Sitting in the same classroom, reading the same textbook, listening to the same teacher, boys and girls receive very different educations,” said American author David Sadker. Truer words could not have been spoken. Education is the centerpiece for the socio-cultural, political and economic empowerment of individuals and in that context, schools become foundational for most things, including gender socialisation.
Despite shifting attitudes, there is still a long road ahead in sensitiseing people that gender is a social construct that influences mindsets, behaviour, and roles and responsibilities attributed to boys and girls in all societies. Education has the most substantial potential of shaping social change towards gender equality. Therefore, it becomes imperative to evaluate the role and performance of our education system in promoting equitable gender relations.
One of India’s most significant barriers to equitable education for girls and boys has been the hidden gender biases in curricula and the socialisation or normalisation of stereotypical gender roles in classrooms. A gender audit of 18 primary NCERT textbooks (Classes 1 to 5) in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh anchored by the Department of Women Studies, NCERT, in 2014 found glaring instances of gender stereotypes and improper reflection of power structures in textbooks of many subjects. If such an audit is expanded across the other states of India, it is likely to show similar findings around gender bias and stereotyping in the curriculum. This was further substantiated by a report released by a High-Level Committee on the Status of Women in 2015, which found a lack of “engendering” in the school’s curriculum and non-sensitisation of teachers towards gender issues as a critical concern. It also highlighted that schools play a significant role in perpetuating gender role stereotypes and gender-based violence.
In our personal experiences, we all have observed how textbooks and study materials stereotype gender roles and often omit contributions of women to the varied fields of nation-building or tokenise them. How often have we seen images of a man associated with depicting household work or a policewoman on duty or a male nurse in a hospital in our textbooks? It is probably safe to say never. Indirectly or directly, this is how our education system has become a major contributor to internalising the gender bias and stereotypes that exist within our society.
A recent standing committee report on HRD headed by Satyanarayan Jatiya, then an MP, went through school textbooks prescribed by NCERT. It found these books lacking moral values and emphasised the need for the Ministry of Education to ramp up efforts to inculcate the importance of respect and dignity towards women. Efforts such as prioritisation of gender-sensitive education in the National Curriculum Framework 2005 and the release of guidelines by NCERT in 2019 for pre-school education with a strict focus on gender equality are a step forward. However, there is a long road ahead to truly transform our education curricula across age groups to committedly focus on education being truly inclusive.
This effectively means that we need to rethink the content and context of the curriculum to eliminate discrimination and prejudice of any form towards gender and sex. Also, it is vital not to forget that the curriculum is only as good as the teachers who deliver it. Therefore, involving them in efforts to shift the gender bias in schools will remain crucial. In line with the recommendations of several government panels and Parliamentary committees on education in India, there is firstly a need to revamp our curriculum to make it inclusive and representative, bringing together authentic experiences, roles and motivations of all genders. This should be done following a comprehensive consultation with all relevant stakeholders. Secondly, there is a need to invest in training and sensitisation of teachers on gender equality and empowerment through appropriate materials as teachers become key change agents in this context. Thirdly, initiatives such as the Gender Equality Movement in Schools (GEMS) with a clear monitoring framework and accountability mechanism is needed. This coupled with programmes that promote networking groups for men and boys to dispel and redefine the traditional, violent notions of masculinity will create a more equitable ecosystem in schools and colleges.
In the past few decades, India has made substantial progress in improving access to education, including focusing on the girl child’s schooling through the Right to Education Act in 2009. It has made education a fundamental right of all children of the age group 6-14 years and initiatives such as ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ have been hugely supportive. However, it is vital that our education system enables access and ensures that girls develop their potential without any biases and can eventually harness their full and equal participation in building a better nation. True success would mean a tangible shift in our narratives on gender and its resonance on the ground, i.e. when women appear in the country’s socio-economic decision-making contexts and political discourse building.
BJD Rajya Sabha MP from Odisha
Vice-President, Chase India
(Views are personal)