Examining India's new education policy through a gender lens

A girl, who has missed her online classes due to a lack of internet facilities, listens to prerecorded lessons over loudspeakers after schools were closed following the COVID-19 outbreak in Dandwal village in India. Photo by: Prashant Waydande / Reuters

NEW DELHI  — Rehana Rehman, a social worker who goes door to door in villages in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to convince families to send their girls to school, is worried. India’s new National Education Policy 2020, or NEP, released last month, which the government has said is geared “towards the demands of the 21st century” might in fact be a setback for girls’ education, she says.

Despite some progressive provisions in the policy, which promises an an overhaul of the education system — the first such move in 34 years  — such as a Gender Inclusion Fund toward equitable education for girls as well as transgender students and a substantial increase in public investment to bring education spending to 6% of gross domestic product, there are growing concerns about its implications on girls’ education.

“I fear it will be harder to convince families to send their children to school, because schools will become unaffordable and girls will start dropping out. Child marriage and child labor will increase,” said Rehman, who works at Navbharat Samaj Kalyan Samity, an organization that works on community development in 500 villages of western Uttar Pradesh. 

She is referring to a provision in the new policy that boosts public-private partnership in education  — with this, there are concerns that many schools will become privatized and will no longer be free and accessible to all. Low-income families will not be able to afford school fees,  which may impact girls more.

“A whole generation is at the risk of being wiped out because the policy is based on exclusion.”

— Madhu Prasad, spokesperson, All India Forum for Right to Education 

Experts and community workers say this is one of the many features of the NEP which will likely exacerbate the divide in private education and alienate girls from marginalized communities.

Barriers in accessing education

The policy recommends whittling down the number of colleges from 40,000 to 15,000 degree-granting institutions, which experts say will be done through corporate mergers with private players, signalling a higher burden of fee on students.

For Vandana Bharti, 17, who lives in a village in Kushinagar district in Uttar Pradesh, getting to school has never been easy. But being able to access higher education will become impossible, she says.

“I walk to my school, which is 4 kilometres away from my home. There is no government school close by, and we couldn’t afford the admission fee to the private school,” said Bharti, who belongs to the Dalit community, which historically belongs to the lowest rung in the Indian caste system.

People from the community are still heavily discriminated against and are forced to do menial work such as manual scavenging, with low or no access to education, health care, or minimum wages.

Finally, an NGO offered monetary help. But studying beyond school will not be possible anymore as “colleges are too far and we can’t afford it anyway”, Bharti said.

With schools shut across India due to COVID-19, Bharti has no access to digital schooling due to poor internet coverage. Reeta Kaushik, secretary at Samudaik Kalyan Evam Vikas Sansthan, an NGO that supports the rights of Dalit women and children, who helped Bharti enrol in the private school, said a recent survey of 500 families in their area revealed that just 8% girls have access to a device.

She added that most of the Dalit girls she supports will be left behind due to the new policy’s stress on digital education, without any reference to the infrastructure work needed to make this shift.

A report by the National Commission For Protection of Child Rights indicates that 40% of girls in the 15-18 age bracket are out of school. Accessibility, affordability, and patriarchal social structures are the most significant barriers.

“A whole generation is at the risk of being wiped out because the policy is based on exclusion,” said Madhu Prasad, spokesperson at the All India Forum for Right to Education.

Exclusion happens on many levels. For example, the policy doesn’t address the issue of gender, said Jyotsna Jha, director at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies.

“It says the Gender Inclusion Fund will be available to states based on priorities decided by the center. What does that mean? It doesn’t talk about girls’ education, only gender identity and sensitivity, respect for women, the idea of sacrifice but it undermines the whole issue of gender discrimination and reforms for equity in education.” 

Dilution of existing norms

A major worry for experts is the threat to neighborhood schools, so far a boon for girls who cannot travel far from home to study and one of the reasons for the rise in school enrolments in the last few years.

The policy talks about a consolidation of school complexes, so schools with too few students will be shut down. “How will the state and union government determine rationalization without compromising on accessibility?” asked Anubhuti Patra, the India representative at the Malala Fund.

“Any overemphasis on open learning for girls legitimizes domesticity. It means the girls who opt for it will have a degree, but won't be mobile.”

— Jyotsna Jha, director, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies

Past trends show that this approach of consolidation has led to school closures in several states. “Increased distances to schools have often been the reason behind girls dropping out of school or not enrolling altogether,” she added.

Significantly, rationalizing distances to school to 5-10 km, as the policy does, is a dilution of Right To Education norms. According to the RTE forum, 1,47,494 schools had been closed by 2017 in 13 states. Ambarish Rai, convener at the RTE Forum, estimated about 25% of the existing schools in India will be shut down when the policy’s consolidation provision is implemented.

The closure of primary schools and the establishment of school complexes  — a cluster of around 30 public schools from foundational to secondary stage within a limited area — will endanger access. It may lead to an excessive dependence on measures like Open School, the national distance learning program.

“Any overemphasis on open learning for girls legitimizes domesticity. It means the girls who opt for it will have a degree, but won't be mobile. It will control their freedom. Open learning has potential, but a mixed approach may work better," Centre for Budget and Policy Studies’ Jha added.

What many were hoping the policy would highlight are ways to tackle violence against girls in educational institutions, to make them safer spaces.

“The policy claims to be aligned with Sustainable Development Goals, gender parity, yet it does not have a word on child protection, despite a rise in number of child sexual abuse cases reported by school authorities,” said Kumar Shailabh, co-director at the Haq Child Rights Centre. 

There are other glaring gaps that may push girls to the periphery. Introducing vocational training in grade 6, when children are age 11, is a calculated move linked to the 2016 child labor amendment act that said children can work in family enterprises after school hours that legitimizes child labor, according to Shailabh.

On the flipside, Mahamaya Navlakha of the Arthan Foundation, which trains children on soft skills, thinks the emphasis on early vocational training may enable girls to be better groomed for work opportunities and boost female labor force participation, which stood at just 21% in 2019.

The debates around the policy have pushed nonprofits to rethink strategies.

“One of the major challenges would be towards transition of girls from primary to secondary. The policy doesn’t talk about extension of the RTE Act to cover 15-18 year olds, where the poorest rates of transition takes place as their low accessibility to schools leads to high cost of transportation. The number of secondary schools are already low and girls have to pay a fee to study there — an investment that parents are in many case[s] unable to make,” Malala Fund’s Patra said.

Haq’s Shailabh added that post pandemic, one of the challenges will be monitoring the fiscal resource allocation toward strengthening girls' education. Rehman and Kaushik’s work in villages is cut out too: They are back to travelling from door to door, trying to tackle pandemic-related dropouts to bring the girls back to books.

About the author

  • Neha Bhatt

    Neha Bhatt is a freelance features journalist based in Delhi, India. In her 14-year career, she has covered culture and development across urban and rural India, with a special interest in gender, health, education and social justice, for which she has won four awards. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The BMJ and leading Indian publications such as The Hindu, Outlook magazine, Mint, and more.