According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) “Worldwide, 129 million girls are out of school.”
According to The National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) 2019-21 for India, child marriages and domestic work are two major reasons behind girls being made to drop out of schools.
“Investing in girls’ education transforms communities, countries and the entire world. Girls who receive an education are less likely to marry young and more likely to lead healthy, productive lives. They earn higher incomes, participate in the decisions that most affect them, and build better futures for themselves and their families… Girls’ education strengthens economies and reduces inequality. It contributes to more stable, resilient societies that give all individuals – including boys and men – the opportunity to fulfil their potential,” says the UNICEF.
Focusing on higher education for girls leads to a decline in problems like child marriage, child stunting, maternal and child mortality and boosts national growth while empowering the girl mentally as well as financially, boosting her confidence to pursue a career.
While SDG Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, Goal 4 is a commitment to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. But talking about India, unfortunately even in the present day obstacles exist in the way of girl child education. On the occasion of National Girl Child Day, we discuss some of these challenges.
Poverty and Trafficking
Poverty even today is a major hindrance when it comes to equal educational opportunities for girl children in India. Deep-rooted cultural norms and stereotypes lead to problems like child marriage, child labour, and even trafficking with parents selling girl child for money, which in turn negatively impacts the possibilities of educating the child.
Trafficked children are sexually harassed, treated like slaves and denied basic necessities for survival. Education for them becomes a distant dream.
Unfortunately even today there are social stigmas associated with periods. Even today girls are considered dirty, unhygienic and impure at the time of menstruation. This is a reason why girls are made to stay at home and advised not to step outdoors, not even to school during the days of menstruation. What is more inconvenient is a lack of proper sanitation and hygiene in schools, especially government schools in backward areas, which puts girl children at a risk of infections stemming from inadequate menstrual hygiene. Due to this girls are even made to drop out of schools and discontinue their education once they start menstruating, which in turn negatively impacts their career and growth in future.
Lack of access to sanitary pads is a major problem why girl children are made to drop out of schools or miss classes on the days of having their periods. This can be due to lack of access to market in remote areas, poverty where the parents cannot buy sanitary pads, or due to lack of awareness and superstitious beliefs.
Child marriage continues to be a problem even today in states like Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
According to a study published in the Lancet Global Health on 15th December 2023, one in five girls and almost one in six boys are married below the legal age of marriage in India, which is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. When it comes to girls, the age group of 14-16 is still considered as an eligible age for marriage in rural areas in several parts of the country. Unfortunately, child marriage is still prevalent in parts of the country even though the rate has come down as compared to what the picture was at least 20-30 years ago. A major reason being the mindset according to which girls are considered ‘eligible’ for marriage soon as they start menstruating. And what suffers the most is their education, because ‘there is no need to continue studies after marriage for a girl’ is the disturbing mindset still prevalent in communities.
Using children in domestic and household chores stems mainly from poverty. Where basic needs like food, clothing and shelter not being met, education feels like a luxury.
According to a survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2020-21, at least 33 per cent girls drop out of school due to domestic work in India. Many girls even today are made to drop out of schools and engaged in household chores and domestic work to help their parents and family members. Children, including girls are also made to work in agricultural fields and small-scale industries along with their parents mostly before or after school. Some are also made to discontinue their education and work as domestic help in urban areas despite the Government of India taking legal measures against child labour.
Gender-based discrimination and inequality
Gender-based discrimination and inequality is a major reason why girls are denied their right to education even today in our country. As per the prevalent mindset in several communities, boys are given priority when it comes to receiving an education. This is because of the traditional belief that boys will grow up to be the breadwinner for the entire family. At the same time, education of a girl child is still treated as secondary in several parts of rural India because she is considered as a ‘burden’ or ‘liability’ for whose marriage her family will have to spend a lot of money and even arrange for dowry. Hence, girls will stay at home and assist her family in household chores is still a preferred choice in some communities.
Gender gap in education, STEM and digital literacy
“But education for girls is about more than access to school. It’s also about girls feeling safe in classrooms and supported in the subjects and careers they choose to pursue – including those in which they are often under-represented,” says the UNICEF.
When it comes to digital literacy, Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or education as a whole, boys are still given a priority over girls in India as a result of which the gender gap still persists. This also stems from the problematic mindset that girls cannot be good at science, technology or mathematics and girls do not have digital skills. While this kind of mindset majorly contributes in decreasing the self-confidence of a girl student who starts believing that she is not ‘good enough’ for these subjects at school level and this even affects her confidence while choosing stream and subjects for pursing higher education.
Most office jobs in the present day require digital skills. As a result it is obvious that priority will be given to those who are digitally able for the job which has a digital component. According to a report by UNICEF, only 41% of women have access to the internet in developing countries as compared to 53% of men. In India, especially in rural areas the reality even today is that female members in a family do not own a smartphone and borrow phones from a male family member as and when required. The same goes for children where boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a mobile phone than girls as per the report.
“While India has made substantial progress in girls’ education, the implementation of the National Education Policy 2020 needs to be strengthened to further ensure girls reach their full potential and women benefitted across the country,” Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said at an event in October, last year.
Education of girl children suffered even more during the recent Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences in India. With people like factory workers, migrant labourers, daily wage workers and domestic help losing their work and struggling to survive during the pandemic, especially lockdown, education of their children, especially the girl child had to bear the brunt.