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20 years of DTE

Forest for her

Nov 15, 2011 | From the print edition

It is an observed fact that female literacy is crucial for checking population growth. But what does it take to keep girl children in school? Environmental regeneration besides the right infrastructure and cultural emphasis, suggested Anil Agarwal in an article in 1992. Edited excerpts

The main obstacles to the growth of female literacy have been indicated by many studies to be rooted in caste, cultural and economic factors. While there can be no doubt that these are important factors, little attention has been paid to the effect on female illiteracy of adverse environmental pressures.

imageIt is well-known the girl child plays an important role as an assistant to the mother in performing household functions. As such, when the mother’s work burden is made heavy by poverty, migration and environmental degradation, resulting in less access to basic survival resources, it is obvious it would be practically impossible for the girl child to go to school.

The Centre for Science and Environment has conducted a detailed study of a Himalayan village and its ecosystem. The data collected from the village—called Syuta in this report though this is not its real name—tends to confirm the reality that a heavy workload on the mother means the daughter cannot get an education even when access to a school is easy.

If the total work-hours in Syuta are computed, an interesting pattern emerges, showing women put in 59 per cent, children 26 per cent and men 15 per cent. Children put in almost double the work hours of men, and women work nearly four times more than men. The ratio of work hours devoted to agriculture, fodder collection and fuel collection is 1:0.60:0.25. Obviously, with deforestation increasing, collecting fuel and fodder will take more time.

Though the literacy rate in Syuta is high, the level of education is extremely low. Most children go to school but begin as late as age 10. Education is brief for girls and ends by the time they are 15. No Syuta girl has ever reached the high school level. In fact, less than 10 per cent of the girls get beyond the primary stage.

imageBoth culture and the heavy workload on women are reasons for the high dropout rate among girls, who inherit their mother’s workload. The girls, meanwhile, are needed by the family to help the mother to look after the young, fetch water and fuel and even cook.

Women in Kerala rarely spend more than an hour collecting fuel, fodder and water, and their work burden is much less than that of women in most other parts of India. Is it possible that the easy availability of biomass resulting in low work burden of women provided the appropriate precondition for enlightened literacy programmes to succeed?

Educationists also need to look at other linkages between the environment and education systems. Can the girl child get a “biomass reward”—a gift of fodder, for instance—for classroom attendance through the creation of well-stocked school forests and grasslands?

It must be remembered that a large number of the world’s poor lives in the world’s most ecologically degraded regions and in areas where the literacy rates are low and population growth rates high. If both these acute and permanently underlying ecological and economic crises are not dealt with, the economic distress results in greater ecological degradation and sabotages the future even further.

image Today, government is running several schemes to encourage girls to stay in school. Most of them promise money and food as reward. The one in Bihar gives them cycles to commute to school. But ecological regeneration has rarely been targeted to either improve literacy or reduce population


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