Why India needs a Malala to promote girls' education?

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The entire world is praying for recovery of teenage education activist Malala Yousafzai, who defied the diktat of the Taliban in Pakistan's serene and picturesque town of Mingora in the Swat valley and campaigned for education rights for girls. Doctors in London, where currently she is undergoing treatment, say the 14-year-old is stable and responding well to treatment.

She was shot in the head and neck by the Taliban after demanding education for women in her home country last week. Whether brave Malala who took bullets in her head for a cause close to her heart will survive the attack or not is something only time will tell, but the entire episode highlights the deplorable state of girls education across the world.

Girls at school

Why India is no different?

We in India may not have radical militant groups like Taliban that imposes bizarre diktats to curb girls right to education. But, in spite of freedom enjoyed by us, why India is lagging behind in providing education to girls?

The Indian government has expressed a strong commitment towards education for all; however, India still has one of the lowest female literacy rates in Asia. In 1991, less than 40 per cent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means today there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.

Barriers in girls education

The statement is open to debate, but Indian society at community and individual level is not very passionate about girls' education. We still share the mentality that girls are meant for household chores, and educating them would fetch us no benefit. Girls are still considered as a burden to families and it is foolish to spend money on educating them. Because of low literacy rate among women, India still witness large-number of child marriages every year.

Low rate of female literacy and its impact

This low level of literacy not only has a negative impact on women's lives but also on their families' lives and on their country's economic development. Numerous studies show that illiterate women have generally high levels of maternal mortality, poor nutritional status, low earning potential and little autonomy within the household. A woman's lack of education also has a negative impact on the health and well being of her children. For instance, a recent survey in India found that infant mortality was inversely related to mother's educational level. Additionally, lack of an educated population can be an impediment to the country's economic development.

Does female education matter?

Answering the question, David Pilling, Asia editor of the Financial Times writes, "Study after study shows that it does. Female literacy improves health and enables women to assert their legal rights. A recent study in Mexico, Nepal, Venezuela and Zambia found that literate women are far more likely to understand and act on health messages."

Pilling says that education has a direct impact on fertility. In a country like India which is fighting hard to reduce its exponential population growth, improving statistics of girls' education could bring us some relief.

Quoting Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Pilling writes that in the Indian state of Kerala, where girls generally go to school, women have, on average, 1.7 children against more than four in many other parts of India.

What is the government doing to improve education among females?

The government of India has started giving priority to girls' education with National Policy on Education, 1986 and Programme of Action, 1992. Moreover, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) programme launched in 2001, National Curriculum Framework in 2005 and the National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education in 2010, too, promote education among females. These policies were complemented by other schemes such as National Programme for the Education of Girls at the Elementary Level, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya Scheme, both ensuring inclusion and quality education for girls. The Mahila Samakhya programme was launched in 10 states targeting marginalised sections of rural women. Access to education was also facilitated by separate schools for girls, availability of open learning resources, residential schooling, coaching facilities; scholarships, textbooks, uniforms and transport including bicycles. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (known as RTE) Act, 2010, charted a new roadmap for gender equality in education in India.

Why girls drop-out from schools?

According to surveys by the National Sample Survey Organisation, the most common reason given by girls for dropping out is to look after housework, while boys stay home to supplement household income. Keeping children in schools to complete basic education is, therefore, a challenge that goes beyond the schooling system.

A survey reveals that nearly 52% of girls have been dropped out of schools before they complete their senior secondary education. These girls have come forward and show interest in education, said the study made by Child Rights Group Plan India.

Girls' education and toilet

It might sound funny as what toilets have to do with girls access to education? But toilets do play a major role in retaining girls in schools. A recent survey conducted among parents (low-income group) in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore said that "toilets remain the single-most commonly voiced concern for girl students and their parents across India among the lower-income group."

The secondary data of survey added that only 44 per cent schools covered by the Right to Education Act have separate, functioning girls' toilets. In the rest, girls either need to risk embarrassment and run to nearby fields or run back home to use the toilet. Thus many girls stop going to schools as they have no access to toilets.

Also early marriage, distance to schools and lack of transport, their having to do household chores and take care of siblings, unavailability of female teachers and lack of safety were found to be some of the important reasons why girls drop out of school.

Brave Malala and influence she wields across the world

In a recent article on Malala, Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie has written,"As girls across Pakistan stand up to say "I am Malala," they do not stand alone. Mothers and teachers around the world are telling their children and students about Malala, and encouraging them to be a part of her movement for girls' education. Across Pakistan, a national movement has emerged to rebuild the schools and recommit to educate all children, including girls. This terrible event marks the beginning of a necessary revolution in girls' education."

In order to honour Malala and her revolutionary work, "World Foundation" has launched a Woman of Impact Award for Girls' Education to provide funds to women and girls fighting for girls' education in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "We are making an emergency appeal to our Women in the World Community to join Tina Brown and Angelina Jolie in this campaign. One-hundred percent of the proceeds will go towards girls' education on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ms. Jolie's Education Partnership for Children of Conflict will contribute the first $50,000 to this effort," said a statement of World Foundation.

At a time when India is fast emerging as an Asian giant, don't we need to educate our women? Or, we need a Malala like courageous figure to take bullets in her body and fight for girls' education?

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