The Union Cabinet of India has approved the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) for implementation. It is set to be the guiding document of India’s future education system, containing several innovative educational initiatives and reforms. The government is hailing it as a revolutionary document geared towards the demands of the 21st century. The policy claims in its introduction to be “the first education policy of the 21st Century”. However, paradoxically, the policy seems to lack any conscientious effort towards the annihilation of inequalities based on gender and lacks any in-depth considerations towards making the education system more gender-inclusive and equitable.
Although the NEP contains some seemingly progressive provisions, a more in-depth analysis reveals various flaws and problematic implications of these provisions for people on various points of the gender spectrum. The policy fails to live up to the ideals of a country that has various provisions for promotion of education (Articles 45, 21A, 51A of the Constitution) and emancipation of disadvantaged and minority groups (Articles 15 (1), 15 (3), 29, 46 of the Constitution). These provisions, along with several court judgements, promote the education of women, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other minority groups who have historically been denied access to knowledge due to various socio-economic hurdles and stereotypes in society. It is no secret that India is a predominantly patriarchal society where men still get the first preference in the distribution of growth opportunities, including educational opportunities. In sharp contrast to this, women and LGBTQIA+ continue to be denied even fundamental rights such as elementary education. The present article analyses the NEP through a gendered lens to highlight the lacunas in the document with respect to gender dynamics. The article mainly focuses on the inclusionary and retention measures stated in the document to bring out contradictions, lapses and some missed possibilities.
The article tries to bring out a major contradiction wherein the NEP asserts that it is trying to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4. The goal is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. The policy may not achieve this goal as the infrastructural and structural changes suggested or missed in the policy seem to have not taken care of women and LGBTQIA+ needs and requirements. Poor policy decisions mixed with complex societal issues and uncertain implementation programme can hurt educational aspirations of the respective communities. Part I of this article deals with the unintended consequences towards women, and Part II deals with the NEP’s ignorance of the needs of the LQBTIA+ community.
Unintended Consequences for Women’s Education
The NEP can create or aggravate conditions that can directly limit women’s access to education, thus contributing to gender inequality. A) With the introduction of the public-private partnership model, education is bound to become more expensive. Financially challenged families would feel its direct consequences. They may end up pulling the plug on their daughters’ education – the reflex action of a household in a patriarchal society. B) The impact of the recommendation of whittling down the number from 800 universities and 40,000 colleges to 15,000 higher education institutions would hit in two ways. Firstly, the burden of fees would increase since corporate mergers have been proposed for decreasing the number of public institutions. This might prove to be final straw for many women in a country where fewer females opt for higher education due to its expensive nature among many other reasons. Secondly, consolidation of educational institutes would mean the closure of many educational institutions, thereby increasing the distance from many students’ homes. It will increase travel time or lead to them moving away from home, none of which is either encouraged or accepted due to reasons which include increased monetary expenses, concerns for safety, patriarchal mind-set etc. in many Indian households. Thus, it may prove to be another significant cause of an increase in the female dropout rate. The document places emphasis on ‘Open Distance Learning’ and ‘Online Education’ as a way to increase retention and digitise education. However, in the backdrop of multitudes of facts and figures which point out the dismal availability of resources such as laptops, stable internet connection to access these routes of education, it would be wise to question such emphasis and the efficacy of such a solution.
The document does put forward some provisions to promote the education of women. However, when closely scrutinised these well-meaning recommendations and proposed equity-inducing initiative without any concrete action plan and with support of vague provisions such as ‘assist females in gaining access to education’ renders its intent of gender equality weak. The oversimplified presentation of solutions as response to deep-rooted and complex barriers faced by women does little to address the problem of toxic patriarchal nature of Indian society. It seems as if real barriers to education have not been identified and hence not addressed.
Firstly, there is sole focus on the female sex to bring about any change vis a vis their conditions, such as sensitisation programmes, however, interventions at a systematic levels to create gender-equal and gender-sensitive mind-set of boys has been entirely missed. The patriarchal trait of the India society has been ignored, where men rely on the notions of ‘strength and superiority due to their masculinity’ and believe that the “rightful place of women is kitchen”. Around the world, girls in school are subjected to gender-based violence and assault, to curtail and prevent such incidents; there is a need for coordinated, multilevel and multifaceted “whole-school” approaches, which make it necessary to make other genders a part of conversation and sensitisation.
Secondly, even though the policy talks about ‘infrastructural changes’, nowhere is it mentioned that these changes would be women friendly. There is virtually no discourse on menstrual health and management and no provisions for instituting mandatory sanitary dispensers in educational institutes. There is no mention of female friendly W.A.S.H (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) areas; instead the bar has been set very low with just the provision of ‘working toilets’. Jammu and Kashmir High Court as recently in December, 2020 raised concerns regarding difficulty faced by adolescent females in receiving education due to impediments created by lack of access to sensitisation regarding menstrual hygiene and facilities. This leads to violation of their constitutional right under Article 21 A.
Thirdly, there is virtually no focus on structural changes such as gender bias. Themes such as sex education have been subsumed under the subject of “ethical and moral reasoning”, while other such as healthy body image, gender-based violence, mental health have been ignored. In addition to this lapse, there is no provision to protect females who are abused, bullied or humiliated or any long-term institutional redressal mechanism to reduce cases of sexual harassment and abuse. It remains silent on child protection (Goal 16 of the SDG), which is a cause of concern due to the rise in the number of child sexual abuse cases, especially by people in positions of power, as can be seen from the Patna rape case. As shown by the statics that 50% of the girls are subject to sexual harassment like groping on their way to school, being shamed in schools etc., the question that follows is how generic provisions such ‘inclusion of ethics in curriculum’ can address the deep rooted problems of toxic and hegemonic masculinity in our society, which hinders the female population from accessing bias-free education.
The guiding principle of National Policy of Children, 2013 states safety and security of all children are integral to their well-being and security is to be taken as the protection from all forms of harms, abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation and maltreatment. Such broad and indefinite provisions and acute lack of detail and process fail to provide a roadmap to solve pertinent issues at both micro and macro levels. The primary flaw with inclusion of decorated words such ‘morals and ethics’ is that it seeks to promote patriarchal traditional values such as submissiveness, sacrifice and tolerance under the garb of being in tandem with the times and can be synonymous with dilettantism. There is a need to including more women in the policymaking process, especially those, who had to face such dire ordeals that were not included in the first go. The point of decorated words can be extended to include when the policy talks about ‘universalization of school education from 3-18 years.’ The lofty goals set lack any legal backing such as linking to The Right to Education Act, 2009. Mere words without any mandatory framework might do very little to curb the drop out of girls after elementary levels. Further, there is no provision of gender-inclusive learning, learning essential for inclusivity and keeping up with the world in the 21st century. The policy chooses to place importance on stop gap measures like immediate financial assistance and improving infrastructure rather than systematically starting a gender-sensitive approach to education.