It’s official; there is no investment more effective for achieving the millennium development goals than educating girls. So says the World Bank, adding that the more the girls that go to secondary school, the higher the country’s per capita income. Even in the fields, their schooling translates directly to increased agricultural productivity. Yet gender disparities in education remain prevalent in India, where there are 136 out-of-school girls for every 100 boys.
But there are good tidings as well, with incentives to the poorest families to send their daughters to school proving to be effective. The Centre for Equity Studies, for example, has attributed impressive surges in female enrolment (17 and 29 per cent in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan) largely to the mid-day meal programme. And across the country, primary enrolment for girls has increased by 31.6 per cent between 1980-2004.
Increasing education has unfortunately failed to check the mutation of traditional gender biases into a noxious new avatar: sex selective abortion. With female foeticide spreading to parts of the country where it was previously unheard of, thanks to modern technologies going where none have gone before, India’s child sex ratio has been declining in 80 per cent of its districts since 1991.
For once, the deteriorating social indicator cannot be blamed on poverty. Not only do the two most prosperous communities of Sikhs and Jains record the lowest child sex ratios, urban areas are worse off than rural ones despite boasting higher levels of both affluence and education, and economically booming states like Gujarat are neck-to-neck with sinking ones like Punjab in playing a deadly gender sweepstakes.
Similarly thriving across class lines is the entrenched tradition of child marriage, which also continues to find a following even among affluent and educated people. A Rajasthan situation analysis conducted by the MAMTA institute found that an alarming 96 per cent of the young people in the Jhunjhunu and Sawai Madhopur districts were married off before they were 18. Instead of going to school, the boys were forced to start earning while the girls were pushed into early childbirths. In a vicious cycle, every child out of school is a child ill-prepared to give the next generation a good start in life.
Yet, when a social worker’s hand was brutally chopped off for daring to campaign against child marriage in Madhya Pradesh, its Chief Minister reportedly said: “It is not possible to stop it. If Gandhi could not succeed in this, how can Babulal Gaur?” Clearly, important sections of our society remain ready to compromise children’s rights in the name of tradition. We need to convince them that a country flourishes only when its children are happy and healthy.