Support And Respecting Women Inside And Outside The Home

Dr Urvashi Sahni, Founder of Study Educational Foundation, Lucknow speaks to BW Education through an online interview

Q: India has made strides in terms of access to schooling and enrollment rates, yet faces a huge dropout rate when it comes to the education of the girl child. How can this scenario be transformed into a favorable situation?

This scenario can only change if educators and policymakers look carefully at the gendered causes why girls’ drop out and include this in the education agenda for girls. There are many societal factors at work in a patriarchal society like India, which keeps girls out of schools. In a society where girls are valued primarily for their reproductive, sexual and domestic labour, they are pulled out of school when they are needed to work at home, to help with sibling care, to stand in for their mothers when they are sick or die, When they are married as soon as they are sexually viable. So, it is no wonder that girls dropout rate is so high. Girls do not drop out of their own volition, they are either pulled out by their parents or pushed out by insensitive schools, who accept the gendered ‘lot of girls lives’ and do very little to counter the societal pressures on girls. On the contrary, schools often mirror societal gender norms and in so doing reinforce them. In our work in Lucknow, we contextualize our curriculum, our pedagogy and school organization in girls lives. We help girls learn that they are equal and deserve every opportunity to enhance their lives, that they have a right to exercise choice and to give voice to their feelings. We not only teach girls their rights to equality, but we also help them resist discrimination, advocate for themselves. Teachers are expected to fight alongside them and for them as they struggle to remain in school. The school works hard with the parent community to help them perceive their daughters as equal persons deserving respect and equal opportunities to flourish. 

Girls need much more than access to school. They need to gain important knowledge that is denied them by a discriminatory patriarchal social structure – that they are equal; they need to develop strong voices and agency – and understand that a society that denies them these rights is cruel and unjust.  Once girls become aware that they are being wronged, once social norms are de-naturalized, ( i.e., they are not God Given or part of a natural system, but are historical social constructions), they learn to resist discrimination and fight it. Schools should fight alongside them.   They should provide the necessary supports and make it their educational goal to help their students develop more egalitarian mind-sets.

Q: The Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India has enshrined certain objectives that it has termed sacrosanct under the “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana”. Do you think these initiatives will help ensure the welfare and the ultimate amelioration of the girl child?

The initiative is to be commended because it brings the problem faced by girls to the forefront and makes girls’ education an imperative. However, if people only follow the letter of the slogan without going into the spirit of it – all programs will have limited effect. Strong teacher training, revised curricula and a very strong effort to help government officials develop a gender lens is necessary if the initiatives are to have the desired effect to ameliorate the lives of girls. We should aim at the building in a component of education for gender justice in our official curriculum right from the early grades all the way to the high school level so that the habit of equality is ingrained in both boys and girls. This is how discriminatory patriarchal mindsets and social norms will change, and that is the only way in which girls will be able to live fully human lives of dignity, respect, and choice.

Q: Do you think there is a requirement of more research and individual contribution for girl child’s education and empowerment – to support the government’s various initiatives and if a parallel can be drawn of similar success stories anywhere in South Asia?

I think it is important for the Government to recognize the numerous very innovative efforts being made by NGOs all over India in this field and to use their contributions to inform Government policy and programmes. They should provide a national platform for all the NGOs to pool in their knowledge and resources and should institutionalize their combined offering. The government should think of NGOs like SHEF and others, as partners and allies in a common goal and should use them as important resources.  I think NGOs like BRAC in Bangladesh are a good example of an NGO becoming a key Govt partner. 

Q: Can you outline the journey of Study Hall Education Foundation and various facets that are empowering women and promoting gender equality?

We take a holistic life outcome and a lifecycle approach to education. Our goal is that girls should have better lives – they have a constitutional and human right to full equality.  Our Foundation helps girls and boys in rural and urban regions of UP, learn this important lesson in a deep, intellectual way. Our goal is to help boys and girls critique patriarchal social and political structures, norms and mindsets, realize how unfair and cruel they are and learn to imagine an alternative – egalitarian truly democratic social structure.  We include lessons of equality in the official curriculum along with lessons in literacy, math, and science because we think it is equally important for students to develop a social and political consciousness as it is for them to gain knowledge of math and science.  Gender equality permeates our organizational structure and culture and is a priority for us. We have developed a critical feminist pedagogy for both boys and girls, a teacher training module, a curriculum for gender justice and have taken it to over 1000 government schools in UP and Rajasthan. 

We believe that boys must join the effort towards gender equality – through patriarchy is not their fault, they must recognize how cruel it is to their sisters, mothers and daughters. Though it gives them more power and privilege, it also saddles them with greater stress and responsibility, which can be reduced if they give girls space and opportunity to share their responsibilities. Being equal means granting equality to girls. It also means re-constructing patriarchal notions of masculinity and re-imagining “manhood” as a more gentle, caring, sharing and nurturing person – helping at household chores and child care; supporting and respecting women inside and outside the home.

SHEF works at redefining the scope of Education to include critical thinking about urgent social issues like gender, caste, poverty and communalism in the official curriculum. If we hope to have a well-functioning democracy then we should teach children how to be truly democratic citizens, how to create democratic homes, families, communities, and workplaces. These are important lessons and schools are the best places to learn them.

SHEF has reached out to over 500,000 students, teachers and families over the last 3 decades and our goal are to reach out to at least 5 million more in the next 10 years.

Q: You were adjudicated as the prestigious Social Entrepreneur of the Year India, 2017 by the Schwab-Jubilant Bhartia Foundation. How do you think such platforms help Social Entrepreneurs in India?  

It has given me and my organization a great deal of credibility and visibility nationally and internationally. I am most delighted that it has demonstrated that our work at social change through education has been validated. It has given us a platform to take our message far are and wide and because of the credible platform Schwab provides, I find that people are listening more attentively. The cause we are fighting for is receiving more attention and we are finding more fellow travelers.

Q: As an advocate, who has been in the business of good, how can technology be a game changer in revolutionizing and improving the quality of learning and imparting knowledge?

I think technology can be leveraged to take our work to scale more rapidly and more effectively and we are using it to our best advantage.

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