Centuries of entrenched exclusion and prejudice has cheated women out of lives they deserved. A young girl’s social identity—influenced by culture, upbringing and stereotypes decides the way her life takes shape in a world that doesn’t always want her. With the odds stacked against them right from the time they are born, women and girls in our country are still breaking their own glass ceilings to reach somewhere. While some of us are perpetuating unconscious bias, some people in our society are consciously perpetuating prejudices against young girls and women.
Our society loves to ‘breed’ its young women and girls to fit conveniently into the lives of men and accommodate them and their needs ‘selflessly’. And young girls are seen as liabilities and not assets like the boys. Hence, ‘investing’ in a girl child’s education is not preferred. But my question is, how do we plan to succeed as a ‘young’ nation if we leave behind millions of girls deprived of their basic rights? Where is their Right to Education?
Education is the basic skill one needs to provide for themselves and their families. By denying education to little girls, we deny them fundamental rights along with the right to make informed choices about their health and life. Our country needs to make a greater investment in girls’ education, which, in turn, will make them independent, empowered individuals equipped to advocate their rights and needs.
Malala Yousafzai got shot to fight for her right to go to school. We all know where she is right now. Education is the only way women and girls in our country can overcome all odds. Educated, empowered women will not only be financially secure and have agency, but they will also challenge unjust laws and fight against harmful beliefs and practices. They will also be in a position to make informed choices about their bodies and lead a healthier life. Educating young girls and women will also boost the economy as it will increase the participation rate of the female labour force, which is abysmal in our country.
We must invest in their potentials just like we do for our boys. For how long are we going to raise girls in a society which is complicit in suffocating their dreams and voice and keeping them confined to a life of dependence and sometimes even abuse? We have no right to take away their chance to lead a better life. All of them deserve a fair chance, and most importantly, all of them deserve to be treated as humans. We must do everything possible to spread awareness about how crucial it is to educate our girls.
There should be no excuse for you not sending your girls to school. You have no right to destroy a young mind, its dreams, its potential, its possibilities and its future. It is your responsibility to safeguard their rights, their future and ensure they get a basic education. Educate your girls, so that they can be more than ‘daughters’, ‘sisters’, ‘mothers’ and ‘wives’.
There are a plethora of reasons we can enlist for not sending our girls to schools—ranging from lack of resources, transport, bathrooms (reason menstruating girls drop out), safety etc. While the government and independent organisations have been working on these issues in rural as well as urban areas, it’s not just financial constraints that are stopping people. Removing gender bias, stereotypes, and social norms are important too.
In August 2016, I got a chance to conduct a session with young school kids on gender-based stereotypes and how gender-based discrimination works in our society subtly and sometimes blatantly. Now this Delhi-based small private school has students largely belonging to economically weak families, and to my surprise, the parents of these children are happy to pay the small fee for their boys but not girls.
Out of the 70 students present, only 8 were girls, and when I asked a senior teacher about the reason for this disparity, she told me parents usually take their girls out of private schools to enrol them in govt schools. But ‘financial constraint’ like I said is not the only reason—some of these girls are forced out of school so that they can take care of their younger siblings and do household chores while their parents go out for work. This is a reality for many young girls from marginalised communities in urban areas.
In rural areas, we find a different set of issues faced by young girls who are denied education. Lack of transport facilities, bathrooms and safety concerns etc. force parents to take their girls out of school. Many parents also marry their girls at a young age, which confines them to a life of dependency and lack of agency.
With no autonomy over their own bodies, they are forced to carry pregnancies at a very young age and often multiple pregnancies during their marriage—putting their health at risk. This is also the reason for the low infant-maternal mortality rate in our country as these young women never get the education to help them make informed choices and be aware of their sexual, menstrual and reproductive health. And with laws that do not acknowledge the severity of marital rape, I can only imagine how this situation can get worse.
Young women and girls in our country face myriad forms of gender-based discrimination, which only gets worse with different intersections. Hence, it becomes our moral duty to work effectively towards eliminating cultural beliefs and practices that perpetuate this bias. We need to restructure our social attitudes and acknowledge that women and girls, too, have the right to freedom and right to equality no matter what the societal ‘norms’ dictate. For how long do we plan to deprive our girls and women of basic rights such as property, education and in some cases human dignity? We can’t look away every time a little girl’s dreams are being ground to dust. They have every right to a better life and a better future.
I don’t think providing school supplies or meals are enough if these young girls do not get a chance to join the workforce and support their families. They deserve to be independent individuals becoming doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers, artists, writers anything—anything they want to be—as long as they get that chance.
I want to conclude this by reminding everyone that it might be a victory for a handful of people, but we all lose every day when we choose to let down our girls. As a society, we must all make sure that we send our girls to school to give them a fair chance at shaping their future and living their dreams.