They say to find out the health of a country, look at the status of its women. Well, India, my beloved country, is very unwell. Indian women are struggling with illiteracy, oppression and other maladies of a patriarchal society. But, the situation was not always this grim.
Ancient Indian Power Women
In the days of the early civilization in India, education was not preserved for any particular gender. Upanayana, the ceremonial initiation into Vedic studies, that is celebrated only for male children today, was held for both sexes back then. There are at least twenty women among the composers of the Rig Veda – Lopamudra, Visvavara, Sikata Nivavari and Ghosha being the most notable among them. Vedic history is replete with numerous scholarly women who were striving for excellence – Maitreyee was in pursuit of the philosophy of immortality, Gargi was the spokesperson of philosophers in King Janak’s court, Atreyi was a dedicated student of sages Valmiki and Agastya.
The Malady of Child Marriage
It was not until 300BC, that the ritual of child marriage reared its ugly head. Until such times, it was not customary for women to marry before 16. Gradually, marrying off pre-puberty girls became such an obligation, that their education was silently dropped off the priority list. This led to a vicious circle – the girls received lesser inputs, their general intellect suffered and soon, they were labeled unfit for education.
The legislation to abolish child marriage, in 1929, has had a significant impact in enabling the education cause for women in our country.
Since India’s independence in 1947, women’s literacy has grown more than male literacy (of course, the base was tiny). The female literacy rate in 1971 was 22%. In 2011, it grew up to 65.46%
The Present Situation
Let’s review where we stand today vis-a-vis the world, according to the latest Census report:
- India’s female literacy rate is 65.46% significantly lower than the world average of 79.7%. Just for comparison, China’s female literacy rate is at 82.7%
- 63.5% of Indian female adolescents drop out of school
- At least 25% of schools across India do not have a toilet for the female students. It may seem bizarre, but the fear of public defecation is keeping many of India’s women from schools.
- The quality of education in the public system is so inadequate that 52% women with greater than 5 years of schooling are still unable to read a sentence. This affects both genders, but the girls’ schools have worse infrastructural support
Change is the only Way
The Federal Government, under their banner program, “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (translated Save the Girl Child, Educate the Girl Child), is targeting welfare services for the girl child, with an initial investment of $15 Million in 2015. The scheme financially incentivizes parents to educate a girl child - a move that the government hopes will have an impact on India’s declining Child Sex Ratio (911 females to every 1000 men), as well as it’s female literacy rate.
NGOs like SavetheChildren, Care India, IIMPACT, among others are helping in constructive ways to overcome the steep challenge ahead of us. The drive to improve sanitation and hygiene among India’s rural population is also expected to bring positive change.