Gender Disparity in Primary Education: The Experience in India

The primary education system in India suffers from numerous shortcomings, not the least being a dire lack of the financial resources required to set up a nationwide network of schools. Traditionally, the sector has been characterized by poor infrastructure, underpaid teaching staff, disillusioned parents and an unmotivated student population. In light of India's commitment to the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of universal primary education, its major challenge is gender disparity -- and the resulting financial and societal blocks that prevent access of girls to primary education.

In a society as deeply stratified as India, disparities in education can be observed through various distributions, such as caste, religion and gender, among others. It is interesting, however, that even within such disadvantaged communities, a consistent feature is widespread gender disparity in educational attainment. For scheduled caste and scheduled tribe girls, the gender gap in education is almost 30 per cent at the primary level and 26 per cent at the upper primary stage. In India's most depressed regions, the probability of girls getting primary education is about 42 per cent lower than boys, and it remains so even when other variables, such as religion and caste, are controlled.
It will take a bold and creative policy to bridge this gap. Acknowledging this, the Indian Government has made female education a priority. Its flagship programme for the achievement of universal primary education -- Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) or "Education for All" -- places special emphasis on female education and the achievement of gender parity. The question remains, of course, whether this can be attained before the MDGs deadline in 2015.
Addressing social problems in a financial context. Societal blocks to female education must be understood as part of a much larger social fabric, which has spawned numerous institutions of gender inequality. Traditionally, a boy's education has been seen as an investment, increasing the earnings and social status of the family; however, different standards apply for girls. The benefits of a girl's education are generally seen as going to the family she marries into, thus providing little incentive to invest scarce resources, both human and monetary, into such activity. Also, given the relatively low educational attainment, especially in rural areas, the marriageability of an educated girl presents its own problems. These factors combine to cement attitudes inherently opposed to female education.
However, these attitudes vary widely, even within India, dividing it into two broad groups, with the southern and western states being far ahead in education than the northern and eastern states.* It may be observed that those with the strongest anti-female bias include rich states, such as Punjab and Haryana, as well as poor ones, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. While it would be incorrect to conclude that financial factors play no role in securing educational access, it is safe to say that they are by no means a conclusive indicator of any likelihood of gender parity.
Had the problem been solely a financial one, there should have been a steady growth in primary education levels with the 86th Amendment Act of 2002, promising free and compulsory primary education to all children, and the ever-increasing budgetary allocations for primary education that followed. Yet the figures refuse to climb as rapidly as studies projected, even though the financial problems were addressed. This is perhaps because the societal blocks to achieving the goal were underestimated. A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) at the United Nations University noted that though greater financial capacity in the family had a significantly positive effect on attendance for both genders, it affected girls' education rates almost twice as much as that of boys. Given slightly more comfortable financial conditions, the rate of change in the number of girls getting education almost doubled in comparison to the rate for boys. Financial constraints appear to be a significant disincentive for girls' education in particular. It is difficult to dispute that girls' education occupies a significantly lower social, as well as financial, preference than boys' education.
Government response. The Indian Government has not been unresponsive to such findings. The promise of free and compulsory education has been earnestly pursued. It is worthwhile to study the general aspects of SSA before addressing its specific programmes for tackling gender disparity. SSA has adopted a two-pronged approach: to centrally define targets and norms, ensuring uniformity of quality and growth across the country; and to establish an extensive network of local management and bottom-up planning schemes, with the assistance of community groups and non-governmental organizations.
Before commencing a fresh project, every state is required to conduct a census to determine the number, age and gender of children in the area. The information is used to draw annual work plans, which are filed with the Central Government, maintaining accountability for funds allocated and used. In a salutary move, states have been obligated to maintain the 1999 levels of real value spending on primary education and to match growing government funding to these areas. This ensures that the financial commitment to education is maintained and increments in budgetary allocations trickle down to the ultimate beneficiaries.
SSA places special emphasis on female education. Government initiatives in this regard can be divided into two loose categories: a programme to create "pull factors" to enhance access and retention of girls in schools; and another to create "push factors" to foster in society the conditions necessary to guarantee girls' education. Today, free textbooks are provided to all girls in school up to eighth grade, and back-to-school camps and bridge courses are organized for older girls.
However, it is not sufficient to make girls' education more affordable; it also must be made more important as a social preference. We can see numerous examples of schemes to do just that -- schemes which qualitatively alter the very environment of education and challenge the very attitudes that restrict educational access. Government schemes now provide for early childhood care centres in or near schools to free girls from the burden of sibling-care responsibilities. Teacher sensitization programmes are run to promote equitable learning opportunities. Steps are being taken to ensure recruitment of at least 50-per-cent female teaching staff. Local government schemes are attempting to enhance the role of women, especially mothers, in school committees and school-related activities.
Additionally, specific schemes have been introduced in depressed areas, focusing on girls from disadvantaged sections of society, predominantly those belonging to scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and religious minorities. Under these schemes, more than 30,000 schools have been developed. In 2006-2007, bridge courses provided education to over 100,000 girls, while the remedial education programmes reached out to over 2 million girls. The depressed north and west states are also showing very promising indicators with innovative programmes, such as that of Haryana state, which provides free bicycles to girls joining sixth grade, or Uttar Pradesh's enthusiastic campaign to mobilize local communities around school-related sports and cultural programmes. While still far from providing education to all, these trends are evidence that the tide is turning. Already, eight states have reported achieving gender parity at the primary level. Enabling conditions are being created, and India is moving perceptibly towards a more girl-friendly educational environment.
Criticism. Critics point out that despite its many achievements, qualitative deficiencies in the SSA system abound. The most serious of these is that SSA guidelines are very lenient on school certification standards. Any individual who has completed secondary education can start a school. Few qualitative stipulations are prescribed. While this bolsters statistics, it fails in its true objective. The reality is that children in such schools do not get educated at all. Student and teacher absenteeism, high repetition and dropout rates, and low student performance only worsen the problem. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Government's partner in SSA, also cites quality of education as India's greatest challenge. Stricter school certification requirements and greater local involvement in teaching and management are therefore absolutely essential to the success of SSA.
Trends in India suggest that the country will meet the MDG for universal enrolment. However, WIDER research warns that unless conditions change, India will fail to achieve universal retention as soon as 2015. While India is committed to a qualitative assurance, it is difficult to see high-quality education being provided in the current situation. It would be wrong, however, to end on a note of pessimism. India's achievements in this sector are nothing short of revolutionary. With the number of 6- to 14-year old children rising from 35 million in 1991 to 205 million in 2001, achieving MDG 2 is an uphill task, but one that the Government has met head on. SSA has put India firmly on the path of universal education and gender parity, and there is no looking back.