I had the honour of speaking to the members of the Kerala Samajam, Ahmedabad, on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
They chose a difficult topic ‘Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’. Here is my address trying to simplify the ideas and keep it entertaining for the diverse audience.
Government of India’s Shramshakti Report in 1988 was a landmark report on working women. It noted that “all women are workers because they are producers and reproducers. Even when they are not employed, they are involved in socially productive and reproductive labour, all of which is absolutely necessary for the survival of society”. That is, both the economic and household work of women is important for the growth and stability of the economy and society. All the work that women do is equally important.
Girls are same as boys: As women, this is the first thing we have to keep in mind. All work we do is important for ourselves, our families, the society and our country. Don’t let anyone downgrade your work, whether it is at the work place or at home. Teach your children, including your boys, that your work at home is what keeps the society going, it reproduces the next generation. You can do this by assigning tasks at home to your children, equally between boys and girls, just to make them feel how important it is and how time consuming and strenuous it is.
Girls are the same as boys in their behaviour! It is we who make them feel different. Treat boys and girls as equal in your instructions regarding behaviour, to begin with, and later for their life choices. You do not tell your girl to behave like a lady. Tell your boys and girls to behave like human beings, compassionate, kind, polite and treat all people as equals. This is best for a healthy, harmonious today and tomorrow.
Sex Ratio: India’s youth population peaks in 2020, 64 percent are in the working age group between 15 to 60 years of age. More than 50 percent of the population is below the age of 30 years. You would have heard about the declining sex ratio? That there are more boys than girls in the country in the more recent years. In Figure 1 we can clearly see this till the age group of 50, but most strikingly below the age of 30 years. This implies that 30 years ago and to some extent even 50 years ago, we have been selecting boys over girls. This fact of fewer boys born than girls was clearly seen in the 1991 Population Census, 30 years ago. The difference in sex ratio has been growing since then as recorded in the 2001 and 2011 Population Census.
Figure 1: Population Pyramid
Now look at the next population pyramid (Figure 2). Here the black shaded area is the excess of men and women and in the younger age, excess of boys over girls. There is a glimmer of hope. The excess of boys of girls has declined in the most recent years, though the difference is still very large.
Figure 2: Male Surplus Population Pyramid
What does this tell us about the topic we are discussing today, Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow? The sex ratio is an excellent measure of gender equality as it displays the social and economic value of women in various cultures. Kerala, along with some North Eastern states have had positive sex ratios, meaning more women than men and more girls than boys, over decades. But recently the sex ratio of children below the age of 6 years has shown fewer girls than boys, 967 girls for 1000 boys (NFHS 5, 2019-21). This is a worrying trend and all of us have to be vigilant that this declining sex ratio does not continue in Kerala.
No country or region is sustainable with few or no girls. Sex ratio at birth in Haryana and Punjab was 836 and 860 in (NFHS) 2015-16. There have been some villages where no girl was born in the last couple of decades. This is not a good sign and can lead to violence against women. Fortunately the sex ratio at birth has improved in 2019-21.
Demographic Dividend and System of Education: The bulge in the population pyramid in the age groups 15 to 35 years is what is called the ‘demographic dividend’. While most countries are aging and have very low birth rates, India’s population will continue to grow for a decade more. However, the advantage of having a young population will not be an advantage if the education system fails us.
Yes, there are many positive features in education. There has been a vast improvement in levels of general education among the youth. Illiteracy has declined sharply, particularly for women. Students completing secondary and higher secondary schooling has risen for both girls and boys. An encouraging feature is that the gender gap, that is the difference between girls and boys, in enrollment in secondary and higher secondary schooling is closing. The gender gap has also closed for graduate education, which constitutes about 20 percent of the youth.
How does the education system fail us? First, all our children in India do not go to school. Drop-out rate from schools is very high, particularly after the age of 10, more so for girls. The second worrisome feature of our school education is that children who go to school DO NOT seem to be learning much. You must be all aware of the ASER Reports, Annual Survey of Education Report? This report comes out every year for the last 15 years and has been telling us that the children who go to school do not achieve a good standard of learning in language or simple arithmetic.
The survey conducts simple learning assessment of children in primary school. Although this assessment could not be conducted in 2021 in most states due to the pandemic, the state of Karnataka was able to conduct the field survey in March 2021, ahead of the second wave of COVID (ASER Report, 2021).
It covered almost 20,000 children age 5-16 in 24 of Karnataka’s 30 districts. This learning assessment survey showed steep drop in children’s foundational skills in lower primary grades. The percentage of children in Std III who could read at least Std I level text had fallen sharply, from 41.8 in 2018 to 24.2 in 2020 (Table 4). In arithmetic, the percentage of children in Std III who could not recognize double digit numbers from 11-99 rose from 25 in 2018 to 40 in 2020 (Table 5). (ASER 2021).
Is this the demographic dividend we have? Is sustainable development possible with this levels or proficiency in learning going forward? This data in Karnataka are from field survey in government schools. The chances are that the situation may be less alarming in some private schools. This points to inequality in system of education. The situation is likely to be worse if we consider the gender of children and learning outcomes.
Atmosphere at Home: It is not just the schools that are the problem. We ourselves create the problem. Before we tell our children to not spend time on the smartphone or watch television, we must check our behaviour. How much time do we spend on our smartphones, WhatsApp and other social media? How much time do we spend on watching worthless serials on TV?
Children today wonder what their parents did without all these devices. Well, you ‘used your head’! As these cartoon shows.
And for entertainment we listened to the radio, ‘Vividh Bharathi’! Or a little later, watched television on the only available government owned channel ‘Doordarshan’. And believe me, we were never bored! We read books, novels, comic books and were entertained.
Learning to Read: How many of us read a book? How much time do we spend on reading a book or even the newspaper? Children copy us, so next time you reach for the smartphone, think once!!
Our schools had libraries. They still have I guess. We had an alloted period for the library once a week and we actually borrowed and read books. It will not be long before the school librarian would have to tell the children how to read a book. ‘Instead of powering it up, you just turn the cover. And instead of clicking on ‘next page’ you just turn the page..’ Simple!
How do you teach children to read a book, when parents themselves are engrossed full time with the smartphone? It is possible that there may come a time when humans are stuck with hand held devices while the new age robots are found reading a book! And little robots are enjoying drawing and colouring!
New Education System: Given the kind of emerging market for jobs, on the platform and in the GIG economy, what is it that a New Education System for the Youth should provide? What kind of skills is important and required in the world today and for a sustainable tomorrow? Definitely good technical and practical knowledge is essential. But there are other important skills that our universities and colleges can and should impart.
And what about you who are already on the job? You have your established skills and knowledge which has grown over the years with experience. What is it that you should do to make sure you do not become redundant for your organization?
Analytical and Data skills:
Information and data is the key to progress and success in today’s world. The programmes in the University need a strong emphasis on developing analytical and data skills. This is the route to understanding and processing information. Mathematics, statistics, programming and econometrics are crucial in today’s world. Besides gaining the ability to apply these methods, the students should become proficient at analyzing large datasets, commonly called ‘Big Data’ with use of software packages. Engineering students would of course learn new computer languages.
The same applies to you. Any opportunity you get or see that exists to gain data analytical skills should be taken up. New courses, new online courses, workshops in or outside your organization can add to your skills and employability going forward.
Working in Teams and multi-disciplinary perspective is the next important skill. In most good jobs today, the employee does not work alone. She works with a team. This team could consist of people from different disciplines. The team could have an engineer, an accountant, an Economist and a Biologist depending on the project. Educational institutions should encourage students to work in teams and develop a flavor of multidisciplinary work. Universities could encourage students of engineering to register for courses in social sciences and vice versa and encourage group assignments and projects. Both these unique features will help students to gain not just theoretical knowledge, but also learn to understand appreciate other disciplines, and learn to work as a team. All companies check for the team spirit in candidates while hiring. Your own survival and growth in your companies may depend on how open you are to working with colleagues with a different kind of training from yours. Do think about it.
Soft Skills: Languages and communication skills: Other important skills are capacity to communicate, presentation skills and use of language. The vernacular language is very important, but it is a good idea to develop proficiency in another language as well. German, Chinese and of course English are very valuable language skills to cultivate.
And my final thought for young people, both girls and boys, and for all of you, is to develop some hobbies. It could be reading, writing, poetry, art, drama, cricket, hockey, other sports or stitching/sewing. Spend some time every day on these hobbies and stay away from your smartphones. Meeting people and socializing in the real world is a skill, an art actually, which we are fast forgetting in this era of the virtual.
To conclude, in the emerging markets with fast changing technology, lifelong learning is the only way to stay ahead and hope for a sustainable tomorrow. As teachers we are constantly faced with batches of younger and younger students. Their behaviour, their views, their standards, and their attention span are constantly changing. We have to adapt our methods of teaching, our ways of dealing with them, gaining their attention and our methods of evaluation, all the time. We have to re-invent ourselves and our methods constantly. In fact, so do you. So continue learning, unlearning and relearning, it will make you happier, healthier and wise!! Also with gender equality, it will help build a sustainable tomorrow.