Secondary education is fundamental to achieving gender equity

School children in India

India has made tremendous progress in reaching the goal of universalisation of primary education since the passing of the Right to Education Act in 2010.  Education was made a fundamental right for all children aged 6 to 14.  However there are still huge gaps when we look at secondary education.

While the Gross Enrolment Ratio in secondary education rose by 25 % to over 76 %  between 2000 and 2014, the Net Enrolment Ratio remained a low 45.6 %. This means that more than half of all adolescents aged 15-16 are not enrolled in secondary education.

This has immense bearing on long term outcomes for children, since secondary education is considered a necessary stepping stone towards a better and brighter future. For girls in particular, not continuing in education often results in them being pushed into child and early marriage, since girls continue to be considered ‘paraya dhan’ (belonging to somebody else) and son-preference prevails across socio-economic strata across the country. There has been a lot of concern over the fact that despite the Indian economy growing at a healthy average of about 7% between 2004 to 2011, there is a decline in female participation in the country’s labour force from over 35% to 25%, according to the ILO.

It is no surprise given these facts, that India ranks 130th out of 155 countries in the 2015 Global Gender Inequality Index.

Young Lives longitudinal data from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana found that boys were 1.8 times more likely to complete secondary education than girls, even after controlling for variables related to individual characteristics. Girls left education due to various reasons including familial, societal and school related issues and by 19 approximately 37% of the girls were already married.

This compares to less than 2% of the boys.

Furthermore, the girls at the highest risk of getting married early were from the poorest tercile and those living in rural locations. My colleagues Patricia Espinoza and Abhijeet Singh conducted a regression analysis and found that school enrolment at the age of 15 had the most statistically significant impact on reducing the probability of child marriage of girls by over 32%.  Lower parental and child aspirations for education at the age of 12 and 15, were also linked to early marriage.

There is overwhelming evidence that establishes that child marriage during adolescence can send girls into a downward spiral.  Quality secondary education is the first step to supporting their empowerment. Qualitative interviews with community members conducted in a tribal area of Andhra Pradesh revealed that the schools within their community had no facilities and the children were not willing to go outside to study.

When questioned a community member replied  

We live in poverty … if somebody does further study and becomes a Collector or something, other children would get inspiration to pursue education. But we are so poor that we have to work every day as daily wage labourers to survive. If we don’t go to work even for a single day, we end up starving. In such circumstances who has time to pursue studies.. there is nobody who has studied further than 10th Grade’.

It is important that adolescent boys and girls from the poorest households living in disadvantaged and remote locations are given relevant education and skills that will provide them a suitable livelihood. The current secondary school curriculum is not necessarily aligned to the job market and skills demanded in the formal sector and only about 6% of women employed are in the formal sector with social benefits, such as pensions or maternity leave – factors that can influence participation and a persisting gender wage gap .

To ensure access to quality secondary schooling for the most disadvantaged girls and provide them with the requisite skills to enter the labour market, it is absolutely necessary to expand the mandate of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2010 to the age of 16. Of course ideally all children between the ages of three and 18 should be covered under the Act. But expanding to 16 would be a huge step in the right direction – and would help girls out of poverty.