35% Of The World’s Illiterate Population Resides In India. When Will This Change?

Literacy, in essence, simply means ‘the ability to be able to read and write’. Obviously, with the ever-increasing population, this is just measured on the basis of an individual’s ability to read and write a single paragraph in any language. September 8th, every year is celebrated as International Literacy Day, as declared by UNESCO. The first International Literacy Day was celebrated in 1967, with an aim to ensure that children and adults, irrespective of their backgrounds, would have the basic skills to read and write. This skill would, in turn, nurture their will to get educated and get involved in making a difference and bringing about change in the world. Yes, that was the aim. Today, Literacy with education is a sustainable development goal. Let’s take a look at how far India has come, in furtherance of that aim. We will also try and understand the Literacy Model in India through statistics, experiences and problems pertaining to the model; and, will also try and draw a way forward in policymaking.

As per the UNESCO report of 2017-18, 35% of the world’s illiterate population resides in India. Did you know that Literacy and fertility rate could affect one another? The states which have the highest Literacy rate also have recorded the lowest fertility rate. Bihar has 26.8% illiterate women, with the highest fertility rate at 3.2%. On the other hand, Kerala has 0.7% illiterate women, which is the lowest in India, but its fertility rate is 1.7%. The South Indian states follow suit to Kerala. Whoever thought education could directly control your potential to give birth! 

According to the Census 2011 records, the five most literate states in India are Kerala, Lakshadweep, Mizoram, Tripura and Goa and the bottom five being Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh.  

Though India has its acts and articles in place for promoting education, 92% of government schools are yet to fully implement the RTE act (The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education). India is still 30 years behind the national literacy rate which was 43.7% in 1981. 

Not just the overall literacy rate, but there is also a disparaging gender gap in India’s literacy with almost a 20% points difference between males and females. There is a significant difference in the female literacy rate in India, with not only other developed countries but also with the middle and lower-income countries like Sri-Lanka and Zimbabwe. In terms of female literacy rate ranking, India ranks 123 out of 135 countries. The gross inequalities in the male and female literacy rate denote that women who are illiterate obviously cannot contribute to the GDP. Female literacy leads to a 0.3 % rise in GDP. No number of schemes and policies have changed the statistics of female literacy and this poor contribution to GD also leads to an economic slowdown in the longer run. 

The effectiveness of the educational policies rolled out in India, can be seen through the considerable increase in literacy between the age group of 7 to 29. 

The policy work in India, though, is ongoing and extremely important.

Why The Literacy Roadblock? 

Poverty And Overpopulation

This is the same old story of demand vs supply. As per a World Bank Report, 24% of the world’s poor live in India, while the richest 1% hold 58% of the country’s total wealth, indicating gross inequality! This poverty adversely affects children in poor households and this is not emphasised enough. The governments, in the past and present, have never been able to cater to the demand of this high population and this has led to a further increase in the inequality. In fact, studies show that 22% of poverty is in families with children and 8% poverty in those without children. Unable to provide the ‘Roti’, ‘Kapada’ and ‘Makaan’, these families do not bother about providing education to the children, and the cycle is never ending.

Budget Allocation/ Human Capital Formation

If you really want to know the priorities of a government, instead of going to their manifesto, check their budget allocation. One major reason our literacy rates have remained low or extremely stagnant is that there is very little allocation in the Budget. The union budget allocated Rs. 94, 853 crores for the education sector in 2019-20. Even though it’s Rs. 10,000 crore more than what was estimated last year, we are way behind the ideal education budget figure we need for education scenario to get better in this country.

Too Many Stakeholders

The system has too many stakeholders – teachers, students, administrators and even the Government. While the main focus in on the ones who education is being dispensed to, the children, even the imparters, that is the teachers, aren’t happy with a lot of instability in regulations, unwarranted discipline imposed on them. And, in that bid to please all the stakeholders, and failing at it, the essence of education and literacy is lost. It’s the age-old saying of “Too many cooks spoil the broth”.

Disproportionate Blame On One Actor

Teachers are the foundation in any education system. They are the mediators and facilitators. While we are already battling with inefficiency and dearth of teachers in the present system, projecting the blame on one actor is massively unjust. The education scenario in India is not developing, and there are many factors to blame; budget cuts, fluctuating government policies, lack of adequate infrastructure, and the like. Blaming teachers lowers the morale of this profession and, in turn, impacts the students and they start resenting teachers. The hunger to learn is lost and, thus, the cycle of illiteracy continues

The System Is Outdated

The usual argument is that when we are running behind development, everything is bound to become outdated soon enough. But, the systems in place are not just outdated because of development, but because they are generations old. We need better policies, more interactive classroom approach, more student-friendly learning methodology, and better study models which would focus on holistic and comprehensive learning, instead of the flawed and narrow ‘let’s cram and vomit in exam’ models.

How Can It Get Better?

  1. Education Start-Ups: The statistics clearly show how important it is for our literacy rates to get better. Many online education start-ups are working for the literacy rates to soar. They focus on building interest in the formative years and, hence, target the younger age groups.
  2. Follow the Delhi Model: The Delhi government’s model on budget allocation for education is a solid example of prioritising right. Their programme ‘Mission Buniyaad’ was aimed to beat the poor literacy rate. Today, students are at a level playing field thanks to their exemplary programmes which have also got world recognition. Today, the Delhi Chief Minister’s son and a tailor’s son are going to be studying together at IIT. It’s not about the class divide, but providing equal access to resources- that’s the main ‘end’ a government must seek to achieve through the ‘means’ of these policies.

It all boils down to honest intent and prioritizing correct, with major checks on transparency in the system. We have great potential, we just need to learn to hone it better. More so, we just need to ‘want to’ hone it better. 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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