“My name is Amrita* and I want to be a nurse." Beaming, Amrita sat down and the student beside her stood up and shared what career she planned to pursue. And so it continued around the classroom, until every student had stood up and told us what career they wanted to have in the future. Sitting in an open-air classroom at St Simon’s School, sticking to my chair in the heat, with jungle and rice fields in all directions, I thought maybe this was the most beautiful scene I had ever witnessed. My heart was bursting with pride and hope for these children, children from isolated, rural communities who were being given precious opportunities to learn, being fed spiritually, mentally, and physically, and dreaming about the world of possibilities that had been opened to them through education. In a little town in east India, not even on the map, there are future engineers, teachers, nurses, pastors, doctors, dancers, and community leaders in the making, many of whom are girls. Fast forward a few days and we are driving a winding dirt road through the countryside. We pull over beside a group of people working in a rice field. They are both curious and wary, but generously allow us to watch them work, probably wondering why we were so interested in the most ordinary task in the world, planting rice. Bidyuta talks to some of the workers who he seems to know. Among them are some teenage girls. Walking back to the jeep, Bidyuta shakes his head, “Not good,” he says, “those girls should be in school.”
India has seen close to universal primary school enrolment since the 2009 Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act. While this act has been successful at increasing primary enrolment, it does not extend to secondary school and dropout rates between primary and secondary school are high. Those most affected are girls in rural areas and only 19% of girls from rural areas finish secondary school. These numbers are low even compared to countries of similar economic standing, such as China and Russia. Increasing rural secondary school enrolment is especially critical when we consider that two thirds of India’s population lives in rural areas.
Secondary education for girls has been linked to social and economic progress, such as gender equity within families, communities, and public institutions and increased female empowerment. When girls are educated, exposure to violence, human trafficking, sexual harassment, infant mortality, AIDS, and fertility all tend to decrease. By contrast, a lack of education contributes to poverty, criminality, unrest, unemployment, and poor health. In the face of such compelling outcomes, we must ask ourselves: why has progress towards secondary education for girls in India been so elusive?
Girls in rural India face a range of obstacles in their pursuit of education, including tangible barriers such as distance to school and financial restraints, as well as more subtle barriers like increasing household responsibilities and family disapproval. All of these barriers disproportionately affect girls compared to boys, and may work together to diminish secondary education to nothing more than a pipe dream for girls in rural India.
The current state of female secondary school enrolment in rural India points to the need for diverse, multidimensional approaches that go beyond infrastructure and policy. Research indicates that smaller schools within communities encourage female participation better than larger, more sophisticated schools that are further away. This is why the work of Helping Point is so important. St Simon’s School is serving the education needs of a remote area and is run by incredibly hard-working local professionals who understand the education climate and the specific needs of their communities. St Simon’s houses, feeds, and teaches its children at little to no cost to their families, eliminating many of the barriers discussed above. At St Simon’s, classrooms full of eager learners, boys and girls, are taught their inherent worth as children of God and are equipped to pursue new opportunities that were previously out of reach. With continued support, girls who are breaking the mould and participating in post-primary education can walk boldly forward into spaces and places where few have gone before, bringing their unique skills, perspectives, and gifts, so that one day you may walk into a hospital in Odisha and be greeted by a woman who smiles and says, “Hello, my name is Amrita, and I am a nurse.”
*not her real name
Kelly, O., & Bhabha, J. (2014). Beyond the education silo? Tackling adolescent secondary education in rural India. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35(5), 731-752.
Kelly, O., & Newnham, E. A. (2014). The challenges facing India in advancing secondary education attainment among adolescent girls. In J. Bhabha (Ed.), Human rights and adolescence (pp. 217-235). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Sharma, A. (2008). Logics of empowerment: Development, gender, and governance in neoliberal
Herz, B. K., & World Bank e-Library. (1991). Letting girls learn: Promising approaches in primary and secondary education. Washington, D.C: World Bank. doi:10.1596/0-8213-1937-X