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Why Do Muslim Women Have One Of The Lowest Literacy Rates In India?

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“Acquisition of knowledge is obligatory upon both Muslim men and women.” – Prophet Mohammad.

Education is often seen as a tool for liberation among the masses. Learning new ideas helps open new perspectives and horizons for people to explore. It is knowledge that helps people understand their material conditions in a historical context, enabling communities to tackle social, political and cultural issues appropriately.

Historically, education has been predominantly more accessible for privileged groups and communities who were able to use it as a springboard to further the class divide. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare before our eyes the severity of this issue.

Marginalised groups such as SC, ST, women and religious minorities have had limited opportunities in education due to social, cultural, religious and political obstacles. As a result, these groups have the lowest literacy rates in the country.

muslim woman
Representative Image. (Source: pxfuel)

As per UNESCO, women’s literacy rate in India is 62.8%. As a religious group, Muslims in India have one of the lowest literacy rates. According to the 2011 census, the literacy rate for Muslims was a little over 57%. Additionally, the female literacy rate was only about 52% (one of the lowest in the country).

When it comes to higher education, according to the 2011 census, the rate of Muslim enrollment was 13.8% as compared to the national average of 23.6%. Muslims also account for only 4.4% of students enrolled in higher education institutions.

Various factors are responsible for this low participation.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) ‘s global multidimensional poverty index (MPI), 2018, one in three Muslims is multi-dimensionally poor. The term multidimensional involves indicators such as nutrition, health and education along with income.

According to a survey by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), almost 33% of Muslims live below the poverty line.

Thus, financial constraints have led to Muslim participation in education to be low. Access to good quality education also becomes an issue. This disproportionately affects female participation in Muslim households.

While financial issues are a major reason, it should also be noted that some families put restrictions on their women, which also leads to girls missing out on education.

Representative Image.

Women, irrespective of religion, are seen as the pride of the family. The perception of higher education institutions among some families is that of “immorality”. With aspects of their lives being controlled, it is difficult for women to have a say about their future.

Religion plays an important role in a households structure and power dynamics. Education is one of the aspects affected by religion. For example, the recent decision of the Assam Government to convert madrassas to regular schools could lead to an increased dropout of female Muslim students.

Madrassas, along with other subjects, provide theological components in their syllabi, which will be removed after they’re turned into regular schools. This decision could lead to parents pulling their daughters out of school.

Being a woman presents many social challenges, but being a woman from a marginalised group presents extra obstacles. For Muslim women, their dual identities make it even more difficult for them to attain an education. If it’s not their families, the constant fear of Islamophobic bullying and violence pushes them out of school.

However, these trends have seen changes over the decades. Muslim enrollment in higher education has been increasing, from 5.3% in 2000 to 13.8% in 2010.

Between the years 2013–18, Muslim enrollment has increased by 37%. In the same period, female Muslim enrollment increased by 46%. According to the report, 49% of Muslims enrolled in higher education are women.

According to data provided in Lok Sabha in 2016, among India’s minorities, the literacy rate of Muslims showed the biggest increase (9.4%).

Affirmative action can be used to increase the participation of Muslim students further. A big divide is seen between North and South Indian Muslims with respect to education. Due to access to various scholarships, Muslim participation in higher education in South India was much higher. The proportion of Muslim students using scholarships in South India was seven times more than in North India.

muslim girl
Representative Image. (Source: pxfuel)

Across India, half of the Muslim children who complete middle school drop out during secondary school, according to the Sachar Committee. The dropout ratio of Muslims relative to other groups is the highest in rural areas at 2.04. It is even worse in urban areas, with a ratio of 2.49.

A study by two IIT-Kharagpur researchers found that gender disparity in the Muslim community grows narrower with higher levels of education, as Muslim girls are less likely to drop out at the higher secondary level than Muslim boys.

With the shift to online classes, the digital divide has further hampered education for children from marginalised communities. Access to the internet and compatible devices makes it difficult for many to continue their education.

Data from the National Sample Survey (NSS) conducted in 2017-18 on Household Social Consumption on Education in India shows that only 3.58% of Muslims owned a computing device in rural areas. Muslims and SCs, with only 12.7% owning a computing device, are the worst-off groups in urban areas.

According to The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020, only half of the women in India use mobile internet compared to men. This disproportionate access will further hit Muslim girls’ education more severely. As has been the trend, it is predominantly girls in underprivileged/marginalised families who have been denied access to online resources.

While there has been a steady improvement in female Muslim participation in education over the years, the pandemic has brought in a period of uncertainty for everyone and has severely hit any progress that was made previously.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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