The Girl Child and Schools

22 Mar


Girls and boys need grow with confidence and comfort. Educational institutions have a role in promoting the culture of broad-mindedness

How does your school or college celebrate Women’s Day? Do they use it as a chance to say a special ‘thank you’ to the women in the institution? Why was it necessary to mark out a day when women, surely, get respect everyday? As much as any man does, right? Women’s Day, which was on March 8, has been a good time every year to reflect on what has been built. And the huge gashes that we see in our schools and our society. Sometimes we are so used to seeing them that we become immune to the hurt.

The University Grants Commission has just asked universities to report back to them on measures to keep women safe. The girl child is clearly not safe in many schools. Not only are children assaulted in the name of discipline, girls are not safe from some teachers  — there have been a number of reported cases of rape of little children in recent weeks.

The assault on a little girl in the Mongolpuri school is attributed to an unknown person who walked into the school. This is an unacceptable breach of security, and an abdication of responsibility. There are parents in Mongolpuri who have declared that they will stop sending their girls to school as it is not safe enough. The story is repeated all over the country — girls do not feel safe in India. Those who feel responsible for their safety feel the pressure to do anything that will keep them away from harm — even if it means sequestering them.

In the short term girls can be kept safe by packing them in boxes, but in the long term it does more harm than good. And it is a ridiculous society that would allow that to happen.

But that is exactly what happens when one seeks to have segregation between girls and boys. They do not learn to deal with each other as human beings, giving each other the normal respect that compatriots or friends can give to each other.  Much of this starts at school. Simple things like making girls and boys sit separately are clear signals to the children to observe these differences. School textbooks also often have gendered signals both in the text and the pictures. Women are often shown cooking or cleaning, men often shown in uniform. Questions and problems in mathematics use gendered language even in simple addition sums. Of course the problem of inadequate sanitary facilities — toilets and water continue to plague retention of girls at school. As they grow older, parents choose to keep them at home, thus stunting their personal development and earning potential.

The subtle but clear influences are embedded via schools and carry on to form values in society. While traditions are a valuable cultural resource, there are some that need to be adopted with care — the current sexism is not only hurtful but also economically harmful. The hidden cost of missing talent hurts the individual, the school, the workshop, the office and the country. The calls to provide gender training kits to schools and to vet textbooks are welcome, but as with many such projects, much depends on the team that is in charge and the implementation of these initiatives.

But even before these kits reach the teacher, here is a simple test for each of you leading in schools or colleges. If you had an event to plan and a series of jobs to allocate, would you allocate the jobs by gender? Would girls be welcoming the guests, handing the flowers, help light the inaugural lamp? No, it is not about their natural talents and abilities. These are all skills, and both genders have proved adequate in either task. If you have allowed such prejudice to influence the children’s mind then it is time for a rethink. Children believe they are good at something only because they receive support and praise for it — which makes them try it again. As a corollary, if they are told they cannot do something, many often stop trying. Witness the small proportion of women in engineering colleges despite the fact that largely girls outperform boys at school level.

Girls and boys need grow with confidence and comfort. Both with themselves and with each other and to a large extent educational institutions must play a role in creating a normal and productive work culture. As I finish writing this, I get news of police in Punjab beating up a woman who came to them to complain of sexual harassment. I wonder what the teachers of these policemen had taught them.

This Op-Ed was published in the Daily Pioneer newspaper on March 11, 2013 and is linked here and


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