By Krishangi Singh:
“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back” — Malala Yousafzai
The youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate and women education activist, Malala said this at the UN headquarters on July 12, 2013 when UN declared the day as Malala day for her extraordinary strength in her fight against Taliban for women’s education.
Rekha, a 16-year-old girl, works as the domestic help and child caretaker in an influential family in my town. Her mother is also a domestic help, who pulled her out of school at the tender age of 12 to assist her in household chores and work. Her mother thought that the financial burden of educating her was not something she could afford. Never again will she have an opportunity to be educated and to be free to make her own decisions about her future. Her future is decided; she will soon be married.
Such is the condition of approximately 33% girls i.e. 1 out of 3 in the age bracket of 7-17 who drop out of schools before completing their education due to socio-economic constraints placed by the supposedly ‘low-cost’ user-fees on public education schemes. Further, socially excluded groups face specific challenges. According to a policy brief by Oxfam India, “Among Adivasis, 29 per cent of girls and women (aged 5 to 29) never attended school. The figure was 28 per cent for Muslims and 25 for Dalits, against the national average of 21 per cent. For Adivasis, discrimination and physical obstacles to accessing schools in remote regions are among the causes accounting for this situation. Muslim children face discrimination by peers and teachers, and the lack of Urdu teachers results in their concentration in a limited number of schools, with even fewer opportunities for upward progression towards secondary schools; inadequate provisions for instruction in the mother tongue also acts as a barrier for tribal, migrant and urban poor communities. Dalit children face specific discriminations — they are often prevented from sitting and eating with others, are rarely appointed class monitors, and are frequently tasked with cleaning classrooms.”
But it is not education alone that is making the lives of these women difficult. The unavailability of public health care facilities or rather availability at high user-fees makes their living conditions even worse.
Education and healthcare are basic rights that each of us require without fail. Each national and international body without fail promotes these public services. Yet our current status on these basic issues is deplorable when viewed through the gender spectrum.
A UNESCO study reported in 2011, that out of the 57 million children who dropped out of school that year, a majority of them were girls. In a report by UNICEF, India stands responsible for about a quarter of all global maternal deaths.
Economic conditions play an extremely crucial role in deciding the availability of these public services for women. In spite of our belief that such basic public services are free for the economically deprived class, the policies generally keep a basic user-fees reserved for these services. While this user-fee seems like a very nominal amount for us, when it is burdened on a low income family, it creates an economic havoc.
Thus when the time comes to make a choice between educating the boy or girl, to get the boy treated or get the girl checked up at the civil hospital; we all know what choice is made. However, what these families don’t realize is the major boost their society will receive when the women in their family are properly educated and treated. It would mean a higher income for the family and marriage at the right age with fewer but healthier children. But above all, it will mean independence for women to control their own lives, make their own decisions and decide their own path in life.
Mr. Jim Kim, President of the World Bank claimed user-fees to be ‘unjust and unnecessary’ and rightly so. Hardly do the policy makers notice that their one seemingly ‘harmless’ charge for the public services can push a family into a monetary catastrophe.
The user-fees charged by the government for public services are disproportionate when viewed in respect to the average income of a person belonging to lower economic strata. Women of this economic segment generally earn a minimal amount and even work for the unpaid ‘care economy’ for at least 2-5 hours each day without any help of modern technology.
Malala and Rekha are not all that different. They both wanted education. Malala had to take a bullet for her right to education; she was able to avail it in UK where conditions are contrastingly different from her native country. Her medical treatment was also done there itself, which helped her survive the militant attack and get an opportunity to further raise this issue internationally.
Rekha, on the other hand, is forever stuck in the cycle of illiteracy and poverty. She does not have the opportunity to start afresh and build a career. She will never have the good fortune and comfort of being in a hospital for medical help. Her struggle has gone unheard and it will be so for many more girls.
Had there been no condition of such user-fees, maybe Rekha could have had a chance at a decent education and brighter future prospects.
As long as the government continues to place this huge economic barrier in front of people for availing public services, it will inevitably lead to exclusion of girls from being a beneficiary.
Only one question remains; how many more Malalas and Rekhas must sacrifice their future before we all step up to ensure that the next woman’s identity will be her own?
This post brought to you by Oxfam India.