Schools to empower women

Print edition : August 01, 2003

Maharashtra has evolved various models for women's education to suit the recipient's needs, amply supported by the State's NGOs.

THE Government of Maharashtra has declared January 3, the birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule, Women's Liberation Day. Savitribai, along with her husband and social reformer Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, had pioneered women's education in India with the goal of social development and women's liberation in a male-dominated society. She opened a school for `untouchable' girls in 1852. She and her husband promoted widow remarriages. Her life was a struggle against the evils in society.

This successful legacy of social reform, focussing on women's education, has been a motivating factor for women's formal and non-formal education promoted by the State government, private foundations and voluntary organisations in Maharashtra. Centres for women's studies in the universities in the State provide platforms for constructive dialogue to eradicate the hurdles in the way of women's empowerment through education.

As per Census 2001, Kerala has the highest literacy rate for women (88 per cent) and Maharashtra the second highest (68 per cent). During the death centenary year of Savitribai Phule, 1997, the State had made two-thirds of its female population literate. Within 15 years of the introduction of the State government-sponsored Savitribai Phule Foster Parent Scheme, which involves the combined effort of the State government, school authorities, proactive teachers and citizens to promote and financially support girls' education in schools run by village councils, tehsil councils, district councils and municipal corporations in Maharashtra, millions of girls from the marginalised sections have successfully completed formal education. In the secondary and higher secondary examinations in the State held in March 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003, girls performed better than boys. In the SSC examination in 2000, 53.34 per cent of the girls and 47.45 per cent of the boys passed, while in the HSC examination, 68.02 per cent of the girls and 55.92 per cent of the boys passed. Increasing numbers of middle- and upper-class girls are joining engineering, medical and law colleges and business management schools.

Human Development Report, Maharashtra, 2002 recommended the empowerment of women by stressing better compulsory elementary education. The Maharashtra State Education Policy, which has made a provision for free education for girls up to Class 12, has proved to be a boon for the development of the State.

As per a survey conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in 1996, the ever-enrolment rate in the State (the proportion of children who ever got enrolled in school, at any level, in the 6-14 years age group, at the time of the survey) was 82.3 per cent for girls and 88.1 per cent for boys. The average discontinuation rate (percentage of ever-enrolled children who discontinued studies at any time in the age group of 6-14 years) in the State was 8.4 per cent for girls and 5.9 per cent for boys.

The attendance rate for urban women in schools is higher (84.6 per cent) than that for their rural counterparts (75.7 per cent). One-fourth of the total girl children in the State do not attend school because they are required at home to do household work and look after younger siblings, or for outside work for payment in cash or kind, or because their parents find schooling too expensive, and so on.

The State has evolved various models for women's education that are suitable for different life situations and cultural backgrounds. Some of the successful non-governmental (NGO) models in non-formal methods of imparting education include:

The main thrust of the Anubhav Shikshan Programme of the Youth for Unity and Action, Maharashtra is on community-based youth activities through the critical examination of firsthand experience; learning from the literature produced by marginalised sections of society; unlearning sexism, casteism and communalism through exercises such as role-play and role reversal; and having mutuality in the relationship between the teacher and the taught.

Vidhayak Sansad is doing similar work in the rural and tribal villages of Thane district.

Since 1974, the SMS has been involved in women's education through songs, skits, ballets, plays, carnivals and mobile exhibitions, to promote gender-awareness. By 1985, the SMS managed to go high-tech by marketing its productions through a series of audio and video cassettes, through the mainstream media, and through several publications including its mouthpiece in Marathi, lan of Women. Its plays on the social uplift of the girl child, dowry and so on, have been staged across Maharashtra. Since 1992, the SMS has made special efforts to reach out to the minority communities through active participation in the literacy mission of the State government.

Granthali is a library movement spearheaded by the secular intellectuals of Maharashtra. The most attractive aspects of this movement are the publication of original Marathi works, translation from other regional languages and English, and the distribution of books through mobile exhibition-cum-sale. Educational material produced by Granthali has been found to be useful for classroom teaching and teachers' training on issues of social development.

Young, underprivileged girls in the age group of 9 to14 years are getting education about real-life issues and an identity of their own among other things, thanks to the Mumbai-based NGO Vacha's Bal Kishori Action Research Project. Vacha regularly organises educational melas for adolescent girls, which deal with health, mathematics, accounts and English.

Prerana, an NGO based in Mumbai's red-light area, is trying to rehabilitate children of commercial sex workers by providing them with education and shelter.

Sahayog of Mumbai started a school in June 2000 for adolescent girls who had dropped out of middle school and high school. The girls are now preparing for open school examination.

Distance education departments of universities in the State are attracting thousands of women who want to pursue higher education. Contact lectures conducted by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in its "countrywide classroom" programmes on Doordarshan are watched by the distance learners. Documentaries on women's studies, telecast by Education Media Research Centre (EMRC), Pune, are also found to be useful educational tools.

Street children, child workers and child prostitutes who have been rehabilitated cannot cope with formal education. Hence many NGOs have started open schools for them, which offer a wide range of creatively designed courses.

Jeevan Nirvah Niketan (JNN) is an open school in a slum in Mumbai started by a retired school principal in the early 1990s. When Snehasadan established 15 homes for street-children in the same area, it had to adopt a multi-pronged approach as regards their education. Those who managed to pick up fast were admitted to the formal school. Those who could not were admitted to the open school. In 1996, when the Mumbai Police rescued child-prostitutes from red-light areas and sent them for rehabilitation to shelter homes in the same area, the necessity for an open school for girls who could not adjust with the mainstream education came up. The third category of students in the open school are the child workers from the locality. The shelter homes constructed a new building to house the open school. Now, the open school has a huge building with all modern amenities, well-equipped units for technical and vocational training, and school buses. It provides placement for the students in professional social work institutions. The success story of JNN has inspired the State government to replicate this model in all educationally deprived areas of the State.

Pratham in Mumbai believes in providing a forum for collaborative efforts among the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation, voluntary organisations and the corporate sector. Pratham has focussed on issues of easier and safe access to education, better attendance in schools and the creation of an interesting teaching-learning experience through its hundreds of volunteers.

A mobile crche is providing custodial care for the children of migrant construction workers. Primary school education is also made available for the children.

According to the National Family Health Survey (1998-99), of the total female population in Maharashtra, 38.6 per cent were illiterate, 18.1 per cent were literate (though they had not completed primary schooling), 17.8 per cent had completed primary schooling, 10.8 per cent had studied up to middle school, 7.9 per cent had passed the secondary examination and 6.9 per cent had passed higher secondary and above.

The government of Maharashtra has adopted effective strategies to reduce gender disparities in education. Some of them are:

* Lowering the direct and indirect costs of girls' education for parents.

* Developing relevant and gender sensitive curricula.

* Advocacy of girls' education that includes awareness generation about social and economic benefits of girls' education.

* Promoting training and recruitment of women teachers.

* Improving access to schools, especially by providing safe transport.

* Supporting NGOs working in the rural and tribal areas, such as Vidhayak Sansad in Thane district, Manavlok in Aurangabad district, Abhvyakti in Nasik district, Janarth in Dhule district, and SEARCH in Gadchiroli district, which are promoting women's education along with gender-sensitive socio-economic development.

* Developing a flexible school calendar and converting one room of the school into a crche where girl students can keep their siblings, attend their classes and finish homework.

* Promoting literacy training of parents through television programmes such as Akshardhara and community radios.

* Using a multiple delivery system - formal, non-formal and alternative.

Social movements have provided alternatives to attain the goal of "Education for Gender Equality", in terms of non-hierarchical methods of education, linkages between formal and non-formal education, gender-sensitive input in curriculum revision, preparation of textbooks for teaching totally new subjects such as environment and women, human rights, gender justice and law, and methods of counselling.

Dr. Vibhuti Patel is with the Centre for Women's Studies, University of Mumbai.

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