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A Systemic Approach To Bring Real Change For India's Girls

Many women teachers revealed that even though they were working women - and potential role models for girl students - they did not see themselves in that light.

In 2019, while facilitating training with government secondary school teachers in Bihar, I asked the participants to make a graph using data from their school. The graph was intended to capture key milestones in the transition from school to work - how many girls enrolled in class V? How many in-class VIII, X, and XII? And finally, how many got into a career?.

These graphs, made by teachers from 15 schools in the room looked almost the same. If 100 girls entered class V only 2-3 of them transitioned to formal work.

This small group was a microcosm of the macrocosm. The female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) in the country has declined from 30.27 per cent in 1990 to 20.8 per cent in 2019, according to the World Bank. (2021 data possible?)

As we conversed further with the participants, many women teachers revealed that even though they were working women - and potential role models for girl students - they did not see themselves in that light. Most said that they were working out of need and not a choice, and would quit working altogether if their family did not need the additional financial support.

This leads to the question: will economic empowerment by itself foment gender equality?. What notions of work and economic empowerment are young girls in schools growing up with? Do they see work as a means to claim their independence and build their identity, with money as an enabler to exercise choice and shape their own future? Or is it one more “burden” to add to their already considerable encumbrances?

This is a pertinent question to grapple with this International Day of the Girl Child. The day was instituted in 2011, when the UN General Assembly designated 11th October to be annually celebrated as a day for the girl child,, The intent was to bring attention to the multitude of issues that girls face, and to promote girls empowerment and fulfilment of their human rights.

A decade later, girls in India continue to experience these challenges - from access to basic education, health, and employment opportunities to issues of safety, well-being, security, ownership of land and other resources. The magnitude of the gender divide and gender bias in access to digital technology was further broadened with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our everyday realities shape our beliefs about ourselves and our identities. For a majority of young women in our country, traditional gender norms are internalised because of their life experiences and social conditioning. While speaking to young girls in Jharkhand who had dropped out of school, one of the girls opined that they were not as intelligent as their brothers. When asked why she believed this, she said her brothers displayed their intelligence by going out interacting with others and keeping accounts. So deep was her conditioning that it did not occur to her to question why she is not allowed to go out, and most importantly why the skills that she has in managing the house and kitchen are not equally valued. She never questioned why her life is more controlled than that of others.

Elsewhere,  in Gujarat, after almost two years of pandemic-induced closures, young girls in class 9 and 10 were ecstatic to be back in the classroom. They shared their aspirations for their futures - one wanted to start her own tailoring business, another wanted to become a doctor; one said she wanted to become a pilot.

I asked them what they did at home when schools were shut. Almost all had learnt a new skill - some had learnt new recipes, others had learnt to make a new home decor item or ride a bicycle; almost all of them spent considerable time watching movies, songs and dances. What struck me most was that what they chose to learn in their free time was so closely tied to the gender roles expected of them, all except that one girl who wanted to be a pilot. She had seen the movie Gunjan Saxena and had been inspired to pursue a different path.

A powerful phenomenon that should not be discounted is that of collectivism and sisterhood. During a role model interaction in Bihar and Odisha, a female locomotive pilot from the area shared that in addition to her mother’s support in pursuing her education, what enabled her to move out of her village and enrol in an ITI at the district headquarter was the fact that there were 2-3 more girls from her village who were studying at the same location. They had safety in numbers, and it gave them more bargaining power to negotiate with their families.

The power of collectivisation and collective action has been well-documented in women’s empowerment literature as a means to challenge existing power structures and make their voices heard. For India to move closer towards gender equality and equity, it is imperative that these experiences are made available for young girls at an early age. They need to be given a voice, and the help and support to create safe spaces for themselves to rely on when they need the courage, strength and support to push their way forward.

If we are to truly empower girls in India, there is a need for persistent and concerted efforts at the intersection of economics, politics, culture and education. It needs to begin at home, working with parents - the architects of our first learning environment that conditions us into believing a certain reality. This needs to be augmented by working with teachers in schools who have the potential to work with girls and give themself the belief that they are capable of achieving anything they aspire towards. Policies and schemes need to be designed from a gender lens to ensure that voices and issues of young girls are addressed. Scientific research and innovation need to prioritise issues of young girls, reinforcing the need for more women in leadership positions and in STEM spaces, to make decisions and channelise resources to solve women's issues. And of course, more role models need to be celebrated to encourage girls to overturn their gender-discriminative social conditioning. When our everyday narrative showcases women leaders in different spaces as completely natural - whether agriculture, industry, sports or politics, perceptions will change.

Only through a collaborative and holistic approach will we be able to bring about real change for India’s young girls.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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