South Asian conference on education stresses rights of every girl and boy

Organized by the Bahá'í International Community with the support of UNICEF, a regional conference emphasizes the need for moral education, higher levels of government funding, better mechanisms for community participation, and public-private partnerships.

NEW DELHI — Perhaps the most moving speech at an international conference on education here came from a young student from Nepal.

In a presentation at the "Education: The Right of Every Girl and Boy" conference in December, ten-year-old Akansha Dhungyha told of the deep discrimination she faced as a girl in her home village of Bhaktapur.

"In my village, they send the boy to school thinking that he will take care of the parents when they get older, and that the girl will go to another home when she is married," said Akansha, explaining why girls are often held back from school.

If parents do send the girls to school, she added, they enroll them in lesser quality government schools, while the boys are sent to private institutions.

"And there are a lot of girls who leave the school because of the lack of toilets," she said. "Or the parents take the girls out of school and ask them to get water."

Akansha's experiences highlighted some of the main points made by adults at the conference, which was organized by the Bahá'í International Community with the support of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other international agencies and organizations.

Some 150 governmental officials, international agency representatives, non-governmental activists, academics, and other civil society representatives participated in the event, which was held 17-19 December 2003 at the Bahá'í National Center (known as Bahá'í House) in New Delhi.

In speeches and panel discussions, they recommended a series of reforms in the educational systems of South Asia. Among other things, participants stressed the need for a stronger emphasis on moral education, higher levels of government funding, better mechanisms to increase community participation, and greater efforts to ensure local control over schools.

The aim of the conference was to strengthen and establish networks and partnerships among organizations in South Asia that seek to accelerate the provision of universal quality basic education to all children, and especially to girls.

"We here in South Asia are challenged by high numbers of children out of school," said Erma Manoncourt, a deputy director for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), India, noting that some 43 million children are out of school in the region, and that the majority of those — some 26 million — are girls. "It is only by increasing the enrollment and retention of girls that we can reach the goal [of universal education]."

In that context, participants engaged in a wide discussion of the cultural and economic barriers that prevent both girls and boys in South Asia from going to school. They also discussed the kinds of models and practices that were proving successful at increasing the number of school enrollments — as well as the quality of education that students receive.

Indeed, one of the key points to emerge from the conference was the idea that "quantity" and "quality" go hand in hand in efforts to achieve education for all.

"When we talk about access to school, unless there is good quality schooling, the demand for education will not be there, especially for those whose participation in education we are most concerned about," said Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, an economist from Oxford University who has studied the education system in India extensively.

Participants discussed a number of ways of improving educational quality. Among the steps that were identified were updating primary school curricula, increasing community participation, and giving localities more control over schools.

Another recurring theme was the importance of moral education.

"We really need to keep in mind: What is the purpose of education, what are we sending children to school for, and what kind of society do we want to create?" said Shireen Vakil Miller, an education advisor for Save the Children, UK.

Added Mervyn Fernando, the director of SUBODHI, Institute for Integral Education, in Sri Lanka, "School education does not prepare a child to live. It prepares a child for a job with certain skills. But even after grade 12 or 13, the child goes into society very ill-equipped to live life as a mature, successful citizen, because a lot of important things have been left out of our education system."

A focus on girls

The conference opened on Wednesday, 17 December with prayers and readings from many of the world's religions at the Bahá'í House of Worship here. Afterwards, in the House of Worship's visitor center, prominent officials and experts outlined the challenges and benefits of achieving education for all.

Dr. Sadig Rasheed, UNICEF's Regional Director for South Asia, gave the inaugural address, stressing the overall strategy of putting girls first as a means of increasing educational access for everyone.

"We know that some of the things that can be done to keep a girl in school, such as better sanitation, a friendlier protective environment, and secure, violence- and harassment-free, surroundings, also benefit boys," said Dr. Rasheed. "By looking after the most vulnerable, we make conditions better for all. By reaching those who have the most difficulty in accessing education, we assist the path for everyone."

Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations, talked about the importance of education — especially for girls — as something that is in the "enlightened self-interest" of society as a whole.

"Education for all — and especially for girls — is not only a human right — it is also in the best interests of society as a whole," said Ms. Dugal. "It is, indeed, perhaps the single best development strategy we have."

Ms. Dugal noted that the Bahá'í sacred writings stress the importance of educating girls —a point she said had been confirmed by recent educational and sociological research. Educated girls are healthier and more prosperous, and their families and children are likewise healthier and more prosperous.

"By every measure, every study, and every rational thought process, the investment made today in the education of girls and boys pays dividends that will last far into the future —and make the world a much better place," Ms. Dugal said.

On Thursday, 18 December, in panel discussions and workshops, participants agreed that a focus on educating girls has many advantages.

"We need girls' education because it is right and it is the key to social well-being and economic development," said Ms. Manoncourt of UNICEF. "We know from hard, empirical evidence that girls that are educated have healthier and better educated children."

Participants also discussed the cultural barriers to educating girls. "In much of South Asia, parents continue to envisage a strict division of labor between girls and boys," said Dr. Kingdon of Oxford. "They visualize the girl as a housewife and any economic return to the parents does not accrue to them — it accrues to the in-laws, when the girl is married and goes to live with them."

Any investment in education also leaves the household when the girl is married, said Dr. Kingdon. "This is compounded throughout South Asia by the existence of the dowry system, where the girl's parents must accumulate a dowry for the girl's marriage."

Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister of Delhi, said that India must work harder to overcome cultural preconceptions that cause discrimination against girls and prevent their education.

"We are supposed to be a country of wise men, and yet we are one of the most illiterate countries in the world," said Ms. Dikshit. "We have states where the girl fetus is still killed. Why are families choosing to kill the girl child even before she is born?"

"Despite the fact that my vegetable seller has a cell phone around his neck, he still does not think the girl at home needs to be educated," said Ms. Dikshit. "We must make education a habit."

There were five South Asian countries represented at the conference — Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — and participants representing those governments said all had a strong commitment to the goal of ensuring adequate basic education for all children in their societies, while acknowledging their shortcomings.

"Education is a fundamental human right for all people," said Jaskaur Meena, Minister of State for the Department of Women and Child Development in India's Ministry of Human Resource Development. "Nonetheless, we have a long way to go."

Ms. Meena said that in the South Asia region some 40 percent of all children in primary school drop out before reaching grade 5, that half the population in the region lives in severe poverty, causing a low enrollment rate, and that rural schools are often remote and poor in quality.

She said that India was nevertheless committed to providing education for all, and, to that end, has recently launched a major program, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which aims to provide quality basic education for all by the year 2010 by turning schools over to community ownership.

But some NGO representatives at the conference questioned the ultimate commitment of the governments, given the high rates of illiteracy and unschooled children in the region.

"It boils down to a matter of political intent," said Sanjiv Kaura, national convenor of an Indian-based NGO, the National Alliance for the Right to Education and Equity. "We need to try to put pressure on the government to increase resources for education."

Emphasis on collaboration

Others stressed the importance of partnerships between governments, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector.

"What we need are partnerships," said S. P. Bhagwat, associate director for government and media relations for World Vision, India. "None of us can really do it alone. We need partnerships between governments and civil society and NGOs, and corporations."

Amit Kaushik, director of the Department of Elementary Education and Literacy in India, said NGOs could be especially effective at reaching un-enrolled children on the margins of society.

"Most of the children who are out of schools are in groups that are socially marginalized or in scheduled castes," said Mr. Kaushik. "They are working children, children in the streets, children in very difficult circumstances, and so forth."

Mr. Kaura and others also said one of the best ways to improve educational access and quality is to increase community participation and to speed up the process of turning control of schools over to localities.

"It has been our experience that those schools work the best which are owned by the local community," said Mr. Kaushik, of the Department of Elementary Education and Literacy in India.

"The involvement of the community is vital," said Harun Ur Rashid, deputy director of the Universal Education Program at Proshika, a large Bangladesh-based development NGO. "If the community understands it is their school, the motivation to drop out is less."

One significant feature of the conference, said participants, was its attempt to bring together educational specialists and activists from a wide range of organizations, including not only NGOs and government representatives, but also representatives of teachers' unions and private industry.

"This is a very diverse group of people," said Dr. Kingdon. "This is the first time, for example, that the teachers' unions have been invited to a conference like this." In many parts of South Asia, teachers' unions are seen as resistant to change — and private industry is seen as out only for profit.

Ramesh Joshi, deputy general secretary of the All India Federation of Teacher's Organizations, said he appreciated the inclusive nature of the December conference. "Teachers' organizations are powerful instruments of change and they should be taken into the partnership rather than taken as opponents," said Mr. Joshi.