Challenges for gender equity when schools reopen: Early warning signs

These past few months have brought unthinkable disruption to education systems all over the world

While many more sectors prepare to resume activity as per the “Unlock 4” guidelines from September 1, schools, colleges and other educational institutions will remain closed till September 30 at least.

The physical vulnerability of children may have contributed to this decision, but the question of how socio-economic vulnerabilities will impact children’s enrollment when schools finally reopen needs to be carefully considered at this stage.

These past few months have brought unthinkable disruption to education systems all over the world. We are confronted with the possibility of going back on decades of progress made towards ensuring education for all.

In particular, experts fear the implications for gender equity once schools reopen. Many anticipate high dropouts among adolescent girls. A wide range of barriers in achieving gender equity in education existed even before the pandemic.

Therefore, it is important to understand how these pre-existing vulnerabilities faced by girls will play out alongside the pandemic, and across different phases of education.

Lessons from the past, for the future

While India accomplished near universal enrollment in primary education for both sexes, there is still a high percentage of female dropouts in secondary schooling. At the elementary level, equal access may no longer be a barrier, and yet gender discrimination manifests in the form of preferential treatment towards boys in private school enrollment.

Over the years, the idea of private schools being a better form of education and a ticket to upward mobility has gained popularity in both urban and rural India. This is not to say that private schools are necessarily better than government schools. It simply reflects parents’ understanding of quality education.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 survey, an annual rural assessment of children’s schooling status and foundational learning, reveals that signs of gender disparity in private school enrollment begins as early as age four.

We see that at age four, 27.6 per cent of boys are enrolled in private institutions, as compared to 25 per cent of girls, a difference of 2.6 percentage points. By age eight, this difference increases to 8.5 percentage points, with 38.2 per cent of boys enrolled in private institutions, as compared to 29.8 per cent of girls.

While most Indian states (where sufficient data is available in the 4-8 age group) follow the all-India trend, there are exceptions. Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya have a greater number of girls enrolled in private institutions at both age four and eight.

Interestingly, in states like Manipur, West Bengal, Assam and Telangana, girls start off with higher enrollment in private institutions at age four. By age eight, however, we see a reversal in this trend.

Acknowledging parents as important stakeholders

Discrimination against girls when it comes to private school enrollment exists even in relatively educated families. Using the ASER 2018 dataset, we looked at the relationship between fathers’ level of education (because men often have more power over spending decisions in an Indian household) and children’s schooling status.

Our analysis revealed that as the father’s level of education rises, private school enrollment increases for both boys and girls. For instance, for fathers with no schooling, private school enrollment among boys and girls aged 4-8 is 19 per cent and 14.2 per cent, respectively. This percentage increases to 62.7 per cent and 57.4 per cent for those boys and girls whose fathers have 11 or more years of schooling.

However, at each level of father’s education, more boys are enrolled in private institutions than girls. If fathers’ education levels are understood as a proxy for affluence, this finding suggests that while both boys and girls from families with more resources are advantaged in terms of private school enrolment, this advantage is not equally shared by children of both sexes.

The fact that even relatively affluent families prefer to invest more in their boys’ education reflects a deep-rooted gender bias.

The need to focus on the early years

There are two important reasons for why these findings are relevant to our discussion on gender equity once schools reopen. The first is that sociological considerations behind gendered investment patterns in schooling will not go away in the coming months.

The crucial difference now is that there is a much more serious resource crunch among families across India. This necessitates that we look beyond curriculum and classroom processes that may be gender blind. Working with families and communities is equally important to change attitudes and mindsets that are steeped in gender bias.

The second reason is that so far, there has been little emphasis on promoting gender equity in the early years and understanding how these gaps manifest during this period.

While the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 rightfully acknowledges the crucial need to strengthen foundations in the early childhood education period, it has fallen short of considering the wide range of contributory factors that lead to boys and girls having a very different headstart in their formative years.

The proposed “Gender-Inclusion Fund” in the NEP is a welcome step towards prioritising gender equity. Along with tackling infrastructure and access-related barriers, the mention of scaling “effective community-based interventions” must be built on. Further, early intervention must be stressed.

If we don’t intervene early, we may not be able to curb unequal investment patterns from developing into more perverse forms of gender discrimination in the future. Policymakers should pay heed to the “early” warning signs and tackle the root of the crisis in the “early” years.

The writers are associated with Pratham’s ASER Centre
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