Pratham, one of the largest NGOs working towards education reforms in India, released the 2022 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in January 2023. The report is a citizen-led nationwide survey of children’s schooling and learning outcomes in rural India. It accounts for enrollment rates, dropout rates, school infrastructure, levels of language and arithmetic comprehension, and teacher attendance, among other indicators.
The 2022 report reflects an increase in the enrollment rate amongst school-going children to 72.9%. Moreover, the proportion of children not in school dropped to 2%, reflecting a 2.1 percentage points reduction compared to 2018 data. These statistics look even more promising after a 4-year “plateau period” between 2014 and 2018, where minimal change was seen in the number of students attending schools, thereby stagnating the enrollment rates. Improvement in statistics also comes despite the Covid-19 pandemic looming questions on the status of attendance and learning in India.
A significantly positive development has been observed in the proportion of female students not enrolled in schools. The figures decreased to 2% in 2022 for girls aged 11-14 compared to 4.1% in 2018. Similarly, the rates fell to 7.9% in 2022 for girls aged 15-16 compared to 13.5% in 2018. Girls in this age group often group out of schools at the onset of puberty and menarche due to poor sanitation facilities. In fact, a 2015 report by Dasra found that as many as 23 million or 1 in 5 girls drop out of school every year upon reaching menarche. They miss out on 20% of the school year due to menstruation– the second most prominent reason for absenteeism after household work.
ASER 2022 notes that only 76.2% of schools in India have usable toilets, whereas 21% have unusable toilet facilities. Of these, 68.4% of schools have separate usable toilets for girls, while 10.8% have no separate toilet facilities. Moreover, it becomes imperative to look past the visage of national indicators to learn about inter-state disparities and performances. For instance, only 43.6% of schools in Arunachal Pradesh have a separate, functioning toilet for girls, 24.8 percentage points lower than the national average. Furthermore, 3% and 6.4% of girls aged 11-14 and 15-16 are not enrolled in schools in Arunachal Pradesh. On the other hand, 78.6% of schools in Tamil Nadu have separate, functioning toilets for girls. In tandem, only 0.3% and 1% of girls aged 11-14 and 15-16 are out of school in the state.
These disparities reflect the relationship between adequate sanitation facilities and keeping girls in school so they can complete their secondary and senior secondary education. In schools with common toilets, usage is severely inhibited during menstruation as girls are often embarrassed to share the same space with boys for fear of being ‘found out‘. Lack of functioning toilets results in 23% of girls dropping out of school yearly. Even schools with separate, functional restrooms for girls seem inadequate for managing menstrual hygiene in their design. An ideal sanitation facility would include enough space, light, seclusion, and disposal options for covertly changing, washing, and disposing of sanitary materials.
The data and the inferences, thus drawn, prompt the need to improve sanitation facilities for girls, especially pubescent girls, in schools. Espoused as an indicator under the Right to Education, the provision of toilets is instrumental in ensuring equal access to education by all. Argumentatively, clean usable toilets are a basic infrastructural necessity, but in practice, they are an additional incentive for female students to continue their education.
The Union Government’s ‘Swachh Bharat Swachh Vidyalaya’ (SBSV) will be imperative to achieving the dual goal of equal access to education and sanitation in Indian schools. SBSV was launched as a national mission under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014 to ensure functional and well-maintained water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities in every school in the country. Another vital aim of the campaign was separate, usable toilet facilities for boys and girls.
It is interesting to note that SBSV’s focus goes beyond technical and infrastructural components like washbasins, drinking water, and commodes to include human development components. The latter include “activities that promote conditions within the school and the practices of children that help to prevent water, hygiene and sanitation related diseases”. Therefore, SBSV can help initiate behavioral change in schools’ approach to sanitation by equipping teachers with knowledge tools to inform students about healthy sanitation practices. Adding conversations around menstrual hygiene management vis-a-vis the use of toilet facilities can also help tackle the taboo around periods. A combination of material and knowledge goods can be instrumental in lowering dropout rates among pubescent female students.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.