An assessment of right to elementary education for a girl child in India: a review of international and national law.

Author:Virk, Ashish

    Jean Jacques Rousseau, the political scientist and preacher of 'Social Contract Theory', while commenting on feminism and female education said, 'Educate women like men, and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us.'

    On this Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist replied 'I do not wish them to have power over men, but over themselves.'

    Education is a human right with immense power to transform. on its foundation rest the cornerstone of freedom, democracy, and sustainable human development. Education is desired, as it opens up a vast world of opportunities and ideas to the educated person. It is also of great instrumental value in the process of economic growth and development. Education plays a critical role in demographic transition, female education, in particular, is seen as important in the process of economic growth and development (Bajpai, 2006: 332). (1) The right to become educated has been long sought after by women. The history of women's education parallels the beginning of feminism. Women have made huge strides towards receiving an equal education, but there is still much more to be done. Education has been the stumbling block keeping women from attaining equal status in society, separating them from their male counterparts. It has also been the door to the elusive dream of equality. Before women gained the right of education, they were perceived as low-class citizens, not worthy of voting or owning property, or any number of other inalienable rights. However, many believed that they should not hold the power to influence politics or even make decisions about their own property. Women were stripped off their dignity and privileges by men of the community and even by their own husbands. They were finally able to break free from these social constraints through education. It is often observed that most of the early feminists were set apart from their fellow ones by education. They were educated and through this knowledge gained a sense of self-worth and the power to change history.

    The struggle for women's education has been an uphill battle that has not yet reached its end. The journey took root in the Victorian Era and continues to be a source of struggle even in modern times. During the mid-eighteen century, hundreds of women were expected to live against feminine ideas. This common ideology, required women to be 'pure, pious, domestic and submissive.' It was believed that none of these ideals would be achieved through education. In fact, receiving an education in the Victorian Period was considered an 'act of nonconformity.' A woman could not fill her preordained place in society if she was wasting her time gaining knowledge. Education was thought to make women discontented with their current status, and possibly even irritated with men. Education for women was thought firstly, to disrupt the social balance of the time and secondly, educated women risked brain fever or sterility. The earliest push for Victorian women to become educated was because they were mothers of men and eventually teachers of men. It was not until the twentieth century that women began to desire knowledge for themselves as individuals (Women's Issues: Then & Now, 9 July, 2007). (2)

    In The Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1793, now considered a classical work of feminist history, Mary Wollstonecraft, (Britannica, 2004: 196) (3) argued primarily for the right of women to be educated. she believed that it is through education that emancipation would come. In defending this right, Mary Wollstonecraft, accepts the definition of her time that women's sphere is the home, as she doesn't isolate the home from public life as many others did. For her the public life and domestic life are not separate, but connected. she also argues that educating women will strengthen the marriage relationship. A stable marriage is a partnership between a husband and a wife, a marriage is a social contract between two individuals. However, Rousseau, the defender of personal rights, did not believe that such individual liberty was for women. Woman, for Rousseau, was incapable of reason, and only man could be trusted to exercise thought and reason. Thus, for Rousseau, women could not be citizens, only men could. Mary Wollstonecraft was a critique of Rousseau as she argued that bringing together feeling and thought, rather than separating them and dividing them, one for women and the one for man, was not a socially correct theory (Lewis, 9 July, 2007). (4)

    During the time of the ideal subservient woman, a few bold women and events internationally stand out as milestones in history. The first is in 1833, when Oberlin College was founded. It was the first university to accept women and black students. The other important event was the Seneca Falls Convention, July 19-20 1848 (Britannica, 2004: 15). (5) The Declaration has been called the single most important document of the nineteenth century American women's movement. Appearing in additional to issues of suffrage was education and employment. Elizabeth Blackwell, a citizen of the UK, became the first woman in USA to graduate in medicine in 1849 (Britannica, 2004: 24). (6) In 1877, Helen Magill became the first woman in the USA to earn her PhD. (Women's Issues Than & Now, 9 July, 2007). (7) There are many other events along the path to education that helped women to achieve the status they enjoy today. However, obtaining education remained largely a privilege rather than a right, till mid twentieth century. The above brief chronology merely traces a few of the hundreds of thousands of victories women had to win in order to become educated. The next part of the article will discuss the role of United Nations in the development of international legal provisions granting and safeguarding the educational rights of women.


    'Investing in girls' education delivers well-known returns. When girls' are educated, they are more likely to earn higher wages and obtain better jobs, to have fewer and healthier children and to enjoy safer childbirth.'

    United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon


    over the past six decades, different modes of interpretations and meaning on the idea of gender equality, a value reflected in the UN Charter, have emerged. A new constituency in UN politics called 'women' was created and the entry of a powerfully endorsed idea called 'women' in UN thought. The quest for what equality actually means for women has never ceased both within and outside the UN system. As the institutional focus and composition of the UN evolved over the decades, and as the themes, slogans and formulae for realizing the organization's goals changed and expanded, women worked to ensure that the idea of overcoming inequality was recognized in all these transformations. Women's participation with the UN's work in development basically questioned and changed the foundations of its knowledge base, especially as regards its practice. Education as a human right was always on the agenda of the UN (8); however, the international body targeted the issue of female illiteracy

    exclusively. In 1949, the UN sent questionnaires to thirty-two countries concerning opportunities for women in education and the professions. It also launched a complementary study on the extent to which these opportunities were actively realized in the field of women's education. The study aimed to establish the nature and causes of the obstacles that hindered full equality of educational opportunities for women.

    Although statistics were collected from member countries, the UN used non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations to obtain qualitative information. It set up a committee of experts that consisted of mostly women educationists and social workers, including representatives from the Inter-American Commission of Womenand the Muslim-Arab League. According to the Committee of Experts of the United Nation's Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO),

    '[I]f women do not possess the same educational facilities as men, it is not for any psychological or pedagogical reason that could justify the existing qualitative and quantitative difference between the opportunities offered to boys and girls. The only established differences in intellectual aptitudes are differences between individuals and not differences between sexes' (Jain, 2006: 31). (9)

    The above initiative was the first step by this international organization, after similar attempts undertaken by the League of Nations towards the education of women. (10) This was favoured by the various conventions, declarations etc; both at international and regional levels, for taking effective steps for imparting education to women. some of these provisions under various documents are discussed below. The scope of education is quite vast and so the proceeding parts of this article will mainly deal with elementary education (11) of the girl child internationally as well as nationally.


    This Convention was the result of eleventh session of UNESCO in Paris from 14t November to 15th December, 1960. The Convention's Article 1 provides that the State can establish or maintain separate educational systems or institutions for pupils of the two sexes, only if their educational systems or institutions offer equivalent access to education. Under Article 4, an obligation is imposed on state parties to promote and develop a national policy...

To continue reading