|Keywords: Literacy rates, Gender equality, women’s empowerment, role of education, women’s emancipation, female literacy rate, women’s struggle, education programmes, education as economic instrument
All over the world, struggles for women’s emancipation have given primacy to the role of education in achieving gender equality. That education is the most crucial instrument for economic and social empowerment of women is a fact, which hardly needs to be stressed. With ignorance and superstition being the greatest blocks to women’s emancipation, strong hope has been bestowed on education as a catalyst of change. With the Constitution of India conferring equal rights on women and men in all spheres of social life, and also removing gender discrimination, access to educational opportunities, no doubt, improved. But the conferment of the right to equal opportunities did not really result in the removal of all those hurdles, which had hindered and continue to hinder a large number of women from making an effective use of opportunities for education.
Even today ‘women do not enjoy all the educational opportunities they should have, and often do not have any at all. Nearly everywhere in the world they are given less education than men and over vast areas of the globe, the majority of illiterates are women’ (Pandit, 1998:167). Though, in recent years education for women has been upheld as the single most important factor for altering their socio-economic situations, in reality, resistance to women’s education is still very strong in many quarters. The under representation of women at all levels of education has been one of the most striking features of the gender biases that characterise India’s education system. The only courses in which women outnumber men are school level teachers training and nurse training programmes. Since women are considered to be very effective in managing children and nursing the sick, these courses are simply considered extension of family roles. This is an indication that even when educational opportunities are extended to women, the real motive is not to bring about change but perpetuate stereotypes. Education has not really revolutionised the lives of women barring a few. Women in India continue to experience suffocation from social prejudices and oppressive customs. They are victims of a process of marginalisation economic, social, political and intellectual-that has accelerated during the post-independence period (Mazumdar, 1997: 14).
Has education, then, brought about no changes in the lives of women? Do we have only negative images to portray? In all fairness, we must admit that India’s achievements in the field of women’s education are quite impressive. From a mere 8.86 per cent in 1951, female literacy increased to 54.16 per cent in 2001. This, however, cannot conceal the fact that 200 million women are still illiterate. Also, the increase in literacy rate is not uniformly distributed all over the country. Female literacy rates are still low in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. These are the regions of the country which have a significant proportion of the nation’s female population but it is also to be noted that attitudes to women’s emancipation are very negative in these areas. There is a vicious circle of ignorance – superstition – gender prejudice in these regions, which has held women in its sway. Gender gaps in literacy access and utilisation are most pronounced in societies with the strongest resistance to women’s emancipation.
If this is the situation with regard to acquisition of mere literacy, let us see what happens as girls/women move from one stage in education to the other. Though enrollment of girls in the age group 6-11 years in primary classes (I-V) is said to be 85 per cent, the gross enrollment ratio drops down to 50 per cent at the upper primary level (VI-VIII). The picture is still different at the level of higher education. With not even 10 per cent of the female population in the relevant age group in institutions of higher education, access to these institutions is still the monopoly of middle or upper classes. But a large majority of women who gain access to higher education are still concentrated in courses considered ‘suitable’ for them. There is still a male preference in courses, which are marked as non-traditional. As an illustration, we can take the case of technical education. Today, we find more women in technical education than ever before, but they are generally concentrated in such courses as ‘electronics’ or ‘computer science’, which are considered ‘soft’ or more ‘feminine’ than others. There is a hidden agenda to confine women to traditional spaces, while conveying the impression that an open door policy is followed. Mere increase in the number of schools and colleges does not always ensure that women’s basic roles in the family or society at large will also change. Unless there is a concerted effort to link educational policies and programmes to the larger goal of altering women’s lives, education can neither empower women nor create an empowered society.
Mere expansion in opportunities for education does not ensure that it will function as a channel for social mobility or ensure that equality is enjoyed in practice. If women, who constitute nearly half of India’s population, are not in a position to enjoy equality in practice, this society can neither find enlightenment nor empowerment. There can be no better way of creating an enlightened society than educating its women. This is what the World Development Report (1991) meant when it said ‘When schools open their doors wider to girls and women, the benefits from education multiply’(World Bank, 1991 : 55). Benefits to society accrue when women are involved in a development initiative, because women who are themselves empowered, generally tend to pass on the benefits to their immediate families or neighbours. It is true that education for women per se can have an empowering effect, but it also has long term implications for the creation of an emancipated society.
In a society where most women have been kept out of the process of knowledge acquisition, it is not surprising if women themselves act as transmitters of values, which hold up transformation. Confined to their homes and hearths, a large number of women hardly get an exposure to the world at large. It is no doubt true that television has made inroads even to remote corners of the country, but what are the kind of programmes they get to watch? In all languages, one soap opera after another shows women playing roles of dutiful wives, daughters or mothers. At the other extreme, we even get to see women who are engineering and executing downfall of other women in a way as to give credence to the often repeated statement, ‘women are the worst enemies of women’. Making irresponsible statements such as ‘women’s quarrels’ or ‘kitchen fights’ or ‘women are jealous and hence abuse other women’ cannot simply dismiss the acts of violence against women by other women. While we have to emphatically state that men cannot be absolved of their role in this violence, it is also necessary to recognise the need for exposing women to alternate values and practices. After all, most women have been victims of patriarchy for too long and take refuge in the same patriarchy to defend the atrocities they commit against other women. Can a society in which women are abused so easily both within and outside their households ever march towards emancipation or enlightenment?
In spite of the passage of laws which have emancipated women from the clutches of an oppressive practice like child marriage, in reality, women are married before they attain the age of 18 years. According to NFHS 2.65 per cent of women between the ages of 25 and 49 were married before they were 18. Women inhabiting the states of Goa, Mizoram, Kerala, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu do not generally get married before attaining the minimum legal age, while in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, most parents begin to look for matches as soon as their daughters attain puberty (Department of Women and Child Development, 2002: 40-41). It is interesting to note that Goa, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Mizoram are the states where female literacy rates are in the range of 64 to 88 per cent. On the contrary, with the exception of West Bengal, in the other states, which record a high incidence of early marriage, female literacy rates are in the range of 34 to 51 per cent. The above analysis shows that as the level of literacy increases, the age at marriage also rises.
Early marriage throws girls in a vicious circle of pregnancies child births – more childbirths and child rearing. When girls are married early, they are more likely to give birth to children who are prone to disease or malnutrition. Given the fact that a large majority of these women belong to families struggling for survival, both women and children are forced to contribute their mite to family maintenance. Needless to say, in such situations education of daughters takes a backseat. On the contrary, when girls remain in school for a longer period, not only is their marriage postponed but there is also a scope for development of their physical and mental capacities to the fullest possible extent. When women marry at a later age, not only are child bearing and rearing responsibilities postponed, but chances for child survival also improve. When families are convinced about the survival chances of children, they are less likely to impose on women demands for further child bearing. When fertility rates decline, the imbalance in resource-population utilisation also lessens. In the long run, a society free from high fertility – high illiteracy – high infant mortality syndrome emerges.
Education for women, thus, has long term implications for the creation of an enlightened social order. When large sections of women are kept in ignorance, they will not have the power either to influence decisions affecting their lives or the society at large. They are there, only as ‘faces’ and not as ‘voices’. Both within and outside the household, their strength is diminished if women are not ‘informed’. They tolerate violence and even perpetuate it, either because they have no choice or because they are ignorant. But when women receive education, they are generally inclined to respond positively to change initiatives. There cannot be a better example than the Self-Help Group Movement in different parts of the country to demonstrate that when women are empowered, they empower the society. The Self-Help Group connection itself was an educating experience for women. As members of Self-Help Groups, women learnt to sign their names, read and write meeting proceedings, manage bank transactions and start saving amounts not only for themselves, but also for creating and sustaining community assets. When women got an exposure to new ideas and alternate ways of living their lives, they vowed to fight not only economic exploitation but also social oppression. Women members of many Self-Help Groups in the B.R. Hills tribal colonies of Charnarajanagar taluk in the state of Karnataka have launched a struggle against alcoholism in their neighbourhood. Neither can a man come drunk into the neighbourhood nor can a liquor shop be opened in the vicinity. Initially men found it hard to accept these restrictions and challenges to their hegemony. But they have now realised that keeping away from alcohol has several advantages. Today, we see healthier men and women, healthier children and a healthier community. The children are at school mainly because of the initiative their mothers have taken. Speaking on behalf of her SHG colleagues, a woman said ‘We do not want our daughters to go through the same cycle of ignorance and oppression. We have realised that education is the only way to get out of this trap’. There are definitely signs of a better tomorrow.
If education for women has to create a society committed not only to the elimination of gender hierarchies but also class and caste hierarchies, women’s roles within the context of education have to be redefined. Whether women should ‘remain confined to a narrow identity, defined by religion, language, the inherited culture and a redefined ethnicity, or acquire a broader identity reflecting their life experiences and widening horizons is the basic question’ (Mazumdar, 1997: 20). Educated women will have to play a critical role in changing the social milieu. Education cannot simply serve as an instrument for building or upgrading their personal skills; it also has to make them sensitive to their surroundings. An educated woman cannot just engrain all that is passed on to her from her cultural context. As one who has been fortunate to receive education, a privilege which is denied to many of her sisters, an educated woman must try for the genuine enrichment of her environment. If she could give up unquestioned allegiance to practices which actually harm women in particular and society in general, a woman can make this society a better place to live in. It is for this reason that we say that the most fruitful investment in social development is the investment on women’s education.
Mazumdar,Vina. Gender Issues and Educational Development An Overview from Asia. Delhi: Centre for Women’s Development Studies, 1989.
Pandit, S.K. Women in Society. Delhi: Rajat, 1999. World Development Report 1991. New York: World Bank, 1991.
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