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NEP And The Importance Of Gender-Inclusive Learning: Too Little, Too Late?

This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

By Urbi Chatterjee

India is a land of paradoxes. It is a land of contradictions and inexplicable contortions. It is the land where women are worshipped as goddesses, and yet year after year, the number of women per thousand men, more commonly known as the Sex Ratio, and the number of “missing girls” in India continues to reflect what Indians really think about women.

The State of World Population report 2020, by UNFPA, states that there are 924 women per 1,000 men in India. The same report mentions that there are 46 million “missing girls” in India, 1 out of every 3 in the world. This is due to sex-selective abortions and female foeticide, rampant in urban and rural India alike. And for those girls who survive, things turn more and more terrible with every passing year of their lives.

It is a small wonder, then, that in the area of education too, girls are especially disadvantaged. In a country where the literacy rate is 74.37%, the female literacy rate continues to lag behind significantly, at 53.7%, with a gap of 21.6% points at the national level. The girl child faces many layers of impediments in receiving a quality education, and reports suggest that some of these problems are likely to be exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with the technological divide adding another layer of discrimination against girls.

right to education
Representational image.

One of the fundamental barriers that the girl child has to tackle is the inherent bias favouring the male child in Indian households, which makes families unwilling to spend on the education of the girl child. The girl child is usually expected to learn domestic chores and help with housekeeping and caring for younger siblings. There is a perceptible difference in school dropout rates based on gender.

The dropout rate for girls rises significantly after secondary education according to Puja Marwaha, the CEO of Child Rights and You (CRY), Net enrolment ratio for girl children dips from 88.7% at primary to 51.93% at secondary and to a dismal 32.6% at higher secondary levels. Roughly one in every five girls enrolled drop out after class 8. The figures are connected to the onset of menstrual age in girls, where not just the availability but the actual functioning of safe and hygienic toilets becomes crucial for their continued education.

As a girl child grows older, safety issues become even more pertinent, and a long journey to school often poses a real threat to life and liberty for the child, making continued education a hazardous proposition. In India, child marriage, too, remains an unfortunate reality; according to a UNICEF report, nearly 27% of girls get married under the age of 18 every year, and this is likely to be pushed up by 20% due to the COVID-19 induced lockdown and subsequent migrant crisis this year. All these myriad problems riddle a girl’s life, stealing from her childhood, the fun-filled, care-free days of school that is every child’s birthright.

The New Education Policy (NEP) 2020, India’s first education policy of the 21st century, could be a thin ray of hope for the seemingly unremitting darkness in the quest for girls’ education. The policy seeks to address the many shortcomings of our existing education system and sets itself lofty ideals to this end. It endorses the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, of free universal access to quality education, and promises to transform the Indian education system such that, by 2040, it will be second to none in the world.

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The NEP is remarkable in having recognised the importance of integrated, cross-disciplinary education and skill development as the crucial needs of the hour. The policy talks about certain vital issues which, if implemented to any degree, could potentially revolutionize the Indian school education system.

The policy recognizes teachers to be at the centre of the education system and promotes teacher welfare and on-the-job training as central to a vibrant and well-rounded schooling experience for children. It underscores the importance of nurturing a child’s cognitive development not in isolation, but in conjunction with other key capacities such as social, ethical, and emotional development. The policy aims to shift the lens of education such that it is rooted firmly in the traditional and profoundly varied knowledge and cultural heritage of India.

To that end, it has been recommended that the medium of instruction in schools, private as well as government, be made the local vernacular language of the region till Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8. This decision is also in keeping with research results that demonstrate that children absorb and retain non-trivial information best when taught in their mother tongue. This is a brave and commendable stance to take, particularly at a time where increased Anglicisation of thought and culture seems to have become a global norm.

The government must be applauded for its nuanced move not only towards improving learning outcomes for children but also in its effort to revitalize Indian knowledge, languages, and traditions that may be at the risk of getting lost forever in an incessantly homogenizing world.

The girl child, too, has some reason to be hopeful. The policy recognizes the additional barriers in education that beset female education, particularly at the primary level. Four distinct Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs) are identified within the policy, and it is acknowledged that girls within each segment – approximately 50% of each group – face additional disadvantages due exclusively to their gender.

Important measures have been enlisted towards reducing the disparity of female dropouts in school – specifically by reinforcing the infrastructural credibility of government schools that will ensure the availability of safe, hygienic, and fully functioning toilets. Since personal safety becomes a key reason for female dropouts, provisions for the creation of walking groups and distribution of bicycles – proven to have improved female attendance in schools particularly in the higher grades by providing a safe mode of transportation – have been mentioned within the policy.

Girl students in a class sit facing a teacher who is writing on the backboard
Representational image.

The broadening of Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas, which provides boarding facilities and food for girls throughout their schooling, has also been recommended to this end. Commendably, the policy underscores the importance of gender sensitization as an important part of teacher training as well as classroom culture. There has been mention of a Gender Inclusion Fund, to facilitate the implementation of these measures.

But the benefits accruing to the girl child from this policy might turn out to be too little, too late. There are several significant omissions, starting with the fact that though female students should account for nearly 50% of the total student body of the country, the unique difficulties faced by the girl child have not been given commensurate attention, being brushed by a broader stroke within the SEDGs category.

In more specific terms, two crucial issues have been neglected altogether from being mentioned – the issue of sex education, as well as health and nutritional concerns for the girl child. Sex education can lead to a revolutionary improvement of the overall socio-economic position of young girls –  many of whom become victims of child marriage, abuse and unintended pregnancies at a tender age, causing them to drop out of school.

Additionally, instruction and awareness regarding menstrual health can equip girls to deal with this integral but inevitably difficult aspect of femininity more effectively. As for the issue of nutrition, while the broadening of the midday meal system to include a simple and nutritious breakfast has been mentioned in the policy.

No specific emphasis has been placed on female nutrition and health, even though many reports, most notably the UN State of the World’s Children report, 2019 stated that almost 47% of teenage girls in India are malnourished, of which 56% are anaemic. These disturbing figures should have been acknowledged, and appropriate measures adopted to combat such rampant gender-based malnourishment.

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The National Education Policy 2020 is an ambitious project and an important one. Interestingly, it is also a source of much pride and assurance to Katha. As our Founder President, Geeta Dharmarajan, rightly mentioned in recent times, the NEP seems to be a national endorsement of the work and ethos that Katha has built over time. Katha emphasizes the ‘joy of learning’ for children, an element that has been highlighted in the NEP’s focus on holistic education, along with the importance of cognitive capacities together with social, ethical, and emotional capacities.

The policy recognizes the importance of building community stakes and involvement in children’s education, one of the bedrocks of Katha’s working model. The NEP includes a clause promising increased ease for individuals and organizations in setting up schools, and it can be hoped that the policy will facilitate Katha, other organizations, and committed individuals in carrying on with their work in the field of providing quality education to India’s children, particularly her girls. As the government itself maintains, “padhega India, tabhi toh badhega India!”

About the author: Urbi Chatterjee is a researcher and project manager with Katha. A History graduate and a Young India Fellow, she is interested in various aspects of education and child development and has worked on a research project studying the links between education and happiness in school children. She is a voracious reader and occasional writer. She has been running a personal blog, “The Bootle Bumtrinket”, for nearly a decade where she writes about everything that intrigues her. 

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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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