EMPOWERING WOMEN WITH EDUCATION
Theres an oft-repeated saying, "Educate a man and you educate an individual, (whereas) educate a woman and you educate a family". This particular truth has been realised as more and more women are getting educated in India.
The pace of education, a tool for empowering women, has perhaps been faster in the southern part of the country than in the north. Kerala has universal literacy while in Rajasthan it is a little over 20 per cent. However, female literacy has gone up five times since 1951 as mentioned in Indias state party report submitted after the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Girls enrolment in schools has increased greatly there being almost 85 per cent enrolment in primary schools. Although, only 32 per cent of those who enter schools complete it, its still a start a long way to tackle illiteracy.
Given its size, India boasts of the largest primary health care system in the world. The Government runs the Integrated Child Development Programme (ICDS) which is awesome. With the result, statistics show that there has been a decline in the infant mortality rate for female children from 131 in 1978 to 80 in 1992 and for males from 123 to 89 during the same period.
There has also been a corresponding improvement in the status of women to improve their skills and join the labour force. The gradual strengthening of womens position in society can be seen by the fact that the Child Marriage Restraint Act has raised the minimum age for the marriage of girls to 18 years and that of boys to 21 years. The mean age at which marriage takes place for women has increased from 18.3 in 1981 to 19.5 in 1992. This augurs well for women as it leads better reproductive health for women and better childcare and less scope for health risks involved at childbirth. We have, therefore, come a long way from being married at 10 and 12 years. Although it does occur, it is not a common practice now as it was an era earlier.
Despite a negative sex ratio 927 women per 1,000 males (1991 statistics) in the country, States such as Himachal Pradesh (1,070 females), Kerala (1,068) and Goa (1,019) and Tamil Nadu which is even (1000), paint a brighter picture. The world over, the female of the species on an average lives longer than the male.
The Indian Government enacted the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments (1992) with a view to giving women more say in local governments and reserved one-third of all seats at all levels of the local governments and one-third of all posts of chairpersons of these bodies for women. Over one million women entered public office in the country and thus are a part of the decision-making in the country. In the beginning of course, men tended to make decisions on behalf of their wives or other relatives who were elected but gradually women have learnt to make their own decisions. This has also given women a voice in the political milieu, which was missing, except for a few elitist exceptions.
It takes a long time to change mindsets. Despite this, the Government has drawn up a National Perspective Plan for Women (1988-2000) that identifies training and gender sensitisation as an important strategy in changing social attitudes. Gender sensitisation modules are already in vogue at academies to train administrators (Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy, Mussoorie) and the police force. But, it is still a long way to go before we can call ourselves a sensitised society that believes in positive discrimination.
Several micro-credit and banking facilities have been made available to poor women by the Government such as the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh. Other endeavours such as Self-Employed Womens Association (SEWA) started with government help have radically changed poor, illiterate womens lives. SEWA eliminated middlemen in the making and sale of exquisitely crafted garments. SEWA ensured that virtually illiterate women not only made garments but they also traveled, sold and kept an account of money spent and profits. In short, it made them self-sufficient.
The Constitution guarantees equal pay for equal work and to continue this process of affirmative action, the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, was enacted. This Act provides for the payment of maternity benefit at the rate of the average daily wage for the period of womens actual absence from work. The Government, to disseminate legal knowledge to women, has conducted several legal literacy campaigns.
Girls, who are unable to attend formal school, can benefit from the non-formal education (NFE) system made available by the Government. NFE centers run exclusively for girls with 90 per cent assistance from the Central Government. According to statistics, there are at present 100,000 exclusive girl centres out of 270,000 centres. The total enrolment in NFE centres by March 1994 was 6.4 million. Education brings about a change in perception and attitudes. Education results in acquisition of multitude of skills that increases a persons confidence and his or her ability to shape life better. Women are then able to realise that they can break out of traditional mould of self-fulfillment such as getting married and having children. Educational experiments that have been successful include the Indira Gandhi National Open University which is the biggest of its kind in Asia and the National Open School which helps school drop-outs and those from the non-formal segment to acquire a school certificate. Women who have lagged behind others in acquiring educational qualifications need not despair anymore. There are many avenues to choose from.
According to the Platform for Action, which was adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in September 1995, "Education is a human right and an essential tool for achieving the goals of equality, development and peace. Non-discriminatory education benefits both girls and boys and ultimately contributes to more equal relationships between women and men. Equality of access to and attainment of educational qualifications is necessary if more women are to become agents of change". The Indian Government, realising that education is a vehicle of change has sought to spread literacy through various programmes such as District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) which has been successful in the north.
Raising the literacy levels of one half of the population is a daunting task. However, we are now more equal to the task than ever before. India has become an information technology (IT) superpower and this if put to good use will eradicate illiteracy in the country in just a few years. IT can be used to spread literacy and education at minimal cost. Education can, therefore, be used as a tool to bridge the gender gap and technology can in this matter.
The Beijing Platform for Action further says, "Literacy of women is an important key to improving upon health, nutrition and education in the family and to empowering women to participate in decision-making in society. Investing in formal and non-formal education and training for girls and women, with its exceptionally high social and economic return, has proved to be one of the best means of achieving sustainable development and economic growth that is both sustained and sustainable". The Indian Constitution reflects this viewpoint, as education is now a Fundamental right for every citizen.
Education will go a long way in making women aware of their legal and personal rights and make them fight for these rights. The girl child will then have say in her life and this in turn will lead to safeguarding her constitutional rights.
The Indian Constitution protects and guarantees equal rights for all citizens. The Indian Constitution and elected governments have contributed enormously to the emancipation of the women by safeguarding their rights. Women, therefore, require to be alert and aware of the rights that are available to them and ensure that these rights are not taken away from them.
The Governments decision to observe the year 2001 as Womens Empowerment Year is timely. Various initiatives are being taken on the occasion including introduction of a Bill on prevention of domestic violence and amendment of several legislations like the National Commission for Women Act to give it more teeth.