Sunday, May 2, 2010

Female Autonomy & Indian Education

(This post relates to points made in a previous post’s comment section, the April 25 post entitled “Being a Caregiver.”)

India’s government recently passed legislation declaring education a basic right for its 192 million children. The Right to Education Act mandates “free and compulsory education for all Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14.” However, whether this law indeed guarantees free education for Indian girls is another issue. The TIME article covering this law describes the current family situations which prohibit young girls from attending school in any significant capacity. An Indian government survey in 2008 attributed 42% of girls’ dropouts to family reasons, being “told to quit by their parents, in order to look after the house and siblings.” Adding to the problem are the statistics on child labor in the country, as “a 1996 International Labor Organization report said 33 million girls ages 10-14 worldwide were working, as opposed to 41 million boys, but that figure did not take into account the full-time housework that girls undertake at home.” When agricultural, household, and childcare work is not considered “labor” in the International Labor Organization’s report, what counts? Surely all that was considered was paid labor, occupations traditionally held by males. The report would seem to feed into common misconceptions about the nature of unpaid labor as not deserving of the title “work.”

As the report leaves out the care of younger siblings, the majority of child labor remains ignored. The TIME article describes the lives of two girls facing different limitations, both seemingly victims to the demands of poor village life.
As a result, the potential autonomies of both are restricted, stunted, and to a large degree ignored by those who could make a difference. Older girls (ages 10-14) are required to take care of their siblings when their parents are, presumably, working to sustain the household, financially. While this is a valid consideration, one must wonder what conditions compound to create the current situation. I would have to study the social structure in village life to get a greater glimpse into the underlying issues before beginning to criticize the parents for willfully limiting the educational potential of their girls. As the article states, “Girls are kept at home to take care of younger siblings, a direct fallout of no [government nurseries] near homes." When the children are actually in attendance of classes, a beleaguered instructor claims, “In the present system, we can look after the children but not educate them.” Such an absence of childcare workers and services leads to the continuance of the currently broken system. Other issues derive directly from the parents: “forty-six percent of public schools do not have toilets for girls; it's one reason parents are reluctant to send their daughters to class.”

While the RTE is definitely a step in the right direction, as it will seemingly lead to the construction of schools and training of teachers, the real preventative aspect of Indian girls’ education may not have a technical solution; thus, the real solution may be more difficult: a culture shift. The article notes that the non-technical solution to the problem would be “designating household chores and agricultural work as child labor, so that no child in India should work — whether at home, for the family or outside.” While this would bolster universal educational opportunities, no meaningful policies are without their adverse effects. One would have to recognize how a sudden dearth of agricultural, household, and childcare workers would affect a family’s survival. However, as scholars of the American civil rights movement or historians of Indian culture recognize, one can grant rights to an underrepresented group without effectively reversing the public perception of those groups. A case in point would be the Dalits in Indian society. The institutions ensuring the oppression of others (i.e. governmental corruption, traditional village strictures, and capitalistic exploitation of labor) must themselves be critiqued and reformulated, with attention given to informing the public perception of their effects. This broad point relates to most of our readings, as the goal of feminist philosophy seems to be consciousness-raising in respect to certain situations and issues, while shedding a critical light on the larger systems of oppression. In any case, the difficulties of applying traditional notions of care work to a modern setting are showing their depressing signs in the prevention of Indian girls’ adequate educational opportunities.

For the full article:,8599,1985026,00.html#ixzz0mkW9ZG1k

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