A report published a few days after the declaration of the results of this year’s Madhyamik examination in a leading newspaper caught my eye recently. It stated that of the 10,05,533 candidates, 5,19,205 were girls. The pass percentage among girl students this year was 76.51 per cent. For the boys, the figure stood at 85.72 per cent. Last year, these two figures had been 76.33 per cent and 84.85 per cent, respectively. The report also added that Murshidabad, Jalpaiguri, Malda and Purulia — four of West Bengal’s most underdeveloped districts — have registered the sharpest difference in the pass percentage between girls and boys. In Murshidabad, the difference in pass percentage stood at 16 per cent.
Several factors were cited to explain this gap. Apart from the lack of nutrition, it was suggested that Madhyamik examinations are primarily taken by students from rural areas where social discrimination against girl students is rampant. Such discrimination, the report stated, is manifest in the form of everyday decisions made by poor, agrarian families, many of them belonging to the minority community. In such households, girl students are plied with domestic duties, yet seldom supported financially or emotionally in the matter of pursuing higher education, and assigned fewer private tutors compared to boys.
Last week, I spent a couple of days in Murshidabad’s Hariharpara block, interviewing teachers, girl students and members of their families in order to ascertain the truth behind some of the reasons that had been cited to explain the difference in pass percentage between girls and boys. The data collected from a single block comprising seven villages cannot be considered as a representative sample on which to base a water-tight counter-argument. Nonetheless, the information I gathered revealed significant drawbacks in our understanding and analysis of the changing nature of the challenges that girls face in the sphere of education in these districts.
The choice of words in the report merits a close examination. Loosely translated, one of the sentences went like this: more than half of the candidates in this year’s Madhyamik were girls. This was a clear attempt to indicate that there has been a significant increase in the number of girl students, which, in turn, could be adduced to the success of such programmes and legal provisions as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act, 2009.
But what was ignored in the report was the corresponding decline in enrolment among boys in districts like Murshidabad. The drop-out rate among boys is concomitant with the frightening rise in migration. This is a significant factor that has led to girls outnumbering boys in the board examinations. The block and panchayat offices failed to furnish reliable data about the drop-out rate or the percentage of migration among boys. But the figures provided by the headmaster of the Baruipara High School — a co-educational, Muslim-majority institution — could be useful in this context. Between 1999 — the year of the school’s founding — and 2012, enrolment among girl students had risen, approximately, from 481 to 1,001. There were 581 boys in 1999: there are 794 in 2012. As against 600 girls, only 213 new admissions had taken place in the case of boys in 13 years. Incidentally, in this block, nearly every household has a teenage male earning member, working as construction or agricultural labourer outside Bengal.
In underdeveloped districts such as Murshidabad, the parameters to gauge girls’ progress in secondary education ought to change. Instead of celebrating the fact that more girls than boys have sat for board examinations, one must examine data to compare the rates of enrolment as well as drop-out rates among both boys and girls to obtain a realistic picture.
Each of the 66 boys who appeared for Madhyamik from the Baruipara High School has passed. But of the 90 girls, seven have failed. But this difference in pass percentage, I discovered, cannot be attributed to traditional forms of social discrimination. The girl students in this block at least have been given an equal share of books, uniforms and private tutors by their families. None of the girl students alleged that, unlike their brothers, they are burdened with household chores. The exact causes of the lower pass percentage among girl students may have remained unclear. But what was apparent is that greater access to education has transformed it into a critical demand. Significantly, it has also led to the simultaneous creation of newer forms of discrimination against girl students. Most marriage alliances in Hariharpara and the surrounding villages of Khidirpur, Baharan and Miyanbajar are decided after taking into consideration the educational parity between the bride and the groom. The family of a girl who is a graduate has greater leverage during negotiations and a better chance of marrying the daughter off to a man holding a government job. Girls who have passed school are preferred by grooms with incomes from menial jobs.
What was also reinforced in the course of my interactions is the idea that rural societies on the cusp of transition often mirror developments that are seemingly contradictory. The aspiration for education for girls is now an undeniable reality in most villages in Murshidabad. But much of this demand is linked to the pulls and pressures exerted by a conservative marriage market. The residual orthodoxy in rural communities has also meant that not many families are willing to allow their girls to travel to towns or cities that offer better educational amenities.
Strengthening literacy programmes and legal provisions to fight newer forms of discrimination will, however, not be enough. Such efforts need to be supplemented with imaginative forms of community mobilization. For instance, parent-teacher associations (PTAs) and mother-teacher associations (MTAs) — organizations that have a better understanding of local educational needs and forms of discrimination — have to be recognized as primary agents of change by literacy campaigns and policies conceived by NGOs and the State. The panchayat and the bureaucracy should be relegated to the role of supporting institutions tasked to meet finance and infrastructural needs.
Altering the structure of the school management committees can be looked into as well. Why not have a greater representation from parents, teachers and educational experts in such bodies instead of packing them with political and bureaucratic appointees who are seldom aware of the relevant challenges? What is also imperative is strengthening the infrastructure of all-girl educational institutions in conservative localities. (I was told of a meritorious girl student discontinuing higher education because the village school lacks a laboratory and trained teachers in science.) Such a step would allow more girls to pursue higher studies in their preferred subjects without having to relocate to distant places.
As for the mainstream media, they need to reflect on a few things. First, driven by the need for profit, their content has turned increasingly city-centric. Consequently, the changing nature of discrimination that persists in education in impoverished districts remains unexamined. Second, the media are also unaware of the prejudices associated with such frequently used terms as ‘first-generation learners’. A campaign, I was informed by a member of the Pratichi Trust, had discovered that teachers considered first-generation learners to be less intelligent.
The battle against discrimination in women’s education is thus not only about crippling institutional deficiencies. It is also a battle of perception. Whether or not the arms of the State and the media choose to recognize the changing nature of the beast will determine the outcome.