Empowering young women to take charge of their lives and not be forced into early marriages will benefit all, including the economy
MADANAPALLE TANDA (Telangana) • As you leave behind the gleaming high-tech IT complexes of Hyderabad in southern India, the landscape turns barren.
Farmers toil under the punishing sun and adolescent girls carry children, instead of schoolbags.
Kavita Sreenivas grew up in a village here, the eldest of three children. Just shy of her 18th birthday, she was forced to get married and drop out of school.
For her father, a labourer trapped in a vicious circle of poverty and illness, marrying off his daughter far outweighed the promise of higher education.
"I would have liked to go to school," Kavita says, cradling her six-month-old baby. "But I did not have a choice."
Literacy programmes tend to fall through the cracks and not reach those who need them most - the millions of rural women tending to cultivation, animal husbandry, child rearing, collecting water and fuel wood, for whom literacy is not a pressing need.
Kavita's fate mirrors that of millions of girls across India, who do not have access to secondary school. Statistics show a large number of adolescent girls, just about to reach puberty, are forced to drop out of school.
The fear that their daughters will face sexual harassment on the way to school and bring disrepute to the family, along with their reliance on them to help with domestic chores, makes parents keep their girls at home until they are married.
In villages, early marriage is seen as the path to a secure future. With younger brides in higher demand, many are often married off before they turn 18, although it is illegal under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. India is said to have 25 million child brides, the highest absolute number globally, according to the United Nations.
Undoubtedly, India has made strides in improving female literacy. At independence, only 12 per cent of the country's female population could read and write - today, 65 per cent are literate.
Several states have seen exceptional success, particularly Kerala in the south, where nearly 90 per cent of the female population is literate.
In cities, more girls are becoming graduates and even studying engineering and medicine, fields typically dominated by boys.
Today, under its Education For All programme, India has achieved universal primary education and is predicted by the UN to be the only country in South and West Asia to have an equal ratio of girls to boys in primary schools.
While comparisons are not always fair, they are valuable in that they let countries learn from one another, study and adopt successful models and tailor them to their own realities.
Countries in South and South-east Asia such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia have been far more successful in educating their girls than India has. According to Unesco, for every 100 literate males in Sri Lanka, 98 females are also literate; in Thailand it is 95, compared to India's 67.
High levels of female literacy are a trend observed across many Asean countries.
When it comes to the number of urban women in the workforce, India's contribution is among the lowest globally and has fallen in recent years, according to the International Labour Organisation.
The workforce participation rate for women above 15 years of age in India was below 30 per cent in 2011, compared to China's 67 per cent.
Ms Shailaja Chandra, former executive director of India's National Population Stabilisation Fund and an influential voice on gender and health issues, says the government needs to prioritise population stabilisation, which is critical for women's reforms, including literacy.
"If women do not have control over their bodies they cannot participate in anything beyond fulfilling domestic responsibilities," says Ms Chandra.
India's family planning programme, launched in the 1950s, has focused on the distribution of contraceptives, but illiterate women often do not have access to health services and are ill-informed about their options. Uneducated women tend to quickly abandon the pill or take it irregularly, while condom use is totally dependent on the man, and the usage is low.
The link between women's education and the size of the family she will have is reflected in the striking contrast between the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where a woman has an average of three to four children, and Kerala, which has reached below replacement fertility level.
Literacy programmes, Ms Chandra points out, tend to fall through the cracks and not reach those who need them most - the millions of rural women tending to cultivation, animal husbandry, child raising, collecting water and fuel wood, for whom literacy is not a pressing need. "When they neither have skills nor ownership of property or a say in decision-making, literacy becomes irrelevant as a goal for them."
India's patriarchal system is at the heart of its failing. It is a society that continues to prefer sons to daughters, and where female infanticide remains a reality, despite legislation to prevent it.
Across vast swathes of the countryside, where women live in small settlements, patriarchy covers them with a cloak of mediaeval traditions, superstitions, cultural and religious beliefs that remain so steeped, they are seen as "normal" and rarely questioned.
For example, there are ceremonies celebrating the birth of a son, with festivities and gifts in Rajasthan, and rituals like karva chauth in which married women fast and pray for the longevity of their husbands.
Also, the dowry tradition has become a resilient disease that appears to transcend the rural-urban divide.
Indian women in villages may be empowered with cellphones, but technology has not empowered them with the freedom to say "No".
Not surprising then that in gender equality, India is ranked along with Sub-Saharan Africa.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's slogan - "If a girl is educated, the entire family is educated" - needs to resonate in every nook and corner of India for it to see the kind of inclusive growth required to take the country forward.
The link between female literacy and economic growth is well documented - literate women have fewer children - and for a country set to surpass China as the world's most populous nation in just six years, India has little time to lose.
Educating its girls will have to become its most urgent task.
•Ashwini Devare is an author and former reporter with the BBC and CNBC Asia
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2015, with the headline 'Educating its girls must be India's top task'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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