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Bridging the gender gap

Bridging the gender gap

Hindustan Times – 23rd April, 2012

Dipti Nath wants her daughter to study further. But she isn’t comfortable sending her to secondary school now that she’s finished studying up to Class 5 from Radha Barpeta LP School in Assam’s Barpeta district. The 32-year-old mother has two worries: distance, and the absence of toilets.

The primary school had no toilet but is just across the road from Nath’s house. The daughter would just run home whenever she needed to use the toilet. “Her friends drop in too,” said Nath. “She cannot do that when she goes to a higher school far from our house.”

As the aspiration for a better future drives an unprecedented demand for educational opportunities across India, more and more parents are enrolling their daughters in school. Today, there are 94 girls in elementary school for every 100 boys. School drop out rates, traditionally much higher for girls than for boys, have also shrunk — from 10.3% in 2006 to 5.2% — and are now only marginally worse than for boys. But Nath’s enthusiasm for her daughter’s education, coupled with her worries, offers a warning against any complacency. Despite the improving enrolment and dropout rate figures, going to school is not as easy for girls as it is for boys.

On an average, a student who travelled 4km to go to primary school has to travel over 8km to go to secondary school, because the density of secondary schools is less than half that of primary schools. With crimes against young women a major concern in vast parts of the country, the longer distances act as a deterrent.

Social prejudices also continue to rail against equal opportunities, said VR Devika, founder of the Chennai-based NGO Aseema Trust, which works with school children. At National Service Scheme (NSS) camps for school children, girls are often made to sweep the rooms and compound. Young boys, Devika said, frequently taunt girls for coming to school, suggesting that they should instead stay at home as has traditionally been the practice. “Subjugation of the girl is so ingrained in society, that it begins to play out in school,” Devika said.

The absence of adequate number of women teachers makes it still harder for girls to voice their concerns, especially as they approach puberty in secondary school. Nationally, 45% of schoolteachers are women. But the number is skewed across states, with only 27% women teachers in Jharkhand, while the number is 25% for Tripura, 31% for Assam, 35% for Chhattisgarh and 37% for Bihar.

But toilets remain the single most commonly voiced concern for girl students and their parents across India. Only 44% schools covered by the RTE Act have separate, functioning girls’ toilets. In the rest, girls either need to risk embarrassment and run to nearby fields, or as in the case of Nath’s daughter, run back home to use the toilet. Chhattisgarh has only 20% schools with usable girls toilets, while Jammu and Kashmir (22%) and Madhya Pradesh (23%) fare only marginally better. The northeastern states, including Assam (27%), also have few schools that provide working toilets for girls.

And resolving this crisis has proved harder than simply doling out money to build toilets. The state government deposited R95,000 into the Punjab National Bank account of No. 438 Khagrabari LP School in Assam’s Chirang district for the construction of a girls’ toilet on February 15 this year. But the money was withdrawn the same day, with the bank unaware and school officials claiming no knowledge of the transaction either. No. 45 Pub Kamarpara LP School, No. 960 Khagrabari LP School and No. 423 Tulsijhora LP School — all in Assam — suffered almost identically.

The girls will have to wait for toilets, India for equality in education.

(With inputs from Guwahati and Chennai)

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