In cities, we take it for granted that every child that is part of a family will get at least basic literacy skills if not a proper education. If there is a choice between sending a son for higher education or a daughter, we can also predict which child will get that chance, and it would not necessarily be the brighter one. In rural areas, if a girl from a poor family is even sent to school, it is a minor miracle.
A new documentary, Dropout Daughters, by Prateek Kumar, screened as part of Vikalp’s weekly programme (Vikalp being the group that was formed in 2004, when the Mumbai International Film Festival of Documentary and Short Films, started rejecting politically ‘inconvenient’ films), goes to a village in Rajasthan, a state where the female literacy rate is lower than the rest of the country in any case, and worse in the pandemic era. A slogan that states “My god is in my boys” painted on a school wall, just indicates what is obvious—the preference for sons.
In many families, it is poverty and inability to manage expenses that keeps girls out of school, but early marriage (child marriage is an accepted custom in Rajasthan), housework and farm labour are other reason for the high school dropout rate among girls.
But what can one say about a girl missing her exam because she did not get the message about the dates, since girls are not allowed to carry mobiles, because “ladkiyan bigad jaati hain (girls get spoiled). Or another girl who broke her leg in an accident and could not sit on the floor in the classroom, so stopped going to school, probably because nobody cared enough to get her a chair. The fear for their daughters’ safety is always at the back of the parents’ minds, going by the dismal statistics of violence against women, and low conviction rates
A major reason, however, remains the lack of employment opportunities. Parents, or in some cases, husbands, would “allow” girls to get educated, but would also expect some kind of return on investment. With basic education, where would the females get a paying job? If, by chance, they do land a job and need to commute to work, there is that vexing issue of security again.
The girls themselves have little incentive to go to school, when they know that there is no escaping their fate–getting married and looking after the home and kids. A college education and the possibility of the doors of opportunity opening up for them, is a pipe dream.
This short film does not even go into caste, community and other obstacles placed in the path of education for girls. If they are sent to school, most drop out by class five. In many cases, the word ‘literacy’ means that the girl can just about write her name.
All this just leads to the fact that India has a large number of illiterate females– all that “Mulgi shikli pragati zhaali” (Educate girls for progress) kind of slogans are just good to be painted at the back of trucks and auto rickshaws.
(A longer version of this piece appeared in The Free Press Journal dated November 3, 2021)