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At the Cross-Roads: Mehbooba Mufti and fate of Women's Education in Kashmir
4/16/2016 9:13:33 PM
Simin Akhter Naqvi

The swearing in of Mehbooba Mufti as the first Woman Chief Minister of the state, in alliance with the BJP, who form the ruling party at the centre, presents a unique opportunity for both, the women of the state as well as the PDP. If the new Chief Minister, who has earlier announced grand plans for the education of women (HT leadership Summit, December 2015) and has given calls for ending 'the vicious circle of death and destruction so that women can live in peace' (ET Report, March 2016). If Ms Mufti is able to judge and gauge the gravity of the situation accurately and is able to translate promises to deeds, the PDP and its first Woman Chief Minister may still have an opportunity to be remembered for good despite having witnessed much resentment form the people, having failed their expectations on multiple counts including executing the agreement of appointing locals at NHPC, the capping of Ration Rice at 5kg per person per month under the NFSA, and revocation of AFSPA and withdrawal of PSA charges against those falsely implicated (Issues forming a major chunk of the PDP's pre-election manifesto). The role and importance of Education in building Human capabilities is fundamental and Inclusive Quality Education if imparted in an environment of political freedom and independence holds the potential to progressively transform both, society and politics. The Public Education system in Kashmir, however, currently lacks all three, Availability, Access and Quality and seems to need a revamp. Despite the government having announced many schemes for encouraging education among women in the state, including "free textbooks to all girls up to class VIII, bridge courses for older girls, back to school camps for out-of-school girl, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), National Programme for Education of Girls at Elementary Level (NPEGEL) and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) scheme" (Planning Commission of India, State Development Report 2013), along with the state government's celebrated 'Ladli Beti' scheme, implementation remains lax and outcomes in terms of student enrolment and drop-outs remain disheartening. However, making a few progressive changes to the policy and administration of Education in the state shouldn't be too difficult, unless Ms Mufti completely abrogates power to her alliance partners. Poverty Alleviation and employment guarantee schemes like the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) launched in 1980, based on a 50:50 Centre-State sharing pattern, Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA), launched in 1983-84 with the objective of making women members of below poverty line rural families self-employed, The Swyamsidha Women Empowerment Programme (SWEP) for helping women get self-employed and other initiatives by the Minorities Development and Backward classes Finance and Development Corporations have also remained confined to a limited number of beneficiaries and have not helped in strengthening the women community's socio-economic position on the whole or in bridging gender-gaps, as evident from much higher gender income-gaps despite workforce participation rates comparable to the national average (20.8 as opposed to 46.3 for Men, with respective national averages at 25.63 and 56.23 respectively in 2011), low trade union participation rates (12.5% in 2008 against a national average of 22.5% for all women and 54% for all men), poor literacy rates, with women's literacy rate in the state continuing to be much lower than Men at 58% as per the census survey of 2011 (20 per cent in 1981) compared to 78 % for men (44% in 1981) and a steadily declining sex ratio, with the women to men ratio at 883 in 2011, marking a nine point decline compared to 2001, and the national average at 940. The child sex ratio also remains a cause of concern having dropped by 100 points from 963 in 1981 to 863 in 2011. Enrolment of girl students at the primary and secondary levels also continues to be much lower than boys at 84% and 100% respectively at the primary level, and at 73% and 93.23% respectively at secondary level (Statistics of School Enrollment, Ministry of HRD, GOI). Drop-out rates tell a more sordid tale with much fewer girls dropping out at the primary level as compared to boys (with girls at 41 % and boys at 53%) as opposed to a much higher percentage of girls dropping out at the secondary and post-secondary level (72% as opposed to 50% for boys). Dropping out of girls at the secondary level is both malignant for the inter-generational spread of illiteracy as well as severely debilitating for the girls as dropping out at this level leaves them with practically no employability. Socially, this is mostly not due to lackadaisical attitudes towards education, as commonly assumed, but due to a lack of dignified and safe employment for women even after completing the next level (Higher Secondary) coupled with poor quality of education, dysfunctional schools especially in far flung and rural areas, the lack of accessibility of government schools within walking distance, physical difficulties in accessing existing schools besides the lack of safety and security experienced by school going girls. The existence of Secessionist tendencies in education with the rich and influential elite, sending their kids to posh private schools and thus not affected by the lack of public educational infrastructure, also lead to a general failure of the civil society in building any significant social or political pressure on the government to fix the problem. Then there are also the obvious Opportunity Costs of sending children to school associated with living in agricultural societies and in poverty; i.e. participation in household activities among girls and involvement in paid economic activity outside household for boys.
The government of India's policy paper on Education in states (2013) clearly observes three aspects of the problem of education of girls in the state; Socio-economic security and livelihood issues; Physical security, health and survival issues; and Political security and participation in civil life. The new Chief Minister is obviously better placed than her male predecessors to relate to these issues and needs to vehemently push for ensuring the physical safety of the girl child traveling to school in the short run and to ensure a greater number of schools available within the stipulated 3, 5 and 10 km distance range. Incorporating these as priority matters in social policy should not be too difficult as most of these concerns already find resonance with the Millennium Development goals and with the GOI's declared policy concerning education. As said earlier implementation of these measures will the tricky part. Ensuring fair selection procedures for appointment of teachers, efficient monitoring and infrastructural support to schools and checking the reduction of the process of education to mere passing of year end exams is pertinent. The need for a bottom up approach focusing on primary education and on building the information systems and infrastructural capacity of schools, the need to focus on skill-building programmes and vocational training for those who have dropped out of formal education and genuine efforts at bringing recent drop-outs back into the fold are required. Facilities for adequate Pre-school education of children of working women extending the scheme to beyond the limited scope of 'Anganwadies' and 'Balwadies' is also crucial in boosting women's work participation and inter-generational valuing of women's education. Providing more and functionally enabled mobile schools for the tribal areas, appointment of local teachers and filling up of vacancies in schools esp. in far flung areas where education may be the only means of bridging the gap becomes indispensable in the milieu. Schemes like the Rehbar-e-taleem scheme need to be continued and expanded, not rolled-back, though the need for quality checks therein cannot be denied. As for higher education, Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in Higher education for women in the state is 24.9 as opposed to a lower 22.6 for men, with the all India average at 20.4 for the age group 18?23yrs (GER for male population 21.6, for females 18.9 (All India Survey on Higher Education, MHRD, GOI, 2011-12). The trend is corroborated by a higher than national-average gender parity index for higher education with the women to men ratio at 1.10 for J&K as opposed to the all India value of 0.88. This clearly shows that once women are able to overcome the upper-middle or higher secondary level drop-out blockade, they can successfully join and pursue higher education. The dismal part of the story is the low and stagnant total enrolments in government higher educational institutes for J&K (Men 1, 67,218; Women 171616; Grand total for all degree levels post-graduate and above 338834) as opposed to a much higher total number of students for the more developed states. Even as the men-women ratios in higher education may be high, bringing in more students to higher education, especially from the far flung areas, especially into the polytechnics and ITIs is crucial. Increasing the participation of women in technical and professional education can, in turn be ensured only by seeing the girls through school and providing them with the needed financial security to delay early marriages and join college instead. Increasing the number of government colleges, polytechnics and ITIs especially for women students, is a must. Dealing with and resolving the financial crunch faced by colleges with a sense of urgency is of utmost importance. The loss of educational infrastructure suffered during the peak years of the political turmoil has to be compensated for and the role and significance of education as the only hope of levelling the field and of healing the many wounds of the political turmoil has to be understood. The nationwide roll-back on educational budgets and the ideological offensive being carried out against Universities as centres of rational critique has to be contested. Numerous UN, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch reports have repeatedly asserted the cascading effect that sustained political unrest has on women and children, making them the worst sufferers of this kind of violence. The recent fracas at NIT, Srinagar provides the perfect test for the PDP's commitment towards making legitimate efforts at establishing peace (despite the misplaced initial thrust in the matter) and to assert its commitment towards protecting and safeguarding educational campuses within the state. If the new CM is fails to contain the communal and political tensions building around the issue, and falters in preventing the de-democratization of higher education, her government's inability in keeping the interest of the people of the state above that of the party, and the 'limitations of the coalition' will become obvious to all, albeit a little too soon after the start. If she is able to ensure precisely as much, keeping women and education at the centre-stage of the peace-building process, she would have reached an important milestone on the long road to justice, both social and political.
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