Jaipur – There are about three percent of American children who are homeschooled. It’s a choice supported by legislations and social welfare schemes in all fifty districts of America. But in India, the entire effort has been to bring little more than 55 percent homebound “out of school” children into the formal education system. Girl child education is even a bigger challenge. It’s too hard to keep them free from domestic work or social pressure of getting married early and to convince parents that they deserve equal opportunity to good and quality education.
In India, over 20 percent girls in the age group of 15-16 are not in school, the enrollment ratio for secondary level school for both girls and boys is 44 percent, close to 42 percent of girls are engaged in domestic work, and 35 percent of women of 20-24 years of age married before 18 years. This clearly makes a case for an urgent need to focus on every possible incentive for girl child education for long term development dividends.
The ongoing 17th general elections in India for the lower house (Lok Sabha) had both leading parties Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Indian National Congress (INC) release their manifestos and make tall promises with respect to education, among others.
While BJP promises a conducive environment for talented children having achieved access and equity in school education (page 29), it emphasizes to continue to build on the gain of its flagship scheme for safety and education for girls (Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao) to provide accessible and affordable quality education other than ensuring equal rights and dignified life for women (page 31).
The Congress party in its 55 page manifesto, however, flags expenditure of six percent of GDP on education and mentions free education for all girls if they come to power. Not to forget that in most of the Indian states education in public schools (government run) is already free, and education is technically a state subject in Indian federal system, meaning each state is free to decide its own education policy concurrent with federal frameworks.
Keeping in mind key political promises of accessible, affordable and free education, I met hundreds of village girls of tribal districts in the interior of Udaipur – the lake city in the state of Rajasthan, which is a key International tourist destination in India.
Three days I observed the true picture of education support to Girls and learnt that Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry of Government of India has a pre matriculation scholarship scheme transferring cash directly to their accounts which has a precondition of it linked with AADHAAR (universal identity card) and Bank account opened in the name of mothers under Bhamashah scheme which is an offshoot of biggest drive of NDA led government – Jan Dhan Scheme in which 2.42 crore (24 million) accounts were opened in the state out of total 34.26 crore (342 million) in India.
With the element of women empowerment, these accounts in the name of school girls have been pivotal in accessing benefits of government program passing on control and choices to women. Their stepping inside banks, handling paperwork, enquiring about payments and reasons for delays, getting account books updated and tracking of whole process at adolescent age has already triggered a positive change.
There has been a backlog in utilization of this money meant for education support to the poor through school scholarships because of the negligence or apathy of ground machinery of state level governance. Rajasthan, which is also geographically the biggest state in India, was also facing the same as officials would fail to bid for their piece of the pie from the federal chunk.
In the past few years, realizing the capacity crunch of machinery, the state government sought support from development agencies to firm up the process. As a result, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), a UK based philanthropy with a mandate of improving children’s lives in developing nations was engaged to facilitate and advocate for best practices based on grassroots linkages and learning.
Rajasthan became CIFF’s only priority state in India. After signing a memorandum of understanding with the state government in 2015, CIFF, with its implementing partner IPE Global Ltd, initiated two key interventions “Udaan and Rajpusht” to address gaps in delivery of schemes in the domain of education, health and nutrition through their teams spread across 22 rural blocks (administrative units) in two tribal districts, Udaipur and Dholpur. “Udaan” is demonstrating a 360 degree approach for preventing teenage pregnancies.
Strengthening pre- matriculation scholarship systems is one of the strategies for keeping girls in schools, enabling them to complete at least secondary level of education and delaying age of marriage and thus, teenage pregnancies. These grassroots teams have been flagging the issues with national and state level officials and policy makers, but poor data management is still leaving everyone clueless about the larger impacts of this intervention and comparative status of scholarship disbursement.
As I spoke to the school principals, parents and children on the pre-matriculation school scholarship issue, they shared that it may appear a meagre amount to some ranging from INR 1000 to 3000 (USD 15 to 45) annually for different categories, but it certainly infuses pride in girls, uplifts their spirit and derives long term support from families for them sowing the seeds to value girls education. This has become a reason for many families opting to shift their children from cost intensive private schools to public (government run) schools where the teachers are well trained, schools are better equipped and teachers are more concerned.
Dr Govind Singh Shaktawat, Principal of a girls school in Devpuriya village of Udaipur – who has introduced innovations and computer education with the support of corporate social responsibility funds to earn ideal school status – points out that if bank facilities are made available at village levels, such schemes have the potential of changing the education landscape. He also raises the issue of overlapping of schemes which creates confusion and triggers closing of accounts on the suspicion of multiple benefits.
Linkage of universal identity (AADHAAR) and accounts remains tricky for various reasons which must be attended to immediately. Some parents also find it discriminatory to keep different slabs for such scholarship amount for children – from Schedule Tribe (ST), Schedule Caste (SC), Other Backward Class (OBC) and minority population – while a girl from another tribal village who was receiving scholarship from lowest slab did not hesitate in justifying it on the argument that some of her friends needed it more than her as there is every possibility that she would drop out in absence of such support, which is no way sufficient though.
One vibrant group of girls not leaving a chance to give voice to the aspiration of having more teachers, more reference books, clean toilets and science subjects in their schools, left me surprised when they confided that they also use this scholarship money to buy makeup. But before I raised my eyebrows, they made it clear that they actively participate in cultural functions in their schools and this is for the purpose to look presentable on stage.
Well, the stage is all set for them to value money and taking decisions. The bigger task is to simplify access to their entitlement, minimizing paperwork and maximizing continuum of girls education. Undoubtedly, cash could benefit better, if the bank operation and digital transaction is handy. And all this would lead to delay in the age of marriage, prevent teenage pregnancy and make the lives of girls happier, healthier.