. Societies that lose the plot on this issue will flounder”.  Social transformations of this kind cannot be accomplished by legislative interventions alone. It needs a sustained effort from all social and political institutions. Finland, which has an exemplary record on gender equality, has made discrimination a punishable offence. Moreover, it is an obligation on all Finnish education institutions to strive towards attaining gender equality through comprehensive annual plans, whose implementation is strictly monitored by an ombudsman.

OECD 2011 tells us that bridging gender gaps in education will not only promote greater equality in employment outcomes but also postpone early marriages, reduce infant mortality rates and enhance inter-generational mobility. The social role played by women in the family and society is developed in their childhood, and the potential economic benefit is only guaranteed if the girl child is given the opportunity to utilise her full potential. There is no alternative to greater public awareness to raise social and political consciousness to secure the rights of women to equity and quality in education.

Photo: Meena Kadri