Girls speak out for equal access to education
Adolescent girls in India have demanded greater, sustained support for equal access to good quality education.The demand was made at a workshop organised by UNICEF in the Indian capital New Delhi on Wednesday that brought together around fifty girls from seven Indian states to discuss and share their experience of schooling.
The girls, between 12 and 18 years of age, had all attended school in their respective states for at least 5 years despite strong opposition from their families and communities.
Among those present at the workshop were India’s Secretary for Elementary Education and UNICEF’s Executive Director, Carol Bellamy who applauded the girls for their steadfastness and determination.
The proportion of girls who get to attend school in India continues to remain low in comparison to that of boys their age. Only around 70% of girls between the age of 6 and 10 attend primary school as against 76% boys in the same age group. The situation is a lot worse at the upper primary level where only 40% of girls attend school. The main factors influencing this disparity include poverty and the continuing hold of social and cultural beliefs that discriminate against girls.
The girls spoke of the uphill task they had faced in fighting these odds to go to school. But they were unanimous in upholding the value of their rebellion: education they said, had freed them from chains that had seemed unbreakable and given them lives and opportunities that they had only dreamed of earlier.
Through theatre, art and story-telling sessions, the girls demanded that schools be located closer home, that they be safe and clean with functioning toilets, that there be qualified, female teachers and that education be relevant and meaningful, going beyond the scope of prescribed textbooks.
Their call coincides with a crucial deadline set by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals: that gender parity in primary and secondary education be achieved by this year, 2005.
Among the participants at the workshop was Lalita, who featured on the cover of UNICEF’s flagship publication, the State of the World’s Children report, last year (2004). Belonging to a poor, underprivileged community in Bihar, Lalita became a role model for girls from her village for having defied her parents and secretly attended school.
When asked by admiring friends about how she coped with the pressure of displeasing her family in not having asked for their permission to attend school she said, “I was not afraid of them because I knew what I was doing was right”.
During the workshop, the girls got an opportunity to speak with both India’s Secretary for Elementary Education and the UNICEF Executive Director, Ms Bellamy.
Ms Bellamy encouraged the gathering of girls to continue advocating the value of education to their families, communities, and the government and reiterated that quality education for girls is key to transforming societies.