Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The gift of infinite possibility

Published here on October 19, 2013.

The education of India’s women was placed on the national agenda by the social reformers of the nineteenth century. Through the last two centuries, philanthropists and community organizations have found the idea of setting up girls’ schools and colleges very appealing. State governments have created subsidies to promote girls’ education. Clearly, we have come a long way from the days when Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Pandita Ramabai, Ramabai Ranade and Dhondo Keshav Karve had to battle odds to convince society women should be educated too. For most of us now, it seems intuitive that women should be educated.

We take for granted growing enrolment and better retention of girls in schools; more women graduates; more women taking up professional courses like engineering or medicine; and more women teachers. 53.7% of Indian women are literate.That means almost half of us cannot read, write or count, like the local entrepreneur who owns an ironing shop but cannot calculate her own earnings each day. Most of the women who make up this 53.7% have barely finished school, with about half of them having finished only primary school. There are also 12 million Indian women who are “graduates and above.”

My great-grandfather, who was an educator and educationist, would say, “Educate a woman and you educate an entire generation.” Education is profoundly empowering in a woman’s life because it gives her self-confidence, a network of peers to grow up and grow old with and credentials that improve her life-chances. Over decades of development planning and programme reports, we know that educated women have better life-chances, marry later, have fewer but healthier children and serve as role models to other women. We pin our hopes on education to deliver empowerment and safety to women. The argument is that if you educate girls, they will be somewhat more secure from violence—ostensibly because they can walk away. Ordinarily though, education does not secure them from violence, from discrimination or from the patriarchal conditioning that reinforces the idea that girls have no value.

Today, the world is celebrating a young girl whose parents believed and raised her to believe that she was a human being, entitled to education and self-expression. But in every other home, there is a young girl whose dreams are dismissed, whose potential is overlooked, who loses out to her male siblings or whose voice is silenced.

Education happens in the home, in the classroom and in the neighbourhood, and it happens as a celebration of freedom and equality. Without the creative engagement of parents, teachers and curriculum designers, the emancipatory potential of education is just an idea.What should this creative engagement promote? What are the things girls need to learn and in their turn, to teach?

Girls should learn first and foremost that they are human beings—not more, not less than that. Their experiences are valid and their self-expression is important. We must show girls that we value their intelligence and initiative. When we teach girls to be self-effacing and non-confrontational, we clip their wings for life. Girls must learn that there is nothing wrong in standing up for yourself and asking for your due—whether it is help with classwork or an equal wage or that an FIR be filed for sexual harassment. Different standards and different expectations at home and school send one clear message that most girls internalise: there is a gender hierarchy, girls come last and they just don’t matter. When parents and teachers discriminate, the idea of gender inequality is internalised by both boys and girls, and both lose out in the long run. 

Girls should learn that they are entitled to every right that applies to human beings and they are obliged to share the responsibility of citizenship. A society that wants to raise daughters and sons as equal citizens would include gender sensitization materials in its civics classrooms and teacher training programmes. In our work with graduating college students, we have found them frighteningly ignorant about their rights. They appear to put up with many threatening situations mainly because they are unsure of themselves—are they reading the situation correctly—and because they don’t know how to cope. An important part of their education must be to teach girls what their rights are in all situations—from political participation to fighting sexual violence to inheritance. And how would you address sexism in the classroom—where teachers valorise and call on boys and not girls, for instance?

Girls should learn that other girls and women have been agents of change and creative contributors to our heritage. History books rarely feature an equal number of women rulers or scholars as men. Male authors and poets outnumber women in literature text-books and syllabi, with the latter being tagged by gender as “women writers”—suggesting that somehow their gender is the most important feature of their work. When we do oral history interviews, we ask women about their lives and experiences, but they return like homing pigeons to talk about the men in their lives. We have learnt to erase ourselves from the narratives of our own lives. Our daughters should learn that women before them have been scientists, mathematicians, poets, philosophers, artists, film-makers, political scientists, soldiers and even politicians! Neither they nor their problems are unique; but equally, they are not alone in their struggles.

Girls should learn that there are no barriers to learning. This, we demonstrate to them by removing the barriers outside their mind, by guaranteeing easy access to schools, public transportation, scholarships, tutoring as needed and exposure to ideas and experiences outside the syllabus. However, these cannot help if interactions in school and at home reinforce gender stereotypes about potential. For instance, the best school facilities in the world will not make up for a parent who says to a boy, “Such poor marks in Science? Even your sister does better.” The message is really not subtle—girls are hardly smart enough to be able to comprehend science. Instead, what we should be saying to girls and boys is that anyone can learn anything they set out to learn. 

Girls should learn that they can do anything they dream about. Education should give them confidence. The best gift my parents gave me, perhaps differently from many of my peers, was that they never once said to me that something was not possible. Any ambition or aspiration of mine was fine and feasible; life itself made some minor adjustments but my parents never did. To paint on a limitless canvas is the right of every human being, and teachers and parents can enable that work of art. It is one thing for tired adults to debate whether women can have it all or not; it is absolutely essential that girls and young women believe that they can and will.

If we don’t give our daughters the gift of infinite possibility, who will?

Swarna Rajagopalan trained as a political scientist. She is the founder of Prajnya

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