[This post first appeared on the International Center for Research on Women Blog a couple of days before the International Day of the Girl 2013]

Lali’s mother had to fight to keep her alive. Over the years, she had witnessed the suspicious, overnight disappearance of hundreds of newborn girls in the village and she had promised herself that her daughter would not meet a similar fate. She was an ambitious and restless woman, but the weight of endless archaic and discriminating traditions had rendered her powerless despite her immense, inherent strength.

For Lali, being the only sister to three brothers meant being denied even basic rights. Food was disproportionately divided. After all, the boys needed nutrition and strength as they would some day be the breadwinners of the family. The fact that nutrition was crucial for Lali, who would have to prematurely bear children of her own some day, was ignored. When Lali’s mother tried to plead with the elders to send her to school, they asked her how she planned on getting money for both her education and dowry. Being uneducated and unemployed and knowing first-hand that dowry was supremely important and inevitable, she gave up the fight. Lali was married off at the age of 15, much before she was mentally and physically ready for the massive responsibility. Thus continued the cycle of ignorance and denied opportunities; one which engulfs the lives of millions of girls across the country.

And on this backdrop, India continues to display an astonishing dichotomy. On the one hand, India has established itself as an important player in the international economy and on the other, it is still deeply mired in gendered orthodoxy. It is home to 1.5 lakh millionaires, making the country’s high net-worth individual (HNI) population 12th largest across the globe. In contrast, a third of the world’s poorest people live in India, according to a recent World Bank report.

How can we bridge this ever-growing gap? How can we uplift the large section of poverty ridden communities in India? The answer is simple. By unleashing the enormous untapped potential of millions of women and girls.

Nicholas Kristof rightly pointed out that “the plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity.” It is a proven fact that gender inequality hurts economic growth. When you empower a girl, she becomes a catalyst for change in her community. When you give her a chance to complete her education, access employment opportunities, start a small business, or participate in local politics, she creates ripples of change that lift communities out of poverty. Educated women invest 90% of their incomes into their families compared to roughly 30% by their male counterparts. This money is spent on educating daughters, who delay their marriage, preventing risks of early pregnancy and childbirth. They grow up to be healthier and more skilled citizens, and are able to increase their household income. Over time, they help their families and entire communities escape poverty. Slowly, this new cycle of empowerment replaces the earlier cycle of discrimination, and the wide economic gap is seen diminishing.

October 11, 2013 marks the second International Day of the Girl and the theme for this year is “Innovating for Girls’ Education”. On this day, events will be organized around the world to spread awareness about the plight of girls, to celebrate their achievements against all odds, and to create roadmaps to their empowerment. As a strong believer in the power of education to transform the lives of girls and consequently, entire communities, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how this theme will translate into long-term impact on the ground.

There are several deterrents to girls’ education in India, including but not limited to local traditions that perpetuate gender biases and stereotypes, concerns of safety since girls have to walk for miles to the nearest school, lack of infrastructure, insufficient educational materials, absenteeism among teachers, and poor implementation of schemes and laws. While nonprofits and civil society organizations continue to work to address some of these challenges, it is the government that can truly overcome these on a large scale.

Education for children between the age group of six and 14 years became a fundamental right in India when the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act was passed in 2009. In 2010, India had an estimated 3.7 million out-of-school girls, the third highest in the world, according to the World Bank. Despite several proposed plans and schemes, the implementation of RTE has been poor. A 2010 report by the National Council for Teacher Education estimated that an additional 1.2 million teachers were needed to fulfill the RTE Act requirements, and last year the RTE Forum, a civil society collective of around 10,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), found that only 5% of government schools complied with all the basic standards for infrastructure set by the act. Some 40% of primaries had more than 30 students per classroom, and 60% didn’t have electricity. The RTE Forum also reported official figures showing that 21% of teachers weren’t professionally trained. (Source) These are gaping holes in our system that need to be filled if we wish to truly accomplish universal education.

The need of the hour is to ensure that conversations that are initiated on October 11 around innovations in education progress from being abstract concepts to concrete action steps that governments and communities are held accountable for. India is on its way to becoming the world’s youngest country by 2020 with 64% of its population in the working age group by then (source).  It is absolutely crucial that the government of India realizes the far-reaching impact of girls’ education and more importantly, prioritizes it before it is too late.

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