Education is one of the most crucial components for the development of an individual and society as a whole. India has been revered as the land of education and knowledge from Ancient times as home to Taxila, Vikramshila and Nalanda universities.
But women have always stood outside this education system. Sarasvati is the Goddess of knowledge and learning in India. The Goddess is mainly associated with Hinduism, also revered by believers of the Jain religion, as well as some Buddhist sects. Personified images of the deity represent her as holding a Veena in one hand and Vedic manuscripts in the other. In today’s India, this parallel of a woman figure with knowledge and learning comes in stark contrast with the objective reality.
National Health and Family Survey 2015-16 shows that more than one in four young women aged 20-24 were married in childhood (below age 18). Early marriage sets them up for a lifetime of hardships. They’re less likely to finish their education, and with a ton of responsibilities at a young age, they become full-time caregivers. They are forever trapped in the vicious cycle of economic deprivation and vulnerability to domestic violence. Early marriages also lead to early pregnancies and in some cases, multiple pregnancies, which adversely affect the health of both mother and child.
The ASER 2018 (by NGO Pratham) shows that about 4.1% of girls in India are out of schools in the age group of 11-14, but this percentage goes up considerably (13.5%) for the age group 15-16 years. The teenage girls clearly become the most vulnerable once they are locked out of education. While several factors contribute towards girls dropping out of school, human rights research shows that the greatest obstacles to a girl’s education are child marriage, pregnancy and domestic chores.
Early marriage hampers women’s education, but early marriage itself is a consequence of many socio-economic drivers of our society. All of these factors are responsible for lower education among women. Thus, addressing these issues is important to find a permanent solution to this problem.
According to a report, around 8-10% women in the age group of 20-14 were married before they turned 18 in Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Kerela, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. This percentage is higher (35-40%) in Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and West Bengal. This data indicates that economically backward, over populous states/regions are more likely to follow this social malpractice.
The poor infrastructure in villages becomes an obstacle to young girls with a lack of necessary facilities such as schools with function toilets, health centres, playgrounds, vocational training centres, etc. They are more likely to drop out under such circumstances. Various studies have shown that better educated young women from economically sound households mostly from urban areas are far less likely to experience early marriage than others.
Gender-defined roles that make care work as women’s sole responsibility and gender-specific barriers that make men the sole breadwinner are the two most prominent factors that have pushed girls’ education to the back-burner. As a result of this mindset, parents prefer to prioritize boys’ education which further widens the gender gaps in enrollment.
The age-old practice of dowry (only illegal on paper) is also a reason why parents think of girls as a burden. They feel that the daughter is ‘paraya dhan’ (another’s property)—hence a burden on her family. So the families decide where they will invest their money, especially with living expenses increasing day by day.
Currently, India ranks 112 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020. So it is not difficult to imagine parents investing their limited resources on their sons and getting rid of the responsibility of their daughters by marrying them off even at a young age. This only results in more problems such as early childbearing, limited access to resources, no agency over their lives or bodies resulting in reproductive health issues and many cases, abuse.
Patriarchy enables society to come up with a lot of gender-biased norms such as:
No Involvement In Decision Making At Any Stage
Gendered norms about ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ expect obedience, submissiveness and sacrifice from girls, and allow entitlement, and power to boys. Girls who marry young are considered docile, ‘pure’ and can be easily molded into family environments of their in-laws. They are required to play a passive role in decisions about their life, and lack of awareness and support makes them oblige.
Misplaced Family Honour
Taking away the right to decision-making does not end with demanding subservience. The society also loves to control women’s sexuality. The honour of the family falls on a girl’s shoulder and fears for girls’ safety, adolescent pregnancy due to ‘love affairs’ further stop family from sending girls out to attain education.
Situations of humanitarian crises or conflict or natural disasters often lead to people losing their livelihoods and resources. In such situations, parents resort to marrying off their girls to “protect” them from sexual violence, or to free themselves from providing for girls with their meagre resources and face any disgrace.
Financial constraints leave girls with limited opportunities. If they somehow complete their education and find a job, they are often stuck with low paying jobs. Families are apprehensive about sending them for jobs in other cities and unavailability of facilities to pursue higher studies in their villages/towns makes marriage the next and final responsibility to be performed by her maternal home.
The importance of women’s education is well recognized today. Not only it elevates the status of women in society and improves their self-esteem, but it also has many long-term benefits for society. An African proverb says, “If we educate a boy, we educate one person. If we educate a woman, we educate a family—and an entire nation.”
Educating a woman will eventually lead to an improvement in various parameters that define a society’s progress. An educated woman, an educated society will have better Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), maternal mortality, lesser or no child marriages, fewer cases of domestic and sexual violence, and improved overall socio-economic growth of a nation.
In 2013, the state government of West Bengal introduced Kanyashree Prakalpa Scheme. It is a conditional cash transfer scheme to improve the status and well-being of girl children in West Bengal. By incentivizing the schooling of all girls and delaying their marriages until the legal age of 18, the scheme is helping girls complete education. This was an attempt by the government to bring behavioral changes in society through positive reinforcement.
Initiatives like these are essential steps in the right direction. However, there is a need for a deeper understanding of the impacts of early marriage on a girl’s education, and in turn, the larger society. Still, scaling up initiatives like Kanyashree can bring about an attitudinal change in society.
To improve the status of girl child education in India, we must address the intersectional barriers that come with our diverse set of population. Community- and region-specific needs should be met, and solutions should be offered accordingly. For example, if a parent is unwilling to send their girl to school fearing safety due to long-distance travel, then we need to look at this from a different perspective compared to someone not sending their girls due to financial constraints or stereotypical mindset.
Our enlightened community leaders and the public must combat gender prejudices and strive to bring attitudinal change. We require more assertive, urgent action among key stakeholders to improve access to quality education for girls and create a safe environment for women and girls by giving them a chance to a better life.