“Gender discrimination is rampant in our society and it has lethal consequences. Girls are dying in the womb, at home and on the streets. They are unsafe, unwanted and unequal,” says educationist, Dr. Urvashi Sahni, founding President & CEO, Study Hall Educational Foundation. Dr. Sahni’s foundation has scaled its model of education to 1,000 government schools in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, trained 5,000 government teachers and impacted 1,50,000 girls directly and 270,000 indirectly. Applauding her works, Schwab Foundation, a sister organisation of World Economic Forum has conferred her with Social Entrepreneur of the Year-2017 Award. She speaks to Mohd Mustaquim on the status of girls’ education and gender discrimination in India...
As an educationist, how do you see the state of girls’ education in India, especially in the rural areas?
I think there is a general apathy towards the condition of girls living in India. This is particularly true for girls from poor and marginalised communities. Girls education suffers from a similar treatment. Despite all the rhetoric around girls education, the condition of girls education is not good. They continue to be kept away from school due to child marriage, unfair burden of domestic chores, sibling care and other gendered reasons like these. Schools also don't make enough of an effort to support girls to fight these challenges. They accept these conditions as inevitable and so though more girls are enrolled in school, they don't stay and don't complete as reflected in the data about girls drop out and completion rates.
What, according to you, needs to be done to push the quality education for girls?
We need to value our daughters more and schools need to value education for girls more. Education is an important pathway for girls to take charge of their lives and their humanity and schools should fight alongside girls to make sure that they come to school, stay and learn. Most importantly they should ensure that girls learn to value themselves as equal persons, that they build aspirations in them and their parents beyond marriage and motherhood and help them become productive citizens. Our primary and secondary education in rural areas is failing all our children - boys and girls, because it is uncaring and dysfunctional. Government needs to sit up and take notice that if we don't improve the quality of our rural primary and secondary schools, the country is headed for disaster. The promise of the much talked about demographic dividend will be wasted. We are short-changing our future generations and our country if we don't fix our schools.
Few months later, you would be headed to World Economic Forum in Davos, so what would be your agenda at the global forum for girls education?
To engage as many people as possible in the conversation about 'quality education' especially with reference to girls and to look for partners who can help us improve the quality of girls live in India, by providing them with a high quality enabling and empowering education, like we are doing in Prerna. We would like to scale our efforts further and need partners. We would also like to impact government policy and we need influential voices to lend more power and strength to ours.
After being named as Social Entrepreneur of the Year, how would it make difference in your works and efforts?
I think it has given me many more platforms where I can take our message to an increasing and diverse set of people. I have been invited by several high level bodies to speak and carry the message. It has also lent us more credibility and will improve our chances of finding more partners.
What are your plans to scale up your existing model?
We plan to do this in multipronged way; Take the program to other states - we are already in conversation with three other states; affect policy and partner with other like minded organisations - already speaking to two such organisations. Educate Girls - one of the finalists for the award this year is one of them.
What are your views on gender discrimination and how is it hampering the overall education system? How would this social evil be handled?
I think gender discrimination is rampant in our society and it has lethal consequences. Girls are dying in the womb, at home and on the streets. They are unsafe, unwanted and unequal. This has to stop! We have become the rape capital of the world!!! This is so shameful. The World Economic Forum report on Gender equality puts us at 108 out of 144 countries. We have fallen by 10 points since 2016. We rank 141/144 countries in health and survival of our girls and women; 1/3rd of the worlds child-brides are in India! How are we planning to take our place amongst the developed countries of the world if half our population is suffering daily indignities and pain? Discriminatory social norms are at the root of the problem. We simply do not value our girls and women enough to keep them safe and nurture their lives. Education is a powerful, potent place to change discriminatory social norms and we should be using it. Girls need an empowering education and our schools and teachers need to transform themselves to provide it. The country needs to take up the issue of girls rights on a campaign mode. How many more girls and women need to die before we sit up?
Study Hall Educational Foundation is working with around 1,000 schools in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan for girls’ education in the rural areas, what big challenges do you face while taking the girls to mainstream education system and how do you tackle them?
Convincing the government that this is important to do is the biggest roadblock. The generally poor governance of our government schools, government apathy, lack of political will in most states and the low priority given to education is our main challenge. Persistence is the only answer along with tapping every opportunity that we can get.
What reforms do you want to see in the public sector education and its funding and functioning?
I want there to be strong political will - backed with strong executive action; greater allocation of resources and most important - better utilisation of human and financial resources for education. Education should be high on the list of the Government development agenda and civil society should work towards making this happen. NGOs like ours should work closely with the Government and help them with our experience and skills.