By Vijay Sanghvi
Our van sped down the serpentine road from the Hastagiri, one of the three peaks in Bhavnagar district, after two hours in the octagonal Jain temple complex under construction for four decades. The grand marble complex is famous for the main temple for Rishabha Dev, the first and founder teacher of Jainism. It is spread out over half a million square feet area at the top of the peak with three stories of Jain temples of marble.
We stopped for a cup of tea outside the compound. A group of young girls in uniform rushed to the pan shop adjoining the tea stall with money in hand. They had apparently come to buy sweets before reaching home after their school. Their innocent faces, without any makeup, revealed their age between 9 – 12 years. Out of curiosity, I moved closer to them and asked the shopkeeper to give each girl five toffees of their choice. They were hesitant initially to take the offer as they had never been showered with such a generous gesture by Jain pilgrims flocking the temple complex. My white hair had, perhaps, assured them of no danger. That assurance gave me the opportunity to start a conversation.
I asked the 12-year-old girl with a dark complexion in which class she was studying?
She said she was in eighth class in the nearby Panchayat School.
‘So you are preparing to go to the ninth class?’ My remark was casual, but it darkened her face with uncertainty.
“I don’t know I will be going to the ninth class, ” she replied in a sad tone,
Why? was my simple query.
She said that her school was up to the eighth standard. For ninth standard everyone in the village has to study in the private school. “If the school is just across why would you not go to the next class? Does your father have no money to pay fees? “No. He has enough money, but he keeps on talking to my mother. He says what is the use of spending more on my higher education when they would have to give me away in four-five years in marriage. So I don’t know whether I will continue my studies. There was a ring of disappointment in her tone. Obviously, she was interested in further research, but the attitude of her father was not to send her to school anymore after she had completed the middle school.
Immediately a thought crossed my mind that unless parents have a stake in her education, they would not want her to continue her studies. The reluctance of parents in villages of Gujarat to send their girls to higher studies was rooted in the lack of their stakes in her education. The expenditure on a girl’s studies is not counted as a part of dowry expected from them nor would she be adding any assets to the family as she would be given away to another family. She would not be able or even allowed to put her education to use for work except in raising her family. Expenditure of her further education is considered a dead loss to the household without benefit accruing to anyone.
This is erroneous belief but it prevails not in villages of Gujarat alone but also in most of the states in India. This poses a significant challenge not only to politicians in power or opposition but also to prominent social workers struggling to bring about a change in mentality by breaking walls of ignorance and conservative but old habits and thinking.
The challenge cannot be met with articles in print media or debates in the visual media. Words of politicians would be wasted, and social workers would continue to struggle to persuade parents to send their girls to school but without much impact.
In most families girls are a liability that needs handling till she is given away in marriage. She becomes a target for evil attention because of her sex. Parents would be too eager to pass on their liability to another person by marrying her as soon as possible. The child marriage may have roots in this fear. Girls are treated differently because the son is considered to be one who would earn for the family. Girls are not expected to work outside unless they can be assured safety. In most families, daughter is treated as burden till she is married away. Unless governments and planners of the economic development devise ways and means to assure current opportunity for learning to girls as soon as they have finished their school leaving the stage, she cannot become an earning daughter. If she can be turned into an earning daughter, parents would bear her presence as long as they can. It can make a significant dent on the evil of child marriage, particularly in poor families even if it does not affect the family traditions in desired manners.
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has undertaken to emphasize education of girls as a need of society. However, success of his campaign for the elevation of the position of daughters in the family depends entirely on the mentality of parents and her image in their mind. She has to be turned into an earning member of the household to motivate parents to accept her as an asset and not a burden. After all said and done, economic utility remains the entire stake to motivate actions. Unless parents begin to treat their sons and daughters on equal footing, the position of women even in families will continue to be ambivalent.
Education has changed girls in urban sector regardless of the marital status. Wealthy and middle-class families have allowed their daughters not only to get an education but also work independently in various sectors till recently the exclusive domains of men. They would even be operating fighter planes in the Indian Air Force from next year. Girls have proved their equality in physical and mental prowess as well as their resourcefulness with education. Urban girls have done it. There no reason to believe that girls from rural expanses cannot display their prowess. They need an opportunity to education. They can get only if rulers show them the high stakes in girls education by turning them into an earning daughter.