Education Vs Economic uplift of women: Need for balance

By Melari S Nongrum

During the recently held Women’s Conference organized by the Meghalaya State Commission for Women and the Government of Meghalaya, we saw the government highlighting the economic investments it had made to create self-help groups (SHGs) across the state. Women testified as to how they had become empowered through their involvement in the SHGs. Over the years, there have been several studies that have shown the success of SHGs in poverty alleviation through incremental employment and incremental income growth.
I do agree that SHGs can be vehicles of change for the individual members as well as for the group as a whole. Yet, there is a gap that has been overlooked by policy makers in our state. We are eager to uplift women when they have come to adulthood but we ignore the same individual when she was a child. By this, I want to point out that the government has often neglected the basic right of the child i.e. education. We are all aware that the Right to Education is a fundamental right of all children. The question that arises is, whether our children are able to claim this right. While the Government has implemented the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) whose core objective is to attain the Universalization of Elementary Education (UEE) and to include universal access and retention by bridging gender and social gaps in education and enhancing levels of learning for children across the state, but the desired outcomes are far from being realised.
But claiming the Right to Education is not mere enrolment into a school. The Right to Education would mean that those children who have enrolled have access to quality education. The question that arises is whether our government schools are providing quality education in urban and rural areas? Traveling across the state for my field work, I often observe the conditions of our government primary and middle schools which are in a pathetic situation. More often than not, we see classrooms that are stained with dirt, windows broken; no electricity and the toilets are poorly maintained. How do students learn in such an environment? Apart from the poor infrastructure, we have teachers who have to go to the streets to beg for their salaries almost every alternate month. Who bears the brunt of all this apathy of the government? The children drop out of school. According to a SSA Report 2014-2015, the drop-out rate at the primary level is 10.34% and 6.82% at upper primary level. In 2017, it was reported that one lakh children dropped out in the last four preceding years. The Child Wellbeing Index Report 2021 ranked school education in Meghalaya at the bottom, in the 28th position. When children drop out of school, it results in these children becoming adults with only primary level education and not even the basic literacy skills. This was evident in two studies that were recently published by the Meghalaya State Commission for Women. The study report among single mothers showed poor educational attainment at 46.2% without formal school education and 28.4 with primary level education only. In the study report on social, economic, political and legal empowerment of women in North East India, it showed that in Meghalaya, a large percentage of 79.2% women have low educational attainments of just below Class X.
Turning our attention to the promotion of SHGs, it can be understood that by and large, the educational attainment of the SHG members is also low. Although the Meghalaya Rural Livelihoods Society (MRLS) is encouraging poor women to form Self Help Groups to unleash their innate capabilities to generate meaningful livelihoods which would enable them to come out of poverty, the outcomes are limited because of their low educational qualifications. A study conducted by MRLS on the impact of SHGs showed that the outcomes were not very different between those women entrepreneurs engaged in SHGs and taking up different enterprises and the hired workers, domestic labourers etc. There could be a number of factors but to be an entrepreneur and start one’s enterprise, one needs skills at various levels such as the technical know-how (production), access to finance, marketing, handling accounts, sustainability of the enterprise besides other factors. Without undermining the innate capacities of women, I believe that women who are not educated find it more difficult to absorb knowledge and training and to understand the larger ramifications of running a business. I am reminded of the famous words of Nelson Mandela who stated that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Though I believe that people can learn even without attending formal school programs and they may learn by observation and experience, yet attaining higher levels of education does have its benefits. Balasag in his paper on benefits of education on society and individuality states that education enhances self-awareness, develops awareness of the environment locally, nationally and globally, has greater propensity to vote right, to volunteer, trust and tolerate others; low propensity to commit (non-violent) crime, better educational parenting, high involvement in decision making and longer life expectancy due to the capacity to afford medical care and being more likely to engage on preventive care.
Further, studies published by the World Bank, state that the education of girls and women in particular promotes both individual and national well-being. There is a positive association between a woman’s education and her employment and income. When women are deprived of an education, individuals, families, and children, as well as the societies in which they live, suffer. When women are adequately educated, everyone benefits. UNICEF also shows that investing in girls’ education transforms communities, countries and the entire world. Girls who receive education are less likely to marry young and more likely to lead healthy, productive lives. They earn higher incomes, participate in the decisions that most affect them, and build better futures for themselves and their families. Girls’ education strengthens economies and reduces inequality. It contributes to more stable, resilient societies that give all individuals, including boys and men, the opportunity to fulfil their potential. In Meghalaya too, it is observed from the study report on social, economic, political and legal empowerment of women in North East India, that consultation before decision making increased with higher educational attainment of women.
The studies are evidence that education of girls and women would not only bring about economic benefits but will positively address many of the problems that have been plaquing the state such as teenage pregnancy, poor health outcomes of women and children, poverty, gender inequality in decision making and others.
Therefore, despite making all efforts to empower women through SHGs, let us first make all out efforts to put our children in school so that when these educated children become adults, they can make better use of resources through the SHGs to transform their lives, families and communities that they live in. Let this common phrase “Ngi ba bieit, bym nang bym stad” (We who are not educated) uttered by many women be a phrase that will be no longer heard as every child is on her way to becoming an educated woman. This needs an assertive action by the state, to invest in education and to reverse the numbers of children dropping out of school.

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