Who will help her learn?

  • 14/11/1992

Who will help her learn? In 1981, there were 181.03 million illiterate females in India. By 1991, this figure reached 197.34 million -- an increase of about 16.31 million in just one decade. And, this occurred though the literacy rate for Indian females aged seven and above increased during the same decade from 29.75 per cent to 39.42 per cent.

Obviously, getting girls into school and keeping them there -- at a rate surpassing population growth -- is a major challenge that India faces in common with many other developing countries. As high female literacy is strongly correlated with low population growth rates, solving the former in fact would turn out to be a socially just solution for the latter. Hence, the urgent need to tackle female literacy.

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.

It 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 short-term priorities of the family would get precedence over the long-term interests of its younger members.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) 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.

Since environmental degradation is increasing in several poorer parts of India and other developing countries, this conclusion raises numerous questions about the nature of schooling programmes needed in areas suffering from an ecological damage -- heavy female work burden -- low school enrollment of girls syndrome.

In this article, which is presented as a tribute to mark Children"s Day on November 14, I will first try to describe the micro-situation in the Himalayan village studied by CSE and then go on to do some loud thinking about possible solutions to the problem -- both in the national and the international contexts.

SYUTA is a typically picturesque, Himalayan village nestled in a small watershed of the Alakananda river at a height of about 1,600 metres. Eight villages share the watershed"s environmental resources such as water, grasslands and forests and are socially, economically and ecologically interdependent. The first of the settlements is probably not more than 250 years old and there has been no new settlement in the watershed since Independence. Though British policy designed to increase agricultural revenues encouraged the establishment of the watershed settlements, they shared its ecological riches such as forests, water and grasslands quite amicably. But in recent years there have been some altercations over the sharing of common village resources.

Unlike many other Himalayan villagers, Syuta"s inhabitants do not have to go far to meet their forest-based needs because a forest of temperate and sub-alpine trees lines the ridge above their village. The forest has been declared a wildlife sanctuary and most of it is well-preserved except for tracts adjoining the settlements. These have been lopped and have suffered extensive cutting. The dominant tree species in the forest is oak (Quercus incana, known locally as banj), which is used extensively for fodder and fuel.

Precarious location
Syuta, located in a high-intensity landslide zone, is itself situated on an ancient landslide. Landslips are very common in the village, especially during the monsoon, but Syuta has not experienced a landslide in its existence. However, fields often get damaged by landslips and villagers have to spend much time and energy repairing the terraces.

Rajputs form the dominant community in the village and there are no instances of intercaste marriages or of any system of dowry. Polygamy was once practised in Syuta but the village is strictly monogamous now. Marriages usually take place between ages 18 and 23 amongst females and above 22 years amongst males, but among Harijans this drops to 13-15 years and above 18, respectively. There is no overt discrimination between sons and daughters, and though sons are certainly more desired, girls are welcome.

In 1987, Syuta had a population of 213, made up of 37 households. The population in 1971 was 157 and if the rate of increase is maintained, the village population would be 273 by 2000. The village"s male-female ratio is adverse for only 46 per cent of the population is female, which is in sharp contrast to the situation in Chamoli district, in which Syuta is located, where women have outnumbered men in the 1971, 1981 and 1991 censuses. The contrast in Syuta could be because of its backwardness and because male migration from the village is low. Nevertheless, even in Syuta, with male migrants excluded, there are fewer women in the working age group of 15-55 years.

Syuta villagers exploit a 183-ha area to meet their biomass needs of fuel, food, fodder and manure. The area consists of agricultural land of about 34 ha, homes and homestead plots of about 1.5 ha, and grasslands and forest lands of 157.5 ha, from which fuel, fodder and manure is obtained. With 37 households in the village, agricultural landholdings are small, nor are they growing in size. The fact is 6.6 ha of private land is lying fallow, because there is not enough labour to cultivate it.

Farming a tough task
Even though individual landholdings are small, agriculture is a back-breaking exercise for Syuta villagers, because they have to collect biomass resources over a large area to maintain the fertility of their small plots. Farming is carried out on narrow terraces, whose soil is so poor, it must be heavily manured. The villagers have no chemical fertilisers and depend entirely on cow-dung and leaf manure from the forest floor for soil nutrients. This requires each household to rear cattle mainly as dung-producers. The quantity of biomass material that has to be carried about for soil nutrition is astonishing. Syuta"s inhabitants collect about 40 tonnes of leaves from the forest for use as bedding material in cattle-sheds. They also collect about 100 tonnes of leaves from the forest and more than 25 tonnes from private land and about 275 tonnes of grass from the forest and nearly 210 tonnes, from grasslands, along with more than 15 tonnes of crop residues from agricultural fields, as feed for their cattle. This generates about 600 tonnes of manure, to be carried from cattle-sheds to the farm terraces for manuring at the rate of about 20 tonnes per ha per year. In addition, Syuta villagers do their farming, collect about 200 tonnes of firewood for cooking, graze their animals and perform a host of household and marketing chores.

And, the fruit of all this back-breaking labour is a subsistence living, eked from a total agricultural output of 47 tonnes of cereals, six tonnes of fruit and about 19 tonnes of milk, supplemented by a measure of debt and male migration to make ends meet.

The burden of work falls mainly on women, who form a majority of the village"s labour force. Of Syuta"s 92 main workers, 50 are women and 42 are men. Of the 115 men in Syuta, only 42, about one-third, are main workers, but of the village"s 98 women, more than 50 per cent are classified so.

Women also start working at a much younger age than men, who become main workers between the ages of 16 and 18 years. Before schooling started in the village, males would generally begin playing an active economic role at age 15, but because of a growing desire for education, the age to start as main workers is usually postponed till after 20. However, those who do not favour studies, join the work force at age 16-18.

Whereas all women main workers in the village are cultivators, only 25 of Syuta"s 42 male main workers (60 per cent) were cultivators. The rest worked in the service sector in the village or as migrants in other parts of the country.

Women not only worked long hours in the home, but their burden in the village"s agricultural economy also was inadequately shared by men. It is the woman who breaks up the hard earth, makes it ready for the plough, sows the seed, weeds the crop upto five times and then reaps it. They also pound the paddy to dehusk it, carry manure from cattle-shed to distant fields, do all the housework and the caring of animals. They must also cut and carry huge loads of grass and fuel from the forest.

Women, on the other hand, start playing an active role in the household"s economic activities even before they are 15. In fact, two village girls in the 10-15 age group have already begun putting in a full day"s work in agriculture.

The sheer drudgery and hardship of their daily lives is reflected sharply in the ill-health of most of the women and in their often early and untimely death. There is a clear difference in the life span of Syuta"s males and females. While nine of the men in the village were above 55, only three women had reached this age.

Increasing work burden
The work burden of the women keeps increasing because of increasing nuclear families and male migration. Coupled with a lack of health facilities, this results in a high rate of maternal mortality in the village. Whether the woman is young, old or pregnant, she gets no rest whatever the day of the week. Not only does the pregnant woman resume daily work four or five days after delivery, her diet remains meagre during her pregnancy, supplemented only by berries or other forest produce. There have been cases of women giving birth prematurely in the forest or in the fields and instead of benefitting from post-natal rest and a better diet, being driven back by necessity to their back-breaking schedule.

After two or three such pregnancies, the Syuta woman is spent and by her late 30s, she is aged beyond her years and death comes early. Most women in Syuta tend to die between the ages of 35 to 55, when they are still active workers.

A fairly frequent cause of death among women is a fatal fall while collecting fuel and fodder in difficult terrain. The narrow, mountain paths are slippery and weighed down by a heavy load of fuelwood and fodder, a woman can stumble and fall to her death, especially during the rains, when the grass and leaves is damp and heavy. It is not uncommon for a Syuta woman to carry a 70-kg load on her back -- about 50 per cent more than her own body weight. At times, the woman must climb trees to cut branches and leaves and run the risk of a fatal fall. Or, death can come because of a sudden forest fire that takes the lives of those foraging in the forest for wood and grass. About 10 years ago, such a forest fire killed a Syuta women and injured some of her companions. And, at least two women died in accidents that occurred during the daily exercise of collecting and hauling back fuelwood and fodder.

The hard life of the women also affects the life of their newborn. Rarely does the newborn get any special attention because with the mother resuming work in the fields, the baby is left in the care of the elders or older siblings, who take the infant along with them to school. Breast-feeding is irregular and this affects the baby"s nutrition, making it vulnerable to disease, and bottle-feeding is rare.

Given the heavy work burden on women, much of the work that"s left to be done is delegated to children, especially the girls. If the 1981 census definition of worker is applied, almost half of Syuta"s population would be classified as non-workers. But the reality is that many of the children who do not go to school perform housework that makes them vital in the village"s subsistence and market economy. If these children are also taken into account, then the village work force would increase by 56, with 34 males and 22 females. As most of these are mere boys and girls, it reveals the true scale of the economic pressures on Syuta"s school-going population.

The demand for household labour forces children into such household activities as collecting grass and firewood, grazing animals, fetching water, cooking and, most importantly, caring for the younger children in the family. Given the hours they work, some could be considered main workers and others marginal workers. Of 39 Syuta children aged 5 to 10, one boy and four girls aged 8 were deemed important workers in their families. One girl spent about eight hours daily on cooking, fetching water, cleaning utensils and babysitting her younger sister. Slightly older girls work at as important tasks as their mothers, assuming full responsibilities for grass and firewood collection, grazing cattle and assisting in farming tasks. Girls begin farm work long before boys. Two of the girls aged 10 to 15 were categorised as main workers because of full-time involvement in agriculture activities. Two more girls were categorised marginal workers because they were involved in agriculture for a major part of the year.

Besides household work, one of the 18 girls took the responsibility for milk-selling for two months, when the school is closed for the summer. With nuclear households growing, girls have become important as workers because a single adult female cannot meet a household"s entire labour demand.

Like girls, boys aged 10 to 15, also play an important role in many household activities, from grazing animals to collecting firewood for household needs and for sale. In Syuta and neighbouring villages, firewood selling is the main source of cash income throughout the year for about 12 households. This is the main occupation of the adult males of these households. Firewood selling reaches its peak between May and July and as schools are closed for the summer in this period, children also sell firewood to supplement the family income. Nine of 11 school-going children in Syuta, aged 10 to 15, are engaged in firewood-selling in May-July, making one or two trips per day to nearby Hindu pilgrim centres, carrying headloads weighing about 20 kg each. They earn upto Rs 12 per headload. Collecting and selling firewood can take up more than eight hours a day. Another activity for boys of school-going age is the sale of fruit, especially malta oranges, in winter. This entails two trips daily to nearby towns and yields an income of about Rs 10.

Long Working hours
The heavy work burden of Syuta women becomes evident when their working hours are studied. They get a brief respite during the lean agricultural period in January and August, which means they work for little more than nine hours a day. From January to June, they work for more than 12 hours a day, with the work reaching a peak of 13 to 15 hours a day in April and September. In April, when fodder is scarce and firewood has to be stored, Syuta women spend as many as 5 hours a day in farm work, 3 hours on fodder collection and 3 more on fuel collection. In September, they can spend upto 6 hours a day on agricultural activities and 3 hours on fodder collection. No wonder that for these women, life is an unending, backbreaking struggle.

The women are helped the most in carrying out their daily chores by children aged below 15. 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. Even if household activity such as cooking, fetching water and cleaning utensils are excluded, Syuta children still put in 1.4 times more work than men. This only proves that Syuta"s subsistence economy, built upon an interactive, land-vegetation-livestock system, is dependent greatly on the heavy work performed by women and children, with the latter doing household work also to free women to take up more productive work.

Neglect of agriculture
Agriculture takes up the maximum number of work hours in Syuta and though the village is relatively rich in natural resources, the villagers spend almost an equal number of work-hours collecting fuel and fodder. 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 and this could result in the neglect of farming. Already about 15 per cent of the agricultural land around the village lies fallow. Syuta may be just another Himalayan village, but it reveals very graphically the pivotal role that women and children play in the economy of such villages.

Syuta"s economy and ecology have considerable effect on the education of village children. In spite of its remote location in the high Himalaya, Syuta fortunately has a high literacy rate because there is a primary school in the village and this has enabled the village"s boys and girls to be educated conveniently. The village also has had a junior high school since 1986, and village literacy in 1987 was 54 per cent. However, though the literacy rate in Syuta is high, the level of education is extremely low. Nearly 70 per cent of those deemed literates have had only primary education (till Class 5). Only one person has studied beyond Class 12. Many so-called literates cannot read and find it difficult to write their own name.

School attendance is low, considering Syuta residents have the convenience of having a primary school in the village itself. More than 50 per cent of the 5-10 age group is not enrolled in school, though attendance does improve in the higher age-groups. Of the village"s 48 children in the 10-15 age group, 85 per cent attended school.

The attendance pattern indicates 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. As many as three-fourths of the boys are admitted to middle- or high-school levels, but 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. A study of Syuta village shows not only low levels of education, but also clear inequality between the sexes.

Inherited worklaod
As education advances, the dropout rate increases rapidly for both boys and girls in Syuta, and the student ratio by sex changes drastically. In primary school, the number of boys and girls enrolled is equal, but in high school, all the girls drop out. Both culture and the heavy workload on women are reasons for the high dropout rate among girls, who inherit their mother"s workload. And, higher education is considered irrelevant for women, whose time is spent in housework and farm activities. The girls, meanwhile, are needed by the family to help the mother to look after the young, fetch water and fuel and even cook.

Syuta"s literacy achievement is because the village has a school. But children who must go out of the village for their schooling, tend to stop their education after the primary level. Because parents cannot afford to send their children to outside schools, even boys tend to drop out. The local intermediate college is 10 km away and the nearest degree college about 31 km. This makes it clear that had Syuta not had a primary school, the attendance would be even lower.

Over the years and especially since the India-China war in 1962, the villagers" attitude towards education has undergone a slow change. Until recently, the army would recruit even those who had studied only upto Class 5. But this has since been raised to Class 10 and many Syuta families are now forced to send their children outside the village to continue their studies. Villagers who have enrolled in the army get to learn the benefits of education and this makes them enthusiastic about educating their children and they start them in school as young as 7, when most families put this off until the children are about 10. This increasing enthusiasm for education has resulted in a demand for an upper primary school (upto Class 8) to be set up in Syuta. With the setting-up of this school in 1982, Syuta children can study upto Class 8 in the village itself. But, clearly, Syuta has a long way to go in education, especially the education of girls.

All this has implications for the increase of female literacy in India and abroad, in countries with similar conditions.

As Syuta"s population grows, either men will increasingly have to migrate and send their money orders to their families or agricultural land will have to be increased even though this means a greater demand for soil nutrients, increased pressure on the forest fringe, a slow rollback of the dense forest cover and an increase in the work burden on women. As women already spend upto 15 hours a day at work during some months, it is unthinkable that they can do more work. Hence, much of the extra work burden will be delegated to female children. The result will be that even if the government provides educational facilities, these will be grossly underutilised because girls are the first to be pulled out of school because of pressure of household chores.

There are no systematic studies being done in India on documenting the work burden of women in different agroecosystems of the country and how this is changing with time. There is a definite need for such a monitoring programme. Data collected by energy experts does show wide differences in women"s work burden across India. In hill and mountain regions and in arid and semi-arid areas, where forests have receded or disappeared and agriculture remains poor and has failed to replace sufficiently the loss of forest biomass, women spend extraordinary amounts of time collecting firewood, fodder and water. For example, in Himalayan villages and in Thar desert settlements in Rajasthan and Gujarat, women spend 6 to 10 hours daily collecting basic survival needs.

But women in the rich plains areas, where forest biomass loss has been replaced in part by agricultural biomass -- as in the Green Revolution areas of Punjab and Haryana -- spend far less time on these tasks. However, the very poor women in these areas who don"t own land or whose land-holdings are slight, find themselves at the mercy of major landowners to meet their fuel and fodder needs. Unfortunately, the data is insufficient to show how such work pressures on adult females are getting translated into barriers to the spread of female education in different types of agroecosystems.

It may be useful to investigate whether the high availability of biomass in the tropical, humid environment of Kerala -- a state blessed with two monsoons -- was an important factor in the success of the state"s female literacy programmes. Women in Kerala rarely spend more than an hour collecting basic needs like fuel, fodder and water and their work burden is much less than that of women in most other parts of India. Various reasons have been cited by social scientists for the spread of female literacy in Kerala including a historical emphasis by the state on education and long periods of enlightened and socially concerned Left governments. But 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? If women in Kerala had to spend as much time on collecting basic needs as women have to do in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, would they not have been kept out of school so they could perform crucial household activities?

If some of these surmises prove to be true, then clearly the spread of female education will depend on how fast people can be pulled out of a subsistence economy so they can more easily buy water and kerosene, instead of fetching water and firewood, or on how speedily can their environment be regenerated so that the work burden on the female is reduced?

Apart from these possibilities, 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? Can the academic calendar be adjusted so that girls can stay out of school when the work burden on their mothers is at its peak? It must be remembered that the traditional school calendar was drawn up in many developing countries during the colonial period and is not based on local realities. Can agriculturists study agroecosystems such as Syuta"s and find ways to reduce the work burden on women? Is cow-dung the only way to fertilise Syuta"s fields because this necessitates collecting vast amounts of fodder?

Historians may also find it rewarding to determine how women"s work burdens changed in Europe during the wood crisis that predated the Industrial Revolution. How was their work burden kept from reaching the incredibly heavy load it has become for women in several parts of the developing world? Did a switch from wood to coal reduce the Western woman"s work burden? What role did colonialism play, firstly, by reducing local population pressures by taking away large numbers of destitute Europeans away to the Americas, Australasia and Africa, and, secondly by enabling a switch to a cash economy at home by importing wealth from and providing markets in the colonies? Could European women have been able to go to school if their work burden had continued to grow endlessly? Numerous studies have shown there is a strong link between increased female literacy and a decline in the population growth rate. Hence, would there have been an exploding white population if European women remained unschooled, as is happening in several parts of the Third World today?

However, even while historians, social scientists, environmental experts and others carry out such studies, the little data that is available clearly shows a programme for environmental regeneration, if organised and implemented efficiently, can help the girl child to get into or stay on in school. 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. The threat of impoverishment is ever-present in these regions and the demand for jobs is at the maximum during periods of natural crises, like the drought that is taking a toll in many African countries today. 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.

Gloomy as all this may seem, something positive that could be pursued is to exploit the existence of these vast numbers of unemployed and underemployed people worldwide, for they provide an extraordinary opportunity to undertake ecological regeneration on a global scale to restore the natural resource base on which the poor depend for survival. Such an initiative implemented throughout the degraded regions of South America, Africa and Asia would enable village communities to restore and improve local agrosystems through afforestation, grassland development, soil conservation, local water harvesting and small-scale energy development. As these are mostly labour-intensive activities, by generating employment worldwide in regenerating the environment would arrest the twin evils of poverty and ecological degradation. Economic insecurity today can become the basis of ecological security tomorrow.

Another initiative that could be taken is establishing a guaranteed Right to Survival for the world"s poor -- who, today, are ecological refugees from the barren Himalayan hills, the semi-arid and arid regions of the central Indian highlands, the degraded slopes of the Andes, the drought devastated soil of the Sahel, and the waterlogged and flood-affected plains of Bangladesh. This would enable the poor to stay behind and rebuild their devastated, ecological capital. Appropriate programmes would be needed to back up the legally guaranteed Right to Survival, providing the poor with jobs in ecological regeneration at a survival wage. Not only would this initiative make it unnecessary for people to flee when drought, floods or other natural calamities strike, but allow them to build up their ecological capital which would make it possible for the poor families to find the respite to send their daughters to school.

It is only when girls start going to and staying on in school that more Keralas can become possible, for high female literacy is a key factor in reducing fertility rates, according to demographers. Hence, getting girls into school and keeping them there is a major challenge facing humanity. The village of Syuta shows that mere investments in schools won"t be enough, investments in building up ecological capital will be needed, especially in the ecologically degraded, poorer parts of the world.

Are countries like India individually or the world as a whole prepared to take up this challenge, which can definitely be met but would require political commitment, deep concern for the poor and clear understanding of the linkages between education, environment and development so as to make appropriate interventions.

(The author is extremely grateful to his CSE colleagues who collected the data on Syuta, and, in particular, to Hem Gairola, who stayed in the village for several months.)

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