Sunday, December 12, 2010

When girls fear school

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 12, 2010


The reasons for the high drop-out rate of girls are simple: Fear of corporal punishment, sexual abuse and the lack of basic amenities like toilets in schools.
Photo: D. Gopalakrishnan 

Pathetic infrastructure...
Sometimes you hear a story, or see a person, and you cannot forget. Last month, I listened to a bespectacled middle-aged woman, dressed in a sari with a scarf tied around her head. She was speaking at a public hearing on “Gender, Equality and Education” in Hyderabad, organised by ASPBAE (Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education) and Asmita, a resource centre for women. In a voice choked with emotion, she narrated the tragic story of her 14-year-old daughter, Renuka.

Renuka was a student of AP Social Welfare Society Residential School at Shivareddypet in Ranga Reddy District of Andhra Pradesh. She was in Std V. According to her mother, she was keen to study even though she was older than the rest of the class. On February 21 this year, a girl screaming in her sleep set off panic in the dormitory. The teachers sleeping in the next room, who were in-charge of the hostel, beat the girls to stop them from screaming. Renuka apparently had a head injury and became unconscious. She was admitted to the government hospital and her family was informed. Incensed at what had happened, her brothers questioned the school staff and also spoke to the local press.

When Renuka recovered, her parents brought her back to the school. But the principal and the staff refused to take her back saying she had brought a bad name to the school. The parents continued to make efforts to get her readmitted. But Renuka was so disheartened that she poured kerosene on herself and attempted suicide. With 75 per cent burns, there was little chance of survival. Her distraught mother wants to know what crime her daughter had committed to get such treatment. A case has been registered against the teachers but you wonder how many more cases of corporal punishment are forcing young girls out of school.

Only half the women in India are literate. The government plans to change this drastically in the next two years and has launched Saakshar Bharat, a programme for adult literacy that will focus on women. It aims to raise overall literacy from 64 per cent to 80 per cent and reduce the gender gap between male and female literacy from the current 21 per cent to 10 per cent by 2012.

Root of the problem

But the problem of the low percentage of female literacy lies at the point when a girl, who wants to go to school, drops out. The reasons are often linked to poverty; parents prefer to keep daughters back and send sons to school as girls are more useful at home and at work. But increasingly, even when parents are ready to send their daughters to school, the girls cannot continue because of simple reasons that have nothing to do with the ‘software' of literacy.

There are millions of girls like Renuka who want to learn, but not at the cost of being beaten. Or sexually abused. Several respondents at the public hearing spoke of sexual abuse, particularly in residential schools where tribal children are sent, as a reason for a high dropout rate among girls. This is an aspect of education that needs to be monitored, documented and dealt with. What parent would risk sending a daughter to a school where she is beaten or sexually abused?

The ‘hardware' issue is a much more straightforward problem. Girls drop out of school, particularly when they hit puberty, because there are no toilets. If they exist, they are usually dysfunctional.
Lalithamma from Thamballapalle Mandal in Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh gave a vivid picture of the absence of toilets and the impact on girls. Her organisation conducted a survey of 80 schools in the mandal. They found that 52 schools had no drinking water facilities and 57 schools had no toilets. Five schools had toilets but without doors or water. Girls were forced to use the open space behind the school. But as boys also accessed the same area, the girls could not go.

Lalithamma said girls sipped water through the day to avoid going to the toilet. Her data from just five schools makes horrific reading:

Thamballapalle High School: 172 girls, two toilets, no water.
Kannemadugu High School: 58 girls, two toilets, no water.
Renumakulapalle High School: 40 girls, one toilet, no water.
Gopidinne High School: 60 girls, two toilets, both not working.
Kosuvaripalle High School: 53 girls, one toilet, no water.

Worst still, these girls return to a hostel at the end of the day where again the toilet facilities are inadequate. They fear going out in the dark and often skip the meal to avoid having to defecate.

This is just a thumbnail sketch of the situation in one mandal in Andhra Pradesh. But it mirrors conditions in most parts of rural India. The situation is not that different in municipal and government schools in urban areas. Girls from such schools in Hyderabad also spoke of the absence of toilets. We want girls to go to school, get through primary school and persist in the higher classes. Yet how can they in such circumstances?

So while the corporal punishment and sexual abuse are issues that need to be investigated closely and documented, a beginning can at least be made by ensuring that there are working toilets for girls in schools. It is such an obvious point that it hardly needs to be made. And yet numerous surveys on girls and education bring out this one need. Why is it not being given as much importance as curriculum, teaching standards, shortage of teachers etc?

(To read the original, click on the link above)

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