‘Men perform outdoor activities. Women look after the house.’ Families or workplaces – age-old adages are full of gender stereotypes in our society. TV serials or movies – women are constantly depicted as home-makers & those women who are outgoing have been shown as having deviant character traits. Patriarchy has gotten so ingrained in our society that even primary school textbooks show glaring examples of gender stereotyping.

According to the National Curriculum Framework, Indian education system is yearning to become gender progressive. Not only should the educational system of India give equal opportunities to students of both genders, but schools should also make sure that every academic curriculum, every amenity & even languages should be gender-sensitive. But the reality is far from this! From families to schools & even textbooks, all favor the male gender. Let’s quote an example – around a year ago The Hindu published a report on the analysis of 10 National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT) textbooks of classes 2 to 5 showing outrageous gender-bias. A Mathematics textbook depicted only men performing the jobs of a shopkeeper, a seller, a farmer etc; in an Environmental Science textbook, men were shown as doctors, soldiers to scientists and the women were shown happily doing household work. In all the illustrations in an English textbook, only one girl was seen wearing trousers. The difference is so stark that 56% of the illustration from the English textbook show only men and only 20.6 % illustrative space is given to women.

What children learn at a young age casts a lasting impression on their minds & their understanding of society. Twenty-one year old French social worker, Anais Leclere, analyzed these books and found out that all outdoor jobs or sports had been depicted using images of men – something that can be termed as “masculisation” of outdoor jobs. Women, on the other hand, were shown engaged all day in household work & bringing up children.

Gender bias has existed in Indian education structure even before the 1980s. In the 1980s, Narendra Nath Kalia, a professor of Sociology at the Buffalo State College, New York, published a book – ‘Sexism in Indian Education: The Lies We Tell Our Children’. Though rebuked by the NCERT which primarily prepares textbooks for Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) students, Kalia has not given up. After an analysis of 20 Hindi & 21 English textbooks from regions of Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, he points out that amongst a sample 188 lessons, 114 have male protagonists. Moreover, stories like ‘Resignation’ & ‘Dear Departed’ that are part of the CBSE syllabus have immense gender bias & contain conspicuous sexist remarks. Though the literary richness of the texts is not in question here, it can’t be denied that these stories are too archaic to be a part of the syllabus today.

A shameful fact for the Indian education system is a report published on 17 April 2017 on Newsweek titled ‘Five times India’s Textbooks have been terribly sexist’ by Eleanor Ross. The article talks about a Rajasthan Education Board’s Hindi textbook which says donkeys, like women, work very hard but sometimes get deprived of food & water. The article goes on about a Chattisgarh textbook which claimed working women to be the reason behind the complex economic phenomenon – unemployment, because, women were taking away men’s jobs. In 2017, a Maharashtra textbook was seen to not only promote dowry but also state that if a woman was physically challenged or ‘ugly’, her family had to pay dowry at higher rates.

 Though the CBSE board has refused to take responsibility quoting that they can’t monitor what would be published in private textbooks, the problem can’t be ignored. Chrisann Creado, a psychologist with above 12 years of experience in teaching in International Board schools says that textbook content does create a huge difference in the developing of a child’s morals. Non-stereotypical content like showing a woman changing a tyre or a man putting a baby to sleep will open up the minds of the children.

Education is the most powerful tool that can undo India’s history of gender discrimination. But the educational scenario is not that comfortable for girls even in the age of ‘Sukanya Samridhi Yojana’ & ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’. Though at primary levels, 48% girls & 52% boys get enrolled in schools, the drop-out rate – more than 30% – of girls is very high in the secondary level. Let’s explore the reasons that are probably behind this shocking drop-out rate.

To begin with, the problem starts at the family level where girls are told that marriage is the answer to all problems in a woman’s life. During a financial crisis, a girl child’s education is compromised over her brother’s. Education in India is often linked only to employment. It is presumed in many households that the male members are the bread-winners & the girls’ primary duty is to bear children & look after the household. Consequently, a girl child’s education is often not given deserving importance.

Lack of basic necessities for girls in schools also discourages many from completing education. Girls start menstruating after a certain age & lack of clean, separate toilets in many schools keep them away from education. A society free of gender bias is an ideal atmosphere to live in – both for men & women. Breaking the stereotypes in education will encourage girls to break stereotypes in the present day society & inspire them to achieve more than expected. With more & more successful women role models & professionals, society’s perception about women will surely change. But what is to be done in order to achieve this?

School is where the process should first begin. The Indian system of education has to rid itself of textbooks that are rooted in gender inequality. If girls are made to believe from a young age that their place is indoors, they will never be inspired to achieve anything outside. Teachers will play a key role in this as well. Educators need to be sensitized on the issue & instructed to promote gender equality in classrooms.

A census says that currently India has over 500 million internet users & the reach in rural areas is 87%. If this is true, digital media can play a huge role in streamlining the education scenario in rural areas. Through e-learning, the authorities can easily scan what is being taught & make sure that it is not gender-biased.

It goes without saying that textbooks promotion gender inequality should immediately be replaced. Illustrations should be such where both men & women are shown as equally sharing responsibilities – both at home or at work.

There is always a light at the end of a dark tunnel. A change seems to be sweeping through the Indian education system already – though slowly & silently.

In March this year, The Hindu reported that Tamil Nadu chief minister Mr. Edapaddi K. Palaniswami released a set of textbooks for the current academic year which was aimed to break gender stereotypes. T Udhayachandran, Additional Secretary, School Education Department said that these textbooks have a gender-balanced pictorial representation of roles. For example, a page shows a mother speaking to her children while the father is busy in a household chore. Another page introduces a mother as a pilot. A third page a child says that she lives with her mother denoting that the mother, in this case, is a single parent.

Kirthi Jayakumar, founder, Red Elephant Foundation, says that to make the generations unlearn what they have known about gender roles, children should be taught gender equality from a very young age.

Gender equality is not only about men & women. To give children an in-depth understanding of gender equality & make sure that no gender is associated with a taboo in the young minds new stories are being incorporated in the syllabus. One of these is a Class IX lesson on the life of the famous transgender dancer – Narthaki Nataraj.

If all states follow the footsteps of Tamil Nadu, then perhaps one day in the near future Indian education system will be purged off its gender-biased existence.