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Gender equity in education

Every March, the spotlight falls on half the world’s population, commemorating the historic journey for women’s rights. Besides honouring social victories such as universal suffrage and women’s greater contribution to economic activities, the month also calls for an honest reflection on their current status. While issues such as labour force participation and crime rates typically feature in the limelight, it is time we focused on the subtler manifestations of gender-related issues in one of the most critical areas for development — education. An analysis in the Indian context throws out four fascinating facts.

First, a comparison focused exclusively on learning outcomes reveals gender equity. Data from one of the largest competency-based sample surveys in school education, the National Achievement Survey (2017), covering over 22 lakh students, shows parity in learning levels between boys and girls in elementary and secondary classes across the country. For example, the average test scores in mathematics for girls and boys in Classes 3 and 5 are exactly the same at 63 and 53, respectively. In Class 10, scores are identical in both language and mathematics. In fact, the maximum difference in subject scores between the two genders across all classes rarely exceeds one percentage point. However an analysis of this kind tends to eclipse the prevalent gender discrimination in education, as evidenced below.

Second, though girls in India today are more educated than they have ever been, the gap in educational attainment, as reflected in the mean years of schooling, has worsened over time. Over the past two decades, the mean years of schooling for girls has almost tripled from just 1.7 years in 1990 to 4.7 in 2018. Boys are also getting more education. The same period also witnessed a doubling in the average educational attainment for males from 4.1 to 8.2 years. Despite the higher rate of improvement in the mean years of schooling for girls, the gender gap, measured as the simple difference between male and female attainment, has actually increased with time from 2.4 years to 3.5 years. Interestingly, this marks India’s divergence from global trends, where most countries across the world have actually recorded equal improvements for both genders. In fact, countries in West Asia and North Africa like Kuwait, Libya and even Saudi Arabia have shown declines in the gender gap in attainment.

Third, the gender gap widens with progressive levels of education owing to greater barriers to schooling that girls face due to social norms and deeply ingrained gender stereotypes correlated with biological factors such as adolescence. While the dropout rate for boys in Class 1 is marginally higher at 6.88 (6.38 for girls), this trend radically reverses by Class 8, when almost twice the number of girls are dropping out of the schooling system.

Fourth, and most important, the roots of gender discrimination emerge at the earliest stages of education. The latest Annual Status of Education Report “Early Years” is proof of this. More boys than girls tend to be enrolled in private institutions, where parents incur out-of-pocket expenditure. The preferred choice for girls’ enrolment is the free government school, highlighting societal gender biases in exercising school choice. Even at the age of four, there exists a five percentage point gender difference in total enrolment. Once again, this differential is correlated with age and time, and crosses eight percentage points by the age of eight. In fact, research shows that in cultures in which a higher value is placed on education of male children, more girls are likely to be taken out of school.

Focus on ECE

The implication for policy is clear — it is time the focus shifted to early childhood education (ECE), stemming the roots of the gender gap in education. Early childhood is where the seeds of gender norms are ingrained and where children develop an understanding of identities, behaviours and stereotypes. Typically between the ages of three and seven, children can acquire strong biases about the nature of jobs men and women should do. These biases, played out over the long run, can impede an individual from realising the full potential.

The lack of a regulatory framework, inadequate funding, poor quality and no legislation for universal access to early childhood education continue to serve as bottlenecks in India. These challenges must be addressed urgently. Longitudinal studies estimate that every dollar invested in ECE yields over a thousand dollars in return, proving that benefits outweigh costs by an incredible margin. The foundations for a right education must thus be established, not just by ensuring universal enrolment in early childhood education but by also focusing on how preschools impart an education that eliminates gender stereotypes and therefore, erases the gender gap. In fact, with increased funding and an actionable roadmap, the Prime Minister’s flagship Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao could be the ideal launch pad to kick start the campaign for universal early childhood education across the country. The Draft National Education Policy also accords due weight to ECE and this should be implemented at the earliest in mission mode.

The discourse is ripe on the multiple private returns, social externalities and intergenerational benefits to girls’ education. Through reduced poverty, infant mortality and crime. and improved economic development, girls’ education plays out as a virtuous cycle. The resounding message is to consistently augment the social capital for the one gender which is, literally and metaphorically, responsible for creating a new future.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 3:59:19 PM |

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