Women’s empowerment has suddenly become the most talked about socio-cultural issue in the South Asia region. A case in point would be the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ scheme that was recently launched in Haryana by the Prime Minister. The Government scheme aims to educate girl children and work towards providing better welfare services for women in the country.
Education as the Means and the End
There is a general consensus about the fact that for many young girls and women living in a country like India, which is imbibed in deep patriarchal practices, education is an important tool for achieving the goal of empowerment. It equips a person with enough bargaining capabilities in today’s world. In a way, it becomes a means as well as an end in itself.
There are many benefits that can be accrued if girls were to be educated properly. The most visible form of emancipation that education offers women would be political and social awareness. It helps them challenge restrictive gender roles and equips them with better negotiating capabilities. In India, family often becomes the seat of inequality where women’s relationships with men inhibit their mobility and professional success. The media is filled with the overuse of the trope of the self sacrificing woman of the house, be it in the form of the mother, sister, wife etc. This kind of thinking is a direct result of years of gender based conditioning that does not offer girls a fair chance in the society. With proper education and skill sets comes high paying jobs that would help the young adolescent girls gain more negotiating power inside and outside their own homes.
The Visible Class Divide in Schools
However, before we can be totally optimistic about the role of education in a woman’s life, let us first inspect the nature of the schooling system in India. This will help in gauging whether the knowledge being disseminated in the schools actually helps in achieving the above mentioned goals. Let us look at some facts and figures. Wide gender based disparities exist in the education sector in the country. For every 100 boys enrolled in secondary education, there are about 81 girls enrolled. According to UNESCO’s recent report titled ‘Education For All Global Monitoring Report 2014’, 90 per cent of children from poor families in India remain illiterate despite completing four years of school education. These raise some serious questions about the nature of the knowledge being imparted.
While it is true that India has recognized Right to Education as a fundamental right in itself where children below the age of 14 years are supposed to be provided with free education, there are several ground level discrepancies that are quite harmful for children. The Human Rights Watch came out with a report in April, 2014 called ‘They Say We’re Dirty: Denying an Education to India’s Marginalized’ which points at heavy discrimination faced by students who belong to certain marginalized communities such as Dalits, Muslims, etc. The common understanding of the school as a level playing field fails completely. Apart from this, there is an increased privatization of education over the past few decades. It has been found that the public and State run schools have shocking drop out levels due to the inadequate infrastructure and poor teaching methods. This has a gendered implication as well. The girl children are more likely to be pulled out of schools at an early age, due to the patriarchal reasoning that women belong to the private sphere (read home front) and do not need education like the male children.
Schools: Producing Degrees, not Brilliance
The teacher-student relationship inside a class is quite complicated. There is a visible power dynamics where the students do not see the teacher as a facilitator of knowledge but rather as someone who comes and simply delivers information. There is no effective engagement with the lived realities the students face. They are taught to memorize the information taught inside the class and are expected to perform well in the exams. In his book, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, Paulo Freire talks about the banking system of education where “Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat” (Freire, 2000)
No Real Agency for Women
The above lines are important, especially in the context of the post feminist backlash that is gaining popularity in the middle to upper middle class families in the country. The predominant idea is that the goals of feminism have been achieved due to the better economic opportunities being offered to women who are educated. The important question then would be to ask whether this really leads to changes in a young girl’s life? It has been observed that mere holding degrees from prestigious colleges does not somehow guarantee radical changes for women’s lives in the country. The degrees are used in the ‘arranged marriage market’ to attract grooms from suitable families, communities and castes. In a way, women are still left bereft of any real agency with respect to their life choices. A case in point would be the recent murder of a young female student from DU in New Delhi who eloped with her lover from a different caste. Her parents disapproved of the match and ended up committing the so called ‘honour killing’. Interestingly, words like ‘honour’, ’pride’ and ‘shame’ are still attached to women’s bodies and they are collectively seen as gate keepers of the caste system in the country. One tends to ask, where is the empowerment exactly?
It is clear that there is a dire need for initiating structural changes that can somehow uproot the regressive and misogynist practices in the country. Numerous efforts are being made to tackle the gender based inequality but the main question is regarding the sustainability of these projects. Not only is it important for more girls to attend educational institutions but it is imperative to re- structure the system itself. Only then will the goals of feminism be achieved. Until then, it is all still a distant dream.