Gender equality and women’s empowerment are central to the Indian Government’s social policies. This commitment is reflected in a variety of national and international policy initiatives such as setting up of National Commission for Women, shifting the approach to women’s issues from welfare to development, the National Curriculum Framework 2005, the Right to Education Act 2009, reserving seats for women in the local bodies of panchayats and municipalities, and India’s commitment to international frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals. However, despite continuous efforts by the Government focusing on the empowerment of women, rural women continue to remain a disadvantaged segment of society (Ghosh, et al., 2015) in India. According to UN India statistics, women comprise almost 40 percent of the agricultural labor force but control only 9 percent of the land in India. Of the 29 percent of women engaged in the laborforce, almost all of their work is informal and they underpaid and unprotected. Therefore it is no surprise that women’s share in the GDP (17%) in India lags considerably behind the global average (37%).
While working with women collectives in Rajasthan, the entrenched social norms and gender stereotypes that prevent the inclusion of women as equal members of the society in all respects quickly became obvious. The objective of constituting these women collectives was to bring together a group of women who will be able to organize themselves to work toward greater self-reliance. The group was envisioned to be made capable enough to assert their independent right to make choices. Working with these women reinforced the reality that deep gender bias and pervasive patriarchal values in Indian society are the major hindrances in the empowerment of women. Many women showed complete unwillingness to be a part of such a group citing a lack of family support as the major reason. Illiterate women lacked self-confidence and therefore hesitated to be part of such groups.
Female literacy is an important indicator of women’s empowerment (Eldred, 2013; Ghosh, 2007). The literacy rate of females in Rajasthan is only 52.12 percent, whereas the male literacy rate is 79.11 percent(Census of India, 2011) indicating the inequality of status and opportunity between men and women. Many scholars, researchers, and practitioners agree that education is an important means of empowering women to participate in the development process (Stromquist, 2015; Eldred, 2013; Ghosh, 2007). However, there is a need to go beyond simple access issues. Merely completing education or having access to the school will not solve the problem of gender inequality.
The National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) has made an attempt by incorporating a gender study course in a teacher training module that requires engagement with gender perspectives whether in understanding the development of children and adolescents or in understanding issues of society, culture, equity, and diversity. The module’s emphasis is on creating space within such courses to build teachers’ abilities to make linkages between theory and real-life situations and to strengthen teachers’ ability to conceptualize from a given experience.
However, the need to incorporate a curriculum on gender studies within a school syllabus remains. A curriculum at the primary level should be designed that critically addresses prejudiced social norms and structures. In a patriarchal society, gender equality difficult to understand and conceptualize. Boys are raised with a sense of entitlement, dominance, and privilege, while girls are raised to be submissive and shy. Changing this conceptual frame involves a paradigm shift. It is crucial to break down hierarchies and power networks that isolate females. Students should be encouraged to challenge narrow-minded notions. The change of mindset is only possible if children are sensitized about gender justice during their formative years.
The project Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) made a similar effort to sensitize gender equality among schoolchildren. It worked for two years with boys and girls between the ages of twelve and fourteen in public schools of Goa, Kota, and Mumbai. The project aimed to promote gender equality by encouraging equal relationships, critical examination of social norms, defining gender roles and responsibilities, and questioning the perpetuation of gender-based violence by incorporating that questioning in the ongoing school curriculum. The project used extracurricular activities, role-playing, and games for this purpose. Over the course of the program, the study found that participating students were more supportive of girls pursuing higher education and marrying later in life, and of boys and men contributing to household tasks.
Implementation of the well-defined activity-based systematic curriculum in all state and central education boards will give legitimacy to gender education. Following commitments that Indian policymakers can make to achieve this vision is recommended. Good policy frameworks are a first step in addressing the problem.
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Activity-based curriculum on gender studies
It is necessary to incorporate dialogues, exercises, and conversations to sensitize gender equality during children’s formative years. Activities like organizing women-centric movie screenings and school plays, painting walls, and boards with pictures and biographies of women leaders will reinforce the positive notion of women’s empowerment.
Teachers are powerful agents of social change. A teacher’s correct perception of the right teaching method is important in students’ disposition to critical thinking. Hence pre- and in-service teachers’ training and capacity building for gender studies will equip them ineffective teaching methodology and counseling on contemporary issues related to gender equality. It is important for the teacher to have an understanding of what perceptions of masculinity and femininity are children bringing to school by observing them in the classroom and the playground. It is the role of school to convey a positive image of gender roles by undertaking initiatives, strategies, and projects on gender equality.
There is a need for teachers, NGOs, and community-based organizations to work in collaboration with schools and local communities to sensitize on gender-related issues. Hosting events on Women’s Day and organizing empowerment forums that entail guidance for both girls and boys at the school level on reproductive health, career, life skills, and training on self-defense will also help in raising awareness. NGOs perform a very important gap-filling role. Hence, linking the school with local NGOs can provide an impetus for the successful implementation of the curriculum at the school level. The effects of all these activities will not stay limited to school-going students, but will also lead spill-over effects for communities. Apart from this, the National Council of Education and Research Training (NCERT) can involve NGOs working in education and rural areas to design an effective curriculum on gender studies.
Gender-sensitive modules to train teachers, incorporating an activity-based curriculum on gender studies and establishing linkages with community and NGOs, will help students battle stereotypes against women from a young age. Children are influenced by their surroundings. To ensure retention, it is necessary to ingrain the notion of gender equality among children from childhood. A school is a good place for a positive mind-set change in the entire generation of boys and girls.
(Purva is Research Associate, Development Research and Policy Initiatives at S M Sehgal Foundation) Sehgal Foundation holds Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which enables it to share its work in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a global audience.
Ghosh, R., Chakravarti, P., & Mansi, K. (2015). Women’s empowerment and education: Panchayats and Women’s Self-help Groups in India. Policy Futures in Education, 13(3), 294–314. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478210315571214.
UN India Business Forum (2018). Gender Equality: Women’s Economic Empowerment. https://in.one.un.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Gender-Equality___Thematic-Business-Case___20-March.pdf.
Eldred, J. (2013). Literacy and Women’s Empowerment: Stories of Success and Inspiration. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Feldbrunnenstrasse 58, 20148 Hamburg, Germany.
Government of India. (2011). Census of India, 2011. New Delhi: Government of India.
Ghosh, A. (2007). The Gender Gap in Literacy and Education among the Scheduled Tribes in Jharkhand and West Bengal. Sociological Bulletin, 56(1), 109–125. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/23620707.
Stromquist, N. P. (2015). Women’s Empowerment and Education: linking knowledge to transformative action. European Journal of Education, 50(3), 307–324. DOI:10.1111/ejed.12137.
By Purva Jain