Fifteen-year-old Keshav Sinha is waiting outside his school in Munirka in South Delhi. His low slung trousers and half tucked shirt are carefully calculated measures of irreverence. Puffing on a cigarette, he plays a game on his phone, looking up every five minutes to stare at the school gate as if willing it to open. He can’t enter; he has been suspended for harassing a girl.
He sniggers while narrating the story of how he followed her around and left notes for her in class. “I pursued her for three months. She was my classmate. When she didn’t respond, I got frustrated and cornered her in school. She made a big deal out of it and complained to the principal,” he grunts, his eyes fixed on the floor. He grinds the cigarette stub with his foot, saying he can’t wait to get back to school in two weeks.
Has he learned his lesson? “Yes. Never go for the prudes,” he guffaws, and returns to his game. Some time later, a group of six boys come rushing out. They high-five Sinha and linger to smoke and ogle girls before making their way home. Each time a subject of interest crosses, they make lewd remarks and gesture at her anatomy behind her back. When they see teachers coming out, they leave.
Anamika Kumari, a Class 12 student in the same school, says it is not new for boys to harass classmates they are interested in: “Every year there is a fresh case. The boys are suspended for a week or two and then taken back after a written apology.” A studious student with ambitions of becoming a lawyer, she says she deliberately keeps a low profile. “No one is going to take my side if something happens.”
She explains that though teachers do take action when a complaint is registered, the girl making the complaint usually has to endure various levels of cross questioning, generally involving almost all the school’s teachers and also the parents of both parties. “Plus, the cheap interest people have in your life after that is disgusting,” she says, visibly disgruntled.
There is no gender cell in Anamika’s school. However, there is a counselor who meets each student every 15 days to discuss their life. The counselor is a rigid woman who lectures fast and thick on the virtues of a good student and how children “need to be controlled” for them to get the “correct sense of what is right and what is wrong.” It is no surprise that her office, which remains largely empty throughout the week, doesn’t see an enthusiastic crowd even during its mandatory fortnightly sessions. There are no behavioural classes; gender sensitisation is a far cry. Teachers are only interested in clocking their hours and going home.
The school is deserted in the afternoon, save for a few boys playing cricket in the playground, and Anamika is getting anxious to leave, having moved gradually to the edge of her chair, “There is no help I get from my school, except very basic education,” she whispers before leaving.
In 2013, the United Nations Development Programme ranked India No 132 of 146 countries on its gender inequality index. It was the worst performing Asian country, barring Afghanistan.
Last week, the first-ever gender audit of NCERT textbooks was revealed. It stated that though the books were largely gender inclusive and attempted to highlight gender concerns, some stereotypical elements did exist. The books often depict “men mainly in a variety of professions and women as homemakers, teachers, nurses and doctors”.
Over a year ago, when India’s capital was still reeling in the aftermath of the 16 December gangrape, the Prime Minister’s Office had asked the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) to emphasise moral science in schools and include chapters on value education in textbooks so that gender sensitivity and respect for women could be inculcated in students from a young age. The Justice Verma Committee had recommended that gender issues be integrated into the curricula at all levels for the promotion of equality and equity.
The HRD ministry had also called on school monitoring systems to incorporate a checklist of parameters to ensure gender sensitivity inside and outside the classroom. It was proposed that physical education for upper primary classes include training in self-defence for girls. ‘Gender sensitivity training modules for teachers/trainers will be in the form of advocacy programmes for sensitization and creating awareness,’ the Ministry had said in a statement.
‘Efforts have also been made to introduce value education and gender studies in the school syllabus. The syllabus will include introduction of value-based questions in the summative assessment- II in classes 9-10 and year-end examination of classes 11-12 from 2012-13,’ the Ministry release further stated. Its statement also said a task force had been constituted by the University Grants Commission in January 2013 to review the measures in place for ensuring the safety of women on campuses and programmes for gender sensitisation.
The audit seems to be the only positive step taken in that direction. Yet it seems that, despite the Ministry’s recommendation that state governments re-examine textbooks and curricula and that schools introduce gender modules in their training of teachers, attitudes don’t seem to have changed much.
‘Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; / Wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; ? Don’t walk bare head in the hot sun… / This is how to sew on a button; / This is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; / This is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming…’
—Jamaica Kincaid, Girl
It is 15 minutes to lunch break in a government school in Delhi and the children in a fourth standard classroom are far from getting restless. They sit enraptured as their calm, middle-aged teacher reads from a Hindi textbook. She is nearing the end of a story about a group of boys who attempt cooking. The class is hanging on to each word, and when she reaches the climax of the story—the boys fail and a group of girls saves the day because boys ‘obviously’ can’t cook—the entire class erupts in laughter.
A few boys comment and laugh at the thought of cooking, the girls smile and some jokes are made on the subject. Then the bell rings. The boys and girls self-segregate neatly into separate groups, with the boys making their way to the playground and the girls huddling together in corners of the classroom. A consciousness of gender stereotypes is clear in the way they interact with each other, even though they are only nine years old.
Post lunch, the lethargy in the air is contagious. Students lie almost sprawled on their desks as they wait for the last lesson of the day—on moral science—to commence. The teacher, who is supposed to have arrived half an hour ago, is late. Ten minutes on, it is time to go home. “Moral science is our favourite lesson because not only is it easy, Ma’am also doesn’t come often,” says Reshma.
Reshma is the daughter of a migrant labourer from Bihar who moved to Delhi four years ago seeking better prospects for his children. She has a 13-year-old brother, but they don’t really get along and don’t go to the same school. “He is mean to me and is always making fun of me because I am a girl. And also he gets to do things that I never do.”
She explains that after school is over, she is supposed to walk home and serve food to her brother, who returns from school an hour later. Then she must do her homework and perform other household chores while her brother goes out to socialise and meet friends, sometimes coming home long after dark. “If I ever did that, my father would break my legs.”
School is a respite for her, but still restrictive she says, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. She is pensive, measuring her next words as she looks down at her feet. “Most of the things that I like, I am not supposed to do,” she whispers, “like whistling and playing cricket. Ma’am is always telling us to behave like girls, to be polite, quiet and attentive. My mother says the same thing, but I don’t want to be like that all the time.”
According to a 2013 Sarva Shiksha Abihyan survey on Gender Disparity and Dropout rates in India, the son in a typical Indian family almost always gets special attention and care. The survey also highlights the fact that parents prefer to send their sons to prestigious private schools, whereas government schools are thought good enough for girls.
In a classroom in northwest Delhi, 36-year-old Vijaya Sharma is trying desperately hard to hold onto the remaining shreds of her dignity. As a sex education teacher, her classes double as moral lessons for boys and girls across schools in the capital. She is having a particularly hard day today because the Class 9 children in front of her are not interested in the subject; some are sleeping and those paying attention are doing so only to make lewd jokes; 20 minutes into the class, she walks out. The class erupts in applause at getting a relatively free period.
Government school children are harder to sensitise, says Sharma. “It is harder to get through to [them] because they come from an environment where their roles are defined for them from the start and there is little scope to challenge them,” says Sharma. Most teachers seem to have become apathetic, perhaps because they realise the onus of sensitisation cannot rest entirely on the school. “We can teach them all about equal opportunity, but what happens once they get out of school and go home and see those inequalities? Even if they stand up to them, they face ridicule in their family and community. They realise it is not that simple,” says Sharma, visibly angry.
In the distance you can see some boys head to the playground. There are girls too, but while the boys are immersed in the game, the girls huddle together on the bleachers and look on—obliviously passive, picture perfect caricatures of the stereotypes assigned to them.