Select Page

Shantha Sinha, left, with Jacqueline Bhabha

By Anisha Gopi, Project Manager

On July 25th, 2016 the Harvard University South Asia Institute (SAI) and Tata Trusts hosted the second webinar of a multi-part series on Women’s Empowerment. The webinar titled ‘Empowering Girls through educational access and opportunity:  What enables deprived girls to succeed’ was led by Professor Shantha Sinha, one of India’s leading child rights activists and founder of M. Venkatarangaiya (MV) Foundation. Professor Sinha was formerly the Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and has been honoured with the Raman Magsaysay Award and the Padma Shri. The webinar was moderated by Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and Director of Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.

The 90 minute webinar focused on factors enabling girls to attend school, challenges faced by school-going girls and successful strategies for ensuring girls have access to secondary education. It was attended by grassroots practitioners, students and academicians from India, the US and the UK.

Professor Sinha talked about a study on adolescent education conducted by the MV Foundation that examined positive triggers and factors that made it possible for girls to go to school instead of looking at failures and challenges and why girls drop out. Thus enabling them to make policy recommendations about what worked instead of what did not.

As a part of a study conducted by the MV Foundation, they interviewed 1,000 girls (400 girls whose parents went to school and 600 girls whose parents did not go to school). They found that despite coming from similar socio-economic backgrounds, the first generation learners were confronted with far more obstacles compared to second generation learners. Parents of first generation learners despite being interested in their daughters’ education, did not have a culture of literacy and were not able to participate in enabling their children to continue their education. Sinha gave examples of illiterate parents not being able to understand that that they have to give their daughters time to study during exams. The girls who succeeded despite being first generation learners were called the champions.

As a part of the research they found that factors that enabled girls to study were:

  • Family support and a culture of literacy
  • The girl’s own resilience, agency and determination to go ahead against all odds and her ability to combine work and education
  • Institutional factors like good teachers and residential facilities
  • Distance from school and transport facility

The challenges the girls faced were complex and multi-factorial, some of them being:

  • Patriarchy and experiences in the family that curtail the girl’s freedom. The empowerment and shift in the girl’s role when she goes to school makes it difficult for the family. They struggle to find a balance between their notions of what is the norm and the girl’s new role. She cited the example of how families would hesitate to send girls to schools as they said it was not safe for her; yet, they would allow the girls to travel double the distance to work.
  • The other problem was the expense and the woefully poor, inadequate education systems

The study triggered a series of changes. For example the Government announced that senior secondary education and text books would be free, free midday meals were announced even in secondary schools, and about 60 hostels for girls studying in senior secondary level were sanctioned.

Professor Sinha then shared strategies used by MV foundation to ensure impact in education and in promoting gender equality. They worked with 133 Gram Panchayats in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The organisation was able to stop 3,564 child marriages. They followed up with 3,620 children to ensure they took their class 10 board examinations and mainstreamed 2,354 children through their open school system. This was done through social mobilization and tracking every child in the area in terms of all their rights. The organisation also institutionalized local support by creating community-based organisations like girl child protection forums formed by community members to be a link between the local government and the community. The organization also worked with local organizations, government officials, police and religious heads to protect the children’s rights. Finally, they also arranged for public transport for children who wanted to go to school.

Professor Sinha suggested that the education system must be sensitized to the needs of the first generation learner. Instead of blaming the parents, they need to develop a system that involves parents. Furthermore, the Right to Education Act in India provides many safeguards for first generation learners, such as preventing the requirement of a birth certificate at time of admission, ensuring that out of school children are admitted to an age-appropriate class at any time of the year. The schools are then expected to provide bridge courses for accelerated learning. Unfortunately, there is a resource crunch and this has not been internalized by the education system.

While talking about hostels and residential spaces, she suggested that contrary to public opinion, staying in hostels strengthens family ties. She felt that is important for girls to spend some time away from a routine that drags them into their patriarchal roles. Furthermore, the solidarity that emerges from being with your peers is incomparable as they motivate and support each other to continue studying. One girl’s liberation paves the road for 10 more girls in her community to go to school. She also stated that given the resources required for hostels, it could only be a transitional program and not a permanent solution.

Sinha also emphasized the need for the community to support the girl and enable her to exercise agency and the importance of shared spaces for boys and girls to come together to develop a healthy relationship with each other, understand boundaries and discover themselves.

In conclusion, she observed that despite all gender issues, the dropout rates for girls was now lesser than boys. There is a need to study the overall mood and positive triggers that have encouraged girls to go to school even though there is inequality, discrimination and oppression. As per 2013 figures, the dropout rates from classes 1 to 8 was 36.3%. Out of this, 32.9% were girls and 39.2% were boys. From classes 1 to 10, the dropout rate was 47.4%, with 48.1% boys and 46.7% among girls.

For more information on the Champions Project, the following documents provide insightful information:

Champions Project, Rajasthan
Champions: The Realities of Realizing the Right to Education in India
From Education to Gender Equality
Private schooling and gender justice: An empirical snapshot from Rajasthan, India’s largest state

Watch the webinar: