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8 Dec, 2012

Shashi Tharoor: “Most Important Way To Improve the World – Educate Girls”

Shashi Tharoor

Speech Delivered by Dr Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for Human Resource Development, India, on “Educating Women—The Quest for Equality” at the 18th Justice Sunanda Bhandare Memorial Lecture on 5 December 2012

It is a matter of great privilege for me to have been invited to deliver the 18th Justice Sunanda Bhandare Memorial Lecture. I have met her a couple of times in the company of her illustrious husband, my friend Murali, but sadly did not have the opportunity to know her well before her untimely demise due to cancer in 1994. I am however aware that the Foundation set up in her name has done exemplary work in promoting the causes that Justice Bhandare worked for so tirelessly and selflessly, during her distinguished career both as a lawyer and then as a Judge of the Delhi High Court in the 1980s and 1990s.

I come to this podium to deliver this lecture in the footsteps of many stalwarts from all walks of our public life, including former presidents late Shri KR Narayanan and Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, national leaders such as Smt Sonia Gandhi, legal luminaries such as Justice VR Krishna Iyer and Justice MN Venkatachaliah, eminent professors such as Prof. Amartya Sen and Prof. MS Swaminathan and spiritual leaders such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This distinguished lineage of speakers has not only cherished the memory of Justice Bhandare and paid homage to her work, but they have also enriched our public discourse on one of the most significant issues facing India in the 21st century, the cause closest to the heart of Justice Sunanda Bhandare, namely, gender equality.

One of the more difficult questions I find myself being asked through my years as a public official, both abroad and in India, especially when I have been addressing a generalist audience, is: “what is the single most important thing that can be done to improve the world?” It’s the kind of question that tends to bring out the bureaucrat in the most direct of communicators, as one feels obliged to explain how complex are the challenges confronting humanity; how no one task alone can be singled out over other goals; how the struggle for peace, the fight against poverty, the battle to eradicate disease, must all be waged side-by-side — and so mind-numbingly on. But of late I have cast my caution to the winds and ventured an answer to this most impossible of questions.

If I had to pick the one thing we must do above all else, I now offer a two-word mantra, a mantra that would have found instant resonance with the eminent jurist whose memory we honour today: “educate girls”.

It really is that simple. There is no action proven to do more for the human race than the education of the female child. Scholarly studies and research projects have established what common sense might already have told us: that if you educate a boy, you educate a person, but if you educate a girl, you educate a family and benefit an entire community. The evidence is striking. Increased schooling of mothers has a measureable impact on the health of their children, on the future schooling of the child, and on the child’s adult productivity. The children of educated mothers consistently out-perform children with educated fathers and illiterate mothers. Given that they spend most of their time with their mothers, this is hardly surprising.

A girl who has had more than six years of education is better equipped to seek and use medical and health care advice, to immunise her children, to be aware of sanitary practices from boiling water to the importance of washing hands. A World Bank project in Africa established that the children of women with just five years of school had a 40 per cent better survival rate than the children of women who had less than five years in class. A Yale University study showed that the heights and weights for newborn children of women with a basic education were consistently higher than those of babies born to uneducated women. A UNESCO project demonstrated that giving women just a primary school education decreases child mortality by five per cent to 10 per cent.

The health advantages of education extend beyond childbirth. The dreaded disease AIDS spreads twice as fast, a Zambian study shows, among uneducated girls than among those who have been to school. Educated girls marry later, and are less susceptible to abuse by older men. And educated women tend to have fewer children, space them more wisely and so look after them better; women with seven years’ education, according to one study, had two or three fewer children than women with no schooling. The World Bank, with the mathematical precision for which they are so famous, has estimated that for every four years of education, fertility is reduced by about one birth per mother. The reason Kerala’s fertility rate is 1.7 per couple while Bihar’s is over four is that Kerala’s women are educated and, unfortunately, most of Bihar’s are not.

The more girls go to secondary school, the Bank adds, the higher the country’s per capita income growth. And when girls work in the fields, as so many have to do across the developing world, their schooling translates directly to increased agricultural productivity. One marvellous thing about women is that they like to learn from other women, so the success of educated women is usually quickly emulated by their uneducated sisters. And women spend increased income on their families, which men do not necessarily do (rural toddy shops in India, after all, thrive on the self-indulgent spending habits of men). In many studies, the education of girls has been shown to lead to more productive farming and in turn to a decline in malnutrition. Educate a girl, and you benefit a community.

I learned many of these details from my former UN colleague Catherine Bertini, a World Food Prize laureate for her tireless and effective work as head of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. As she put it in her acceptance speech for that prestigious prize: “If someone told you that, with just 12 years of investment of about $1 billion a year, you could, across the developing world, increase economic growth, decrease infant mortality, increase agricultural yields, improve maternal health, improve children’s health and nutrition, increase the numbers of children — girls and boys — in school, slow down population growth, increase the number of men and women who can read and write, decrease the spread of AIDS, add new people to the work force and be able to improve their wages without pushing others out of the work force — what would you say? Such a deal! What is it? How can I sign up?”

Sadly, the world is not yet rushing to “sign up” to the challenge of educating girls, who lag consistently behind boys in access to education throughout the developing world. Some 65 million girls around the world never see the inside of a classroom. And yet not educating them, costs the world much more than putting them through school. As another one of my distinguished former colleagues at the UN, the UNICEF’s then head, the energetic Carol Bellamy, while releasing her flagship report called State of the World’s Children in 2004, said bluntly: “the failure to invest in girls’ education puts in jeopardy more development goals than any other single action.”

The cause so eagerly embraced around the world and the cause so dear to Justice Bhandare’s heart ought to be the abiding passion of every right thinking citizen of our country. It is certainly an unambiguous policy objective of the Government of India. Our National Education Policy document, adopted in 1986 and amended in 1992, states: “Education will be used as an agent of basic change in the status of women. In order to neutralize the accumulated distortions of the past, there will be a well-conceived edge of in favour of women. The National Education System will play a positive, interventionist role in the empowerment of women. This will be an act of faith and social engineering.” Justice Bhandare couldn’t have worded it better.

Despite our clear priorities, it is clear that in our own country, we have a long way to go to fulfil this particular tryst with destiny. Although since Independence, the country has made significant strides in improving the overall literacy rates for women and, across the board, enrolment rates for women right from the primary level to college have been going up, yet much more needs to be done. According to the figures available with the HRD Ministry, in 1951, the country had a literacy rate of 18.3%, a mere 27.2% for men and an abysmal 8.9% for women. Since then, in 2011 this rate has moved up to a healthy 82.1% for men and stands at a more acceptable 65.5% for women. Without going into the quality and reliability of our literacy related statistics, I am sure this august gathering would agree that it is a matter of deep national concern that even today nearly one out of every three women in our country is illiterate.

To elaborate further, as per the MHRD’s provisional statistics for the year 2009-10, while 17.1% of all eligible males had enrolled for higher education, merely 12.7% of all eligible young women were able to avail of the same opportunity. This figure hides within itself, a shocking and unacceptable rural-urban divide. While around 30% of all urban women enrol for some form of higher education, a little over 8% of all rural young women are able to enrol for a higher degree. Similarly at the higher secondary level, while 38.3% of eligible boys are enrolled at this level, only 33.3% of girls are able to avail of educational opportunities at this level. Our experience suggests that while at the primary level the enrolment rates for girls and boys are roughly identical, sustaining the girl child through the education system remains a challenge.

As the figures mentioned earlier amply illustrate, our national experience in this critical area has been extremely uneven across the country and remains a major cause for concern for the Government of India. The correlation between educating women and other development indicators is very strong in most Indian states, with the possible exception of Punjab and Haryana. For its part, the Government of India has launched many ambitious programmes for improving the overall enrolment ratio and to address the gender bias. The Right to Education Act, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya scheme, the Mid Day Meal Scheme, the Mahila Samakhya Scheme, provision of free textbooks, provision of separate toilets for girls are some of the schemes and measures that address the challenges of educating the girl child at the primary level. At the secondary level, under the flagship Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan, specially targeted schemes such as the Girls’ Hostel Scheme, and the National Incentive to Girls for Secondary Education Scheme, where a sum of Rs 3,000 is placed in a fixed deposit of eligible school going girls under the age of 16, who are entitled to withdraw it along with interest upon passing their class x exam and reaching 18 years of age, aim to ensure that those girls who enrol at the primary level are given some support to continue their education to the secondary level and beyond.

At the University level too, the Government of India has adopted a multi pronged strategy to ensure greater participation of women at all levels of higher education. Due to widespread concerns about the safety and dignity of unaccompanied young women living away from home, the Government of India has devised a special scheme administered by the UGC for construction of women-only hostels for colleges in order to provide dedicated and secure residential spaces for the women students/researchers/teachers and other staff. This is absolutely vital if we are to encourage our young women to take up academic pursuits at the highest levels without any fear whatsoever of facing harassment and inconvenience.

The Government realizes that merely increasing participation and providing infrastructure to women in education is not enough. These efforts must be complemented by the development of Women’s Studies departments in our universities and colleges. Ultimately, with the right kind of content, we should be able to stimulate knowledge and awareness about women’s education and other gender equality related issues through a well integrated process of teaching, research and documentation. The Development of Women’s Studies in Universities and Colleges scheme envisages assistance to Universities for setting up women study centres as well as to strengthen and sustain the university women study centres set up till the conclusion of the X Plan. This would be done by establishing them as statutory departments in the university system and by facilitating their capacity to network with other stakeholders so that they end up creating a sub-culture that promotes areas of research of special relevance and interest to women.

The Government of India is not merely content with increasing the access to education for women. Our ambition is not merely to ensure that women participate in greater numbers as consumers of our education system, but that they also occupy pride of place as producers and disseminators of knowledge and serve as effective administrators of our education system at all levels. The overall goal is to facilitate the rise of women faculty, administrators and staff to increase the participation of women in higher education management for better general balance, to sensitize the higher education system through policies and procedures which recognize women’s equity and diversity and to involve the women capable of becoming administrators in the qualitative development of higher education. To achieve this objective during the XI Plan, three approaches have been adopted.

First, to offer training programmes focused on increasing sensitivity to issues concerning women becoming education managers, second, to make it a women’s movement in terms of content and ownership, and third, to actively involve Vice-Chancellors of the Universities or Principals of the concerned colleges for the sustained development and nurturing of the program. To complement the earlier mentioned efforts on the academic side, on the administrative side too, the government is making serious efforts to promote gender equality in the management of our institutions of higher learning. In order to make colleges and universities more responsive to the needs and constraints of disadvantaged social groups, the UGC has financed institutions to establish Equal Opportunity Cells in colleges and Universities to oversee the effective implementation of policies and programmes for disadvantaged groups and to provide guidance and counselling in academic, financial, social and other matters.

Gender equality in education is not merely a practical necessity or a vital precondition for prosperity. It is all that and much more. It is a fulfilment of our moral and constitutional obligation to treat our citizens equally. All our claims to be the world’s largest democracy will ring hollow in the face of persistent gender discrimination with regard to access to education and in particular to top quality education. The continuing difference between our enrolment ratio for boys and girls at most levels of our education system is no less a national shame than the appalling sex ratio caused by the reprehensible practice of sex selection and female foeticide.

At this point, in the presence of two of the most respected jurists of our country, the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India and the Hon’ble Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, I must also acknowledge with all humility and gratitude the exemplary role played by our judiciary in advancing the wider cause of literacy and the more specific cause of gender equality through better access to education, through their interventions from time to time. Your judgements have filled in crucial gaps in our policy with the force of law, in a manner that would have appealed to the activist in Justice Bhandare. By doing so you have often provided us with a crucial moral compass to take corrective measures and set course in the right direction. The Mid-day Meal Scheme, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the provision of toilets for girls in schools, and the Right to Education Act are some of the landmark measures that have emerged out of this constant churning of our public life between politics, policy-making and judicial pronouncements.

While some try to portray it as a tussle for power between two separate wings of our constitutional order, it should be seen in a more positive light. The authority of law, whether it comes through legislation or whether it comes through judicial verdicts, is an absolutely essential instrument of affecting social change. The cause of universal literacy and gender equality would both be that much poorer in the absence of the clarity of purpose and direction that you and your distinguished colleagues on the bench have provided us from time to time. Justice Bhandare would indeed be proud of the contribution her colleagues have made towards advancing the cause that was closest to her heart. In any case, social awareness by itself will not suffice in helping us attain the goal of gender equality in access to education. Our society is too diverse, too traditional and still too much in thrall to regressive social practices to change by good intentions alone. The law, as passed by the legislature and as elaborated and interpreted by our higher judiciary can and must play its part in attaining our national and constitutional objective of equality.

We in India today, stand at the cusp of an unprecedented opportunity. On the one hand we are about to reap the biggest demographic dividend in world history of a young, working age population at a time when all the other economies of the world will be aging. And yet, on the other hand, we are yet to realize that this dividend would be another wasted opportunity unless it is harnessed to the energy and ability that only a well integrated system of education, based on the principles of quality and equality of access to all citizens, can provide. For its part the Government of India is committed to doing its utmost to provide the necessary resources, and the legal and administrative framework, to facilitate the spread of education and the harnessing of this demographic dividend. The efforts of all well-meaning voluntary organizations such as the Justice Bhandare Foundation are a welcome addition to this national commitment.

In conclusion, I am truly grateful to the Justice Bhandare Foundation and this august gathering for giving me this opportunity to pay my tribute to this wonderful champion of gender equality. Her passion for women’s education is the passion of every patriotic Indian. Certainly, there is no better answer to the myriad challenges facing India today. As the former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan put it simply: “No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition, promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS, and increase the chances of education for the next generation. Let us invest in women and girls.”