The 8th of March marks the opportunity for the public debate cycle on gender equality to reach its annual climax. Every year, the press will refer to a wide range of women-related issues and (re-)publish the most striking, outrage-provoking facts and figures about gender discrimination. The gender wage gap, which has amounted to about 20% – at equal competence level – for several years in my home country, is typically part of the IWD ritual there. Alternatively, the media feature women leaders and role models. Did you know, for instance, that: “a recent Global Entrepreneurialism Report conducted by international bank BNP Paribas has ranked India on top for the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs. Conducted among 2,500 entrepreneurs in 17 markets spanning the US, Europe, Middle East, and Asia, the survey found that 49% of the entrepreneurs in India were women. India performed better than Hong Kong and France, which were next on the list. ” (The Times of India, 08.03.2015)

Nearly all around the world, the equality of opportunities between women and men is a concern – to a different extent and around different specific issues though. What is there to do about it? What are the barriers that cause gender discrimination and how can they be removed? Should we act bottom-up, or top-down? Should gender equality be legally enforced? As a case in point, positive discrimination measures such as female quotas are subject to heated debates.

The fact of matter is that legal provisions have their limits. Social norms do matter. Commonly shared representations of what belongs to women’s remit and what does not are deeply embedded in our subconscious. Instilling children what their gender habitus is about begins at an early age. People will often say that a little boy looks smart, while emphasising how beautiful his sister is. Or, to take the professional domain: because a “caring” attitude is seen as a naturally owned attribute of women, or perhaps even because it is believed to be a typically feminine attribute itself, the care professions (mostly undertaken by women) are rewarded little comparatively, given that those are often strenuous jobs requiring professionalism and qualifications. But things are changing, aren’t they? Many feminists active in the 80s actually express serious doubts about this. The truth is: no victory is won forever; no progress is automatic; and if things are changing, then most likely at a very slow pace. Because changing people’s mindset is not a piece of cake. To achieve social transformation, we must dig deep into the earth to remove the roots. Or, as the expression says: people’s attitudes are like ocean liners: they need time to turn round.

(Photo credit: pixabay-evolvingscenes)

(Photo credit: pixabay-evolvingscenes)

This is in great part what the challenge of girls’ education comes down to. When Educate Girls, for whom I am currently working, goes to a new geography and tackles the educational gender gap (i.e. the percentage difference in enrolment in school between girls and boys), one of the first steps is to reach out to the families and the communities, to open a dialogue and convince them of the importance of girls’ education. Several factors explain that in some regions of Rajasthan, the percentage of girls enrolled in school is 10% below boys. Push factors include a lack of basic infrastructure like water, toilets or a boundary wall around the school. Teachers’ absenteeism and antiquated teaching methodologies can also have a deterrent effect. Amongst the pull factors, the mindset plays an essential part. Indeed, the traditional role assigned to female implies that girls see to the house chores and care for their siblings, until they get married and go to live with their in-laws. In fact, in Rajasthan, 68% of girls get into marriage before the legal age of 18 and about 15% before the age of 10. Roughly put, a girl is rather seen as a liability to “get rid of” early enough through marriage. Hence the parents see no point in investing in their daughter’s education.

This socio-cultural factor is a major and hard-wired roadblock to girls’ education. Thus, tackling girls’ education in certain communities requires sustained endeavour. Trying to get to the roots of the problem is a bold but essential undertaking if we are to truly make things change and ensure girls have better life opportunities. After a door-to-door survey to identify out-of-school girls, Educate Girls volunteers knock again and talk about the multiple benefits of girls’ education in terms of income and health for instance, as well as about the children’s right to education and the fact that primary education is free in India. It may take several visits before parents agree to send their daughter to school, which contributes to building a deeper relationship and a sense of trust between EG and the families. In parallel, Educate Girls involves the whole village through community meetings to raise awareness about the importance of girls’ education; EG also helps school committees to gather together and discuss girls’ enrolment and school improvement measures. Last but not least, the school aged girls are then given a training in life skills such as communication, decision making, coping with emotions, etc. This training empowers them and enhances the image the girls have of themselves.

There is certainly no one-best way to bring cultural barriers into movement, but some key programmatic elements include, without a doubt, establishing a dialogue with all stakeholders and building trust over a long term presence on the field.

The high impact Educate Girls achieves would not be possible without the community volunteers’ presence on the field. You can listen to one of our volunteers’ compelling story here. Padma works for the cause of the girl child in her village and has recently been awarded for her achievement by Srujna and Monica Lakhmana Foundation.