Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gender inequity in West Bengal

by Supriya Chaudhuri
from The Telegraph

The Second Sex: Certain things could remain unchanged in Bengal

West Bengal today has a woman chief minister, and Presidency University a woman vice-chancellor. One would not think so, however, going by the composition of the newly-constituted advisory committee for higher education, or by the media debates on the future of the new university. These are exclusively populated by men, indeed by high-caste Hindu men, if their names are any guide. While one could argue that this dominance is simply accidental, at an early stage of planning, or — more alarmingly — that it reflects the superior achievements of high-caste Hindu men in all spheres relating to education and administration, I would suggest that both arguments are untenable. The preponderance of men in these bodies is not accidental, but it is also not a measure of their real distinction. Rather, it indicates a social bias that has persisted so insidiously and universally that we are deluded into believing that it does not exist.

The Bengali middle class prides itself on its liberal and enlightened attitudes towards women’s education and their entry into professions. Certainly, there is a history of early activism in these matters, necessitated by its converse in cruelty and oppression. Before and after Independence, women played active roles in school and college education, in politics, in social work, and in some professions such as nursing and medicine. The children of the urban elite today believe that most doors are open to them, irrespective of gender. School and university examination results confirm that girls are doing well, and middle class families encourage their daughters to aim as high as their sons. Women are visible in most social spheres, especially in education and in the medical profession, but also in the corporate world. Some hold important administrative posts. This phenomenon leads many to claim, quite sincerely, that there is no gender bias against women in Bengal, that they are involved in all stages and spheres of public life, and that they are free to participate in public policy-making. In fact, this is very far from the case.

All available evidence shows that West Bengal is ranked appallingly low in terms of human development and gender disparity indices, and that women’s economic participation and their access to education and health services are meagre to say the least. The West Bengal Human Development Report, 2004, and later studies, indicate “a major undercurrent of gender discrimination” reflected in reduced economic agency and poor recognition of women’s unpaid work, a female literacy rate just above the national average but far below that in Kerala, Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu, and high rates of underage marriage, school dropout, poverty and domestic violence. Eighty-four out of a hundred girls do not complete their secondary education; 50 per cent of girls receive less food than their brothers; and the state ranks 19th in India in respect of married women with iron-deficiency anaemia. Unsurprisingly, its HDI scores placed it 22nd, and its GDI scores 24th, out of 35 states and Union territories in 2006. It is unlikely that there has been substantial improvement in the past five years.

What is baffling about this reality, however, is the persistent failure of the educated middle class to recognize it. Whatever the statistics regularly publicized by development agencies, whatever the evidence of female illiteracy, impoverishment, ill health and ill-treatment by which it is surrounded, this class would prefer to think itself representative of a community striving for gender equity and social justice. If there are failures and inadequacies in our record they are, so we would prefer to believe, caused by economic underdevelopment and inherited imbalances: they do not reflect a general attitude. A long period of leftist rule has produced, if nothing else, some complacency about the state’s secular credentials and its recognition of women and minorities. Yet if one looks at the actual facts, there is very little reason for self-congratulation — apart from one notable statistic, the decline in communal violence over the past 30 years.

The Right to Education Act is probably the most important single piece of legislation India has effected since Independence. It is particularly relevant for a state like West Bengal, where in 2004 there were only 59 primary schools for each lakh of population, many without a schoolroom and with teachers who remain absent most of the year. The introduction of the district primary education programme in 1997 and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in 2000 improved the situation to some extent, especially through the provision of Shishu Shiksha Kendras and anganwadi schools. But we are still very far from a teacher-student ratio of 1:40, a school within one kilometre of every habitation, and universal elementary schooling. The dispiriting reality is one of absent-teacher or one-teacher schools without classrooms or toilets, and of school buildings converted to grain-sheds or used for other purposes. Very few rural schools are able to implement the cooked mid-day meal scheme, although it shows immediate results in bringing children, especially girls, to school. Over 40,000 teachers’ posts remain unfilled in primary schools across the state, a situation exacerbated by the Primary Teachers’ Training Institute deadlock. The new government has announced that it will fill 46,000 vacancies, reserving 10 per cent of posts for PTTI candidates, but no one can say how this promise will be fulfilled. There is no clarity as to how the general provisions of the RTE Act, including the reservation of 25 per cent of seats in private schools for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, might be implemented. Despite NGO activism, half of Calcutta’s children do not go to school.

Within this dismal scene, girls are more likely than boys not to complete their schooling and to drop out in middle school. Poor recognition of the worth of education for girls, the pressures of household work and underage marriage are obviously responsible for this, but so too are systemic defects such as the absence of girls’ toilets and lack of protection for girls in and outside the school. Despite this, for the first time this year there were more girls than boys appearing for the Madhyamik and Madrasah examinations, though considerably fewer at the higher secondary level. But this fact, combined with stray evidence of individual women seeking education (such as the case of Asiya Bibi reported on June 13, 2011) and girls resisting forced marriages, should not lead us to conclude that all is well with the education of girls in this state. Female illiteracy continues to be high, with some districts such as rural Purulia performing far more poorly than others, with correspondingly low figures for school enrolment and attendance.

But education is viewed as a lifeline by girls themselves, and where the opportunity is provided, there is a high degree of commitment to learning and acquiring the means of livelihood. Women figure at all levels within the formal and non-formal education system, as learners and as teachers, often working for low wages in non-unionized and ‘non-official’ posts as temporary or contracted staff in schools. There are large numbers in colleges and universities, especially in the less valued humanities departments, while the science and engineering faculties are dominated by men. Without women’s work, it would have been impossible to sustain the state education system or the network of private schools: nor, for that matter, the healthcare systems, state and private. Their presence creates the illusion that women are free to choose professions and are involved in decision-making in at least two critical areas, education and healthcare.

This is regrettably not the case. While some individual women hold high administrative posts, Bengal is in fact run by a largely male bureaucracy and political class which appears to think that the struggle for women’s rights is over and that no further concessions need to be made to inclusive action. I use the word “concession” advisedly. A recent report on school textbook content in Bengal notes that apart from the token inclusion of Rokeya Hussain and Mahasweta Devi, no other woman writer is featured, women’s work continues to be relegated to the household, the student-addressee appears to be Hindu, male, able-bodied and urban, and girls are represented as caring for younger siblings while boys take part in sport and study science or medicine. Most women who pursue professions speak of a constant, unacknowledged denial of the practical difficulties they face in the public sphere. There was no toilet for women teachers at Presidency College before and during the ten years I taught there: our representations to the college and education department authorities went unheard. Many women doctors speak of impossible physical conditions in hospitals and no security when they are on call at night. Development funds are largely controlled by a male bureaucracy.

Given the magnitude of our economic and social problems, it is easy for Bengal’s ruling class to forget these imbalances, regard the struggles of women, minorities and subaltern groups as past, and concentrate on the road-map for the future. The media has played their part in producing the impression that Presidency University is vital to this future, though its contribution will be infinitesimal given the huge tasks thrown up by the RTE Act. The committee to advise on higher education has a wider remit. It is symptomatic that not even a token woman or member of a minority community has been included in that committee, just as none has been named as part of the mentor group for Presidency University. Media debates on this institution appear to draw on an old boys’ club. There was something faintly comic in the televised spectacle of ten men lined up on a stage by the college’s alumni association to advise a single woman vice-chancellor, who, from her own speech, appeared fully capable of taking her own counsel. Despite a change of regime, nothing will change in Bengal unless we wake up from the complacent dream that all is well with us in respect of gender and social justice. Very little is.


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