The road to gender equity is long and hard, and despite the fact that each generation has paved a better way for the next, the struggle to overcome disparities is far from over. Through this difficult journey, the school’s role in sensitising young minds towards building a non-discriminatory world cannot be overstated. In this context, a comprehension passage in the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) English examination conducted on Saturday for Class 10 students must be condemned for its regressive and sexist stance. The passage, which created a furore across all sections of society and in Parliament where Congress president Sonia Gandhi called out the misogyny , contained outrageous sentences, including one which said “women gaining independence is the main reason for a wide variety of social and family problems”. Young impressionable teenagers, girls and boys, already stressed because of the pandemic, did not know how to tackle the question. Another sentence shockingly read “that the emancipation of the wife destroyed the parent’s authority over the children... In bringing the man down from his pedestal the wife and mother deprived herself, in fact, of the means of discipline”. The multiple answers to one question that followed the passage asking children to comment on the tone had this choice: “Writer takes a light-hearted approach to life”. The initial response from the CBSE was tone-deaf, although the Board later said it was dropping the question.
It was eventually forced to express “regret” and it vowed to review its paper setting processes. Already because of COVID-19, the 2020-21 syllabi for Classes 9-12 were truncated by 30% with glaring omissions of core concepts in subjects such as Mathematics. From the social sciences and other humanities subjects, topics such as federalism, citizenship, nationalism, secularism, democracy, and diversity, were slashed. In the real world it will be tougher for children if they are not taught the basics in school, and if they grow up with anxieties related to gender, for instance. In India, misogyny has long roots. Inequalities of class, caste, gender already exist in the school system, worse in the villages and among the urban poor. Many girls are pushed to drop out for myriad reasons, from the lack of toilet facilities in school to forced labour or marriage. If men, as Claudia Goldin says in her book, Career & Family , must start doing what women have always done, provide personal support, lend a ear, and help, education has to begin when they are young. Instead of teaching them to cast off stereotypes, school authorities are reiterating old wrongs. At a time when it is imperative for the Board to lighten children’s burden, the CBSE has sent out the worst possible message.