Gender and education

Print edition : December 05, 2003

The Indian stance on women's education and gender sensitisation will be meaningful only when it is informed by a socio-cultural and historical perspective on gender. -

THE recent reports of an alarming decline in the sex-ratio of children in the age group of zero to six even among the educated, middle-class proves that the entire education system lacks a gender perspective. Incidentally, these reports also explode the myth of literacy being a determining factor in social development, especially women's empowerment. It is clear that the earlier rhetoric promoted by the Jomtien-Dakar Framework of EFA showing a correlation between literacy and social indicators (infant mortality rate, child death rate, couple protection rate and so on) was a myth - it was more a matter of correlation between economic levels and social indicators (poverty being negatively correlated with social indicators).

Unfortunately, Indian policy-makers lapped up the international literacy propaganda uncritically, with many leading non-governmental organisations and even some otherwise progressive social movements falling in this trap.

Literacy by itself is meaningless unless it is linked with the praxis of conscientisation and social mobilisation, as advocated by Paulo Freire, the legendary Brazilian educator. The Indian stance on women's education and gender sensitisation will be meaningful only when it is informed by a socio-cultural and historical perspective on gender. One should not be carried away by the Jomtien-Dakar Framework and the market discourse and reduce this fundamental issue to providing mere sex education and life skills.

IN October 2001, under directions from the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) ordered deletion of certain portions of its history textbooks. One of them referred to Emperor Ashoka (273-232 B.C.) as having "derided superfluous rituals performed by women", which "naturally affected the income of the brahmanas". The text goes on to state that Brahmins "developed some kind of antipathy to him (Ashoka) . . ." and "really wanted a policy that would favour them and uphold the existing interests and privileges". Clearly, the government did not want the students to learn how the powerful Brahmin of ancient India exploited women by promoting superstition in the name of culture or how they resisted the progressive state policies of Emperor Ashoka with respect to women. The policy-makers must have been afraid of the students becoming aware of the socio-cultural roots of patriarchy, as this might encourage them to question its practice in contemporary India too.

In November 2001, the NCERT issued its `Guidelines and Syllabi' for the various stages of education in order to translate its much criticised curriculum framework into textbooks. For the secondary stage, the Work Education programme recommends two sex-stereotyped courses - one for girls from rural areas and the other for those from the urban areas (Secondary Stage, page 95). Worse is the NCERT's conception of the pre-vocational activities for the upper primary stage as it includes sex-stereotyped activities such as `maintaining cleanliness at home', `keeping sources of water in the school and the community safe and clean' and, amazingly, `helping parents in looking after younger children and old family members' (Upper Primary Stage, pages 86-87). In view of the deep-seated gender bias in the curriculum framework and the lack of any deliberate programme/activities for gender equity and women's empowerment in education policy, it is easy to guess as to who would be assigned such sex-stereotyped pre-vocational activities. The syllabi for languages, environmental studies or natural and social sciences also lack a gender perspective. The gender bias can be seen in the recently published NCERT textbooks, which refer to the contribution of women to Indian history and making of contemporary India only marginally.

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