Closing the gender gap in the Indian education system may not be enough; What more needs to be done

From independence until today, we have come a long way to close the gender gap in education. In terms of primary school enrollment ratio (grades IV), there are now 1.02 girls for every boy, compared to 0.41 girls in 1950-51. In upper primary (grades VI-VIII), there are 1.01 girls per boy. The female literacy rate has increased from 8.9% at the time of the first census in 1951 to 65.8% in 2018. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2022, India ranks first in enrollment in primary education.

While these numbers testify to the progress we have made, the question that besets us now, as we enter our 76th year of independence and prepare for our centenary, is: have we done enough? Was closing the gap between the number of boys and girls completing primary and even secondary education our goal? Or, have we taken our starting point to be the end goal?

Gender parity in school enrollment and completion is an achievement that should not be denied. It is, in fact, a prerequisite for building a fair and equal society, where people of all gender identities have access to opportunities and can realize their full potential. Gender parity, however, is not the only factor that will lead to gender equality.

Ensuring that children of all genders attend school does not guarantee that they are treated equally in school or that they have equal access to academic and non-academic opportunities in school. Nor does it indicate a shift in the current mentality that sees gender identity as a determinant of a person’s role in the family, society or economy.

Karnataka’s position paper on gender education, recently released, reveals some surprising, albeit not surprising, facts. In a survey of teachers, parents and students to understand their perceptions and attitudes regarding gender in the educational space, here are some findings – most parents feel that feeding and caring for children are responsibilities fundamentals of women. Most parents also believe that women condone violence for the sake of the family and emphasized symbols of sacrifice and compassion. Among parents, 34% believe that girls’ behavior and dress style are the main cause of sexual abuse. About 40% of teachers also said they assigned decoration-related tasks to girls and tangible physical tasks to boys.

Some interventions, such as gender sensitization sessions for public school students in Haryana, have resulted in a change in mindset and attitudes. While such interventions have shown positive results, they largely operate in distinct ways within the broader school ecosystem. Gender equality lessons and sensitization sessions are certainly helpful but need to be complemented by gender-sensitive interventions in other school processes and practices. To address a value as deeply held as gender inequality, systemic changes are needed. Changes at multiple levels, including the practices and processes that govern children’s daily school experience, need to be targeted.

Common classroom habits like punishing boys more harshly or making girls do more chores in class, perpetuating stereotypes that boys are better at STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) while girls are inclined to art or languages, or conveying subtle messages about gender roles, such as men should take full financial responsibility for their families while women should prioritize caring for their children and of their families, anchoring in children values ​​of inequality between the sexes that prevent them even from imagining an egalitarian world.

Creating egalitarian schools would require all of its stakeholders to be gender sensitive and tackle deep-rooted stereotypes. This means for school leaders and educators to challenge any gender biases they may have internalized and consciously create classroom and school spaces conducive to dialogue and discussion. For example, there is a predominance of men as breadwinners and decision-makers and women are nannies in most textbooks. On the part of program designers, this would require reviewing the content of textbooks for gender bias, the perpetuation of stereotypes and addressing them. Gender-sensitive teaching would recognize the existence of such biases in the textbook and highlight concrete examples that falsify these stereotypes, with the overarching goal of educating children who are not pressured into professional and personal roles in the future because of their gender.

In order to effect any substantive change, we must seek to advance gender equality both in and through education. The former can be indicated by gender parity in school enrolment, school completion, representation of gender diversity, and equal opportunities for children of all genders to be empowered through education. Gender equality through education warrants greater effort, which makes it an underlying mission of education to address gender inequality in society and the country at large. He sees education as a powerful tool that can change attitudes and mindsets that lead to gender-based discrimination and violence.

Aiming for a change in mindset requires working with various stakeholders in the education system, ranging from teachers, principals, parents, non-teaching staff, community members, and governmental and non-governmental organizations. Identifying what, where and how gender-inequitable attitudes and behaviors manifest in a school environment and taking action to address them is what we need to prepare school leaders for. Equally important is building the capacity of teachers to facilitate classrooms where biases are identified, acknowledged and challenged. Such multi-stakeholder collaboration requires strong commitment from government officials – policy makers, education departments and school management being the key decision makers.

That education is a means to a better life for individuals and a better society for all is often reiterated. As we celebrate 75 years of sovereign rule and more than 72 years since we gave ourselves a constitutional right to equality, it is time to ask ourselves if we are doing enough to ensure that education enables equality of sexes.

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