After a gap of 34 years, the Government of India has recently released the New Education Policy 2020, which proposes a major revamp for the country's education system.
Taking into account the global and local demands of education, the policy focuses on imparting 21st-century skills amongst the students, while mentioning "full equity and inclusion" as the cornerstones of all education decisions.
However, given the current educational infrastructure of the country, this appears to be a far-fetched dream. In this article, we look at the intricate details of “exclusions” that this policy can potentially entail.
Given the current ground realities, the policy comes across as highly ambitious and rather exclusionary in nature. As per the U-DISE statistics 2016-17, 40 percent of schools do not have access to electricity, and 73 percent of schools lack access to computers.
However, NEP 2020 envisions expanding digital literacy and online learning for the students. In a country still struggling to ensure safe and equitable access for the minority communities, a staunch focus on digital and online learning reflects the misplaced priorities of the government.
In a policy document, usage of words often reflects the underlying priority of the drafting committee. A quick word search of the policy document shows that the word "online" appears 50 times, "digital" appears 36 times. In contrast, communities like lesbian, gay, bi-sexual find no mention in the policy.
NEP Silent on LGBTQIA+?
Here, we would like to emphasise the idea of inclusion, which empowers people by respecting and appreciating their differences in terms of age, gender, caste, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and nationality. NEP 2020 talks about providing "equitable quality education" to girls and transgender students.
The policy defines socially disadvantaged groups based on gender identities as, “particularly female and transgender individuals,” but completely ignores including students from LGBQIA+ (T already included) community.
This is highly disturbing as the gender identities do not fall under a binary, but are rather located on an entire spectrum of gender and sexuality. Gender issues are not specific to the transgender or female. Children discover their sexuality and gender throughout their adolescence.
It is crucial to provide specific importance to LGBQIA+, as most of the students (and the teachers) often assume others to be heterosexual. Moreover, it is known that schools reproduce society norms and act as potential institutions to challenge these norms.
A policy that claims to transform the educational space of the country must provide specific measures for making schools safe and inclusive, especially for the underrepresented minorities.
Furthermore, a 2018 UNESCO study found that out of 400 LGBT+ youth, approximately 60 percent of students were physically bullied in middle schools, and 43 percent of students were sexually harassed in their primary school, based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
This physical or sexual bullying had drastic consequences for the students, with a high proportion of students suffering from depression and anxiety, lower academic performance, low concentration in studies, reduced social interactions, and some of them ultimately skipping or dropping out of school.
The policy can no longer leave it for the schools to interpret how the safety and inclusion of all groups can be ensured. Instead, there is a need to lay down concrete measures to handle the menace of bullying and victimisation, to ensure gender-sensitisation of the school staff, and to contribute towards a healthier school environment.
Vocal for Local: Why Local Context is Key to Gender Inclusion
Additionally, the policy document also focuses on developing a "gender-inclusion fund" for implementing schemes to improve the access and participation of the girls and transgender students, determined by both the central and state governments. The central government will determine some schemes on priority.
In contrast, the state government will scale up existing local community-based interventions to improve the access and participation of female and transgender students. However, a crucial part seems to be missing from the policy document.
- How the central government will prioritise some interventions? Will it be based on some schemes which have generated a significant impact in city or district or state or a different country?
- Which community-based interventions will be selected for scaling up? How will community-based interventions be selected for scaling up?
A crucial component in scaling up these interventions is the "local context," which policy fails to address. These schemes work in a particular city/district/state/country due to their local context.
India is a vast country with local, regional variations such that local context differs even within districts due to which what may work in one community may not work in others. Thus, it is imperative to conduct more small-scale studies in different regions within the same state, generate local evidence, and then scale them up.
Moreover, this policy, like previous other policies, remains silent about sexuality education. UNESCO, too, promotes a comprehensive sexuality education to promote gender equality and structured learning about sexuality and relationships.
The importance of sexuality education in addressing gender issues cannot be undermined. It can help reduce gender-stereotypes, enable students to understand the diverse gender identities, and can prove crucial in combating high dropout rates for the vulnerable groups.
Talk Gender Early On
Moreover, India has high rates of teenage pregnancies and sexual abuse. Around 11 percent of the world's teenage pregnancies, which translates to 16 million pregnancies happen in India. As per the recently released NCRB report, 109 children are sexually abused every day in India.
As per the National Family and Health Survey 4 data, around 27 percent of girls in India get married before 18 years of age. Therefore, having comprehensive sex education programs within our curriculum is the need of the hour.
NEP 2020 should have emphasised incorporating such programs to help students widen their understanding of gender sexualities and relationships. It is crucial to start sex education as early as kindergarten.
Previous studies have also shown that starting sex education as early as kindergarten reduces the chances of sexual abuse of children. At kindergarten levels, the conversation can be about body parts, good touch, and bad touch.
It is also a good starting point to normalise the conversations around sex and sexuality, which in turn, can help in reducing the cases of bullying, discrimination, and social isolation in the schools due to one's sexuality.
Furthermore, it is crucial to focus on developing an inclusive school climate, along with an inclusive school curriculum. Currently, most of the curriculum does not include anything sexual orientation and gender identity, which directly affects the "equitable quality education" for LGBTQIA+ students, which the government intends to promote via this policy.
It also degrades the school climate (by increasing the rates of bullying and discrimination) and promotes the social exclusion of students who identify themselves as LGBTQIA+.
The benefits of having a good school environment cannot be emphasised enough, leading to low levels of bullying and peer victimisation, lower student suspension, and good psychological and behavioral outcomes. It also helps in improving student engagement within the schools and improved learning outcomes.
To conclude, NEP 2020 has become more gender-inclusive, with the inclusion of transgender and usage of terms like "gender." However, as discussed, it forgets to include the other minority communities, like the LGBQI+, and puts them in a vulnerable situation. It is imperative to understand that education is needed not only to generate employment but to construct a world free of discrimination for all.
Policy-driven by exclusion is only going to deepen the existing structural inequalities for the vulnerable communities, and hence, it needs to be relooked into before actually implementing it.
(Karan Babbar and Shreya Sharma are PhD scholars at IIM Ahmedabad. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)