Although India’s constitution guarantees all children under the age of 15 the fundamental right to free education, this goal has yet to become a tangible reality. Several major social and economic forces continue to strain the Indian education system, depriving many children—especially girls—of access to basic primary education.

India has witnessed several important improvements in its education system over the past few decades. School attendance is currently on the rise as more children between the ages of six and 14 across the country are regularly attending class than ever before. Nationwide enrollment in government-run primary schools has increased from approximately 19 million in the 1950s to about 114 million by 2001. The nation’s overall literacy rate has also seen significant improvement, growing from 52 percent in 1991 to 65 percent in 2001. Furthermore, the total number of illiterate Indians is on the decline for the very first time. Despite these improvements, the number of children who remain illiterate or completely out of school is alarming. Approximately 90 million girls remain illiterate despite the recent growth in literacy rates, and 20 percent of children in the six to 14 year age group do not attend school. In Rajasthan, India’s largest state, 45 percent of girls compared to 55 percent of boys are enrolled in primary school. This discrepancy drastically widens when the children reach secondary school, where a mere 36 percent of girls attend class.

Gender discrimination issues are largely responsible for the nation’s discrepancy in educated girls. Societal norms generally instill in girls the notion that marriage is the utmost priority, often in lieu of a substantial educational background. Financial problems contribute to this when poor families cannot afford to send all of their children to school. In most of these cases, parents choose to enroll their sons over their daughters with the belief that doing so will prove to be the most fruitful option for all parties involved: the girls will stay home and learn how to become good homemakers and wives, while the boys will eventually enter the workforce prepared to secure a well-paying job that will ensure their financial stability and allow them to take care of their aging parents.

Issues arising out of India’s social class system further hamper the nation’s ability to provide equal education for its students. Much like gender discrimination separates girls from boys and allows each group disparate opportunities, caste and class differences strip children of equal educational access. Child labor in certain regions further aggravates this problem.

Insufficient funds and a rapidly growing population are additional factors that contribute to India’s persistent education problems. Public funds simply cannot cover education costs for every child, and schools across the nation regularly experience major shortages of school supplies, teachers and essential facilities. Low retention rates are a serious issue in regard to both students and teachers, an issue that most strongly affects the nation’s rural areas. With a single upper-primary school established for every three primary schools, even those children who manage to complete their primary school education cannot necessarily advance to the next level due to a sheer lack of available space. A related contributing factor is a general lack of quality ranging from educational curricula to school management to teacher training, an obstacle that shortages of classrooms, supplies and staff further exacerbate.

Despite improvements in literacy rates and primary school enrollment over the past few decades, India’s education system remains plagued by specific and significant shortcomings that must be met with serious attention. Young girls in marginalized social and economic groups are especially disadvantaged by the current system as the children most likely to leave school permanently at an early age.

– Shenel Ozisik

Sources: Foundation for Sustainable Development, UNICEF
Photo: Flickr