India Must Focus on Quality Education as a Solution to Sexual Violence

Rather than relying on punitive measures as a quick-fix solution, the government must work on bringing about social transformation, a role that education can play.

The recent wave of sexual violence reported from across the country – against women in general and little girls in particular – is not only disturbing but also thought-provoking. The response of the civil society, media and government towards these deplorable instances has largely been ad hoc and reactionary, both in terms of form and substance. There has been a tendency to discuss sexual violence against women only after a particularly gruesome incident or the reporting of a series of such incidents. After that, the debate slowly fades away.

By completely disregarding the extensive sexual violence perpetrated against women on a daily basis, we obstruct the process of building a narrative around this malaise. As for the substance of the debate, it is always reactionary. The possible ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’ emerging from the debate are largely confined to: public execution of the culprit, a ‘new tougher law’, better implementation of the existing laws, improved measures for security, encouraging women to speak up against abuse and social transformation – shedding patriarchy and creating a culture of respecting women. While a few of these ‘solutions’ are simply outrageous, others might be effective in varying degrees.

The government, while conveniently and selectively buying people’s arguments, usually comes up with ‘newer’ or ‘tougher laws’ to prosecute sexual offences against women and children. Notwithstanding the evidence that deterrence out of fear of retribution is limited, the provision of punitive measures besides being ‘visible’ and ‘quick action’ is much easier to introduce than a cultural shift or an attitude transformation which might actually offer a lasting solution.

Role of school education

The big question, however, is how to initiate and accomplish this cultural shift and attitude transformation. It is hugely surprising that the role of school education is rarely taken into account while addressing this question. The debate on ensuring quality education these days never goes beyond learning levels, student scores in literacy and numeracy, skill acquisition or competency development and percentage of marks scored.

One might wonder whether it is purely idealistic or outrightly foolish to expect quality education to help society address issues like patriarchy, discrimination against social groups who are perceived vulnerable and, above all, violence. If the answer is yes, then how are we going to achieve cultural transformation or attitude change to form a society which rejects patriarchy, discrimination and violence, particularly, sexual violence against women? If the answer is no, then why is the role of education not being considered as one of the measures to effectively and sustainably address these issues? Why the outcomes for quality education being pushed by the government through its different institutions not refer to the attitudinal change and social transformation with regard to these very serious issues an outcome as well?

Interestingly, India’s National Policy on Education (NPE), 1968 does clearly assign to education the role of social transformation. It states ‘… Education has an acculturating role. It refines sensitivities and perceptions that contribute to national cohesion, a scientific temper and independence of mind and spirit”. (Emphasis added)

In fact, the perspective of Indian academics has been even more lucid much before the NPE. Radha Krishnan (whose birth anniversary is celebrated as Teachers Day) for instance, puts in perspective the educational outcome in terms of knowledge, skill and social transformation. He states:

“The aim of education is not the acquisition of information although important, or acquisition of technical skills, though essential in modern society, but the development of that bent of mind, that attitude of reason, that spirit of democracy which will make us responsible citizens”.

Key issues missing in the discourse on quality education

Evidently, government’s agenda for quality education is neither in policy perspective nor does it take into account prevailing social realities giving rise to violence, particularly, sexual violence against women. The short-term outcome-focused approach to quality education that has little regard for critical enablers of quality in terms of content and process i.e. curriculum and pedagogy, conveniently ignores the National Curriculum Framework, NCF (2005).

The NCF underscores the need to view the representation of knowledge in textbooks and other materials from the larger perspective of the challenges facing humanity and the nation. It notes that no subject in the school curriculum can stay aloof from these larger concerns, and therefore the selection of knowledge proposed to be included in each subject area requires careful examination in terms of socio-economic and cultural conditions and goals.

A little less than one-third of our total population is in the schooling stage, spending a significant portion of their time every day on learning alone. Credit: José Morcillo Valenciano/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Despite the NCF being endorsed under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009, curricular reforms (which include reforms in; curriculum, textual material, teaching – learning processes and assessment of pupils’ learning) to address the issues of patriarchy, discrimination, intolerance and violence do not find mention in the discourse on quality education.

Obstacles facing quality education

Myopic vision is not the only challenge between us and quality education, poor institutional capacity and a serious shortage of public resource are equally overwhelming obstacles. A major reason for the absence of curricular reforms from the discourse on quality education is government’s complete dependence for public provisioning of school education on schematic interventions like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan. These schemes focus at best on medium-term objectives. They have little scope and even lesser funds for interventions to improve curriculum and pedagogy beyond poorly funded, low-quality teacher training.

On the other hand, the institutional capacity for curriculum and pedagogy-related research and development that plays a critical role in curricular reform has either waned or has failed to come up on account of poor planning and perennially meagre public provisioning. The institutional capacity has been significantly inadequate at the national and state levels (NCERT, NCTE and SCERTs) whereas, at the district level, it is almost extinct in most places.

The District Institute of Education and Training (DIET), the sole institution for curriculum and pedagogic research and training at the district level, is barely surviving. Since most districts have several thousand teachers working in hundreds of government schools, therefore, DIETs’ crucial role in addressing the need for academic support, guidance and curricular development is absolutely crucial. Unfortunately, DIETs are in no position to fulfill this huge obligation. Of the 700 odd districts in the country, over a hundred districts have no DIET. Around 600 DIETs which are functional in as many districts have a little less than 50% vacancy in their academic (faculty) positions.

The salary cost against the filled academic posts is shared between Centre and states in 60:40 ratio under the Central government-sponsored Teacher Education (TE) scheme. The outlays (Centre plus states share) for the last many years have remained at around Rs 700 crore, which is barely enough to support the salary component of filled up academic positions. This leaves virtually no funds for research, development and programme work. The TE scheme with well above 90% expenditure over the last several years is a classic evidence refuting government’s claim that public resource allocation for social sector is adequate and the problem lies with expenditure efficiency alone.

Coming back to the issue of sexual violence against women and its sustainable solution, the discourse must inform at least three points of engagement for civil society and polity, including – sexual violence against women cannot be addressed by legal and security measures alone, social transformation through quality education is a more comprehensive and sustainable solution; present discourse on quality education is short-sighted besides being oblivious to prevailing social realities including sexual violence against women, which is out of sync with India’s policy perspective on quality education; and institutional capacity and public resources required to address these issues through quality education including curricular reforms in line with our policies, are highly inadequate.

The big question is whether we as a society sense the need, the urgency and the opportunity to demand through popular mobilisation in an election year a commitment from the political dispensation to address these issues, comprehensively and sustainably. If we could do this, it will be a good first step in a long journey.

The question assumes significance as a little less than one-third of our total population is in the schooling stage, spending a significant portion of their time every day on learning alone. This population, nearly half of it being women, would exercise maximum influence on social and political discourse in the country over the next half a century at least – good enough a future, quality education must envision and plan for.

Asadullah is with Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), New Delhi. His work has focused on issues of school education for more than 15 years. He can be reached at asadullah@cbgaindia.org. Views expressed are personal.