There is an increasing realization among reformers, development workers, and feminists that education is the most significant and strongest tool that can help achieve empowerment for girls. Various policy frameworks and programs are now set in this direction, and demand creating a positive environment for girls.
While several strategies and interventions (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Kasturba Gandhi Ballika Vidyalayas) have resulted in improved access to and participation in education in India, this has not resulted in the empowerment of girls coming from disadvantaged communities, where the majority of girls in India are growing up. These strategies have not worked because they do not necessarily tackle social practices, gender stereotypes, attitudinal barriers, and other socio-economic constraints. They have been more focused on imparting content using traditional methodologies.
My forthcoming research with Venita Kaul and Sandhya Paranjpe What works for teachers highlights the need to nurture empowered teachers, as a prerequisite to the empowerment of girls. This is because the teachers are responsible for the development of the girls. Thus they must be equipped with the kind of knowledge that girls can learn and then apply towards the challenges of their rapidly changing world. In addition, they must help support girls socially and emotionally, and be motivators, mentors, and friends. Teachers are also role models: influencing every facet of girls’ growth and the development of their innate potentials. The expectation for teachers to empower girls can only be fulfilled if they are provided with a supportive and empowering environment to strengthen their own capacities and to take on their roles efficiently and fearlessly. But an analysis of diverse social contexts suggests female teachers are situated in unequal power structures by virtue of their gender.
My research identifies seven key principles that education systems can adapt to empower female teachers in India to be effective agents of social change and become architects of girls’ empowerment.
Create a sense of a community engaged in a common mission of social transformation.
Teacher development programs and teacher management processes need to shift focus from mere pedagogical skills or disciplining measures, to evoke a sense of larger purpose and a social mission to empower girls in India, especially those who belong to the disadvantaged communities.
Move beyond literacy and numeracy.
Expanding the vision of education to learning vocational skills, sports, or confidence building through dialogue sessions will create multiple touch points within the school curriculum that allow teachers more opportunities to interact with and nurture the girls’ personalities. This approach moves beyond academic skills to life skills, where teachers provide mentoring and support to girls to develop their self-esteem, confidence, and sense of optimism in being able to exercise their own agency. This approach has more significance than classroom lectures in girls’ capability to determine their life’s choices.
Develop an empowering curriculum.
The education curriculum must be aligned with the larger vision of empowering girls and thus must include elements that help to build empowerment. The teachers must be capacitated in delivering this empowering curriculum. Firstly, by encouraging teachers to be familiar with the social reality of the girls in order to situate the pedagogy in the context of their learners. Secondly, by providing intensive teacher-student interactions within and outside classrooms that challenge existing power structures and relationships.
Ensure teachers are sensitive to social and gender norms.
The teacher development programs must prioritize gender sensitization, along with the training of all levels of administration and school management—including School Management Committee members, who need to ensure a supportive environment for the teachers.
Ensure teachers’ autonomy and flexibility with the curriculum.
Provide teachers with the flexibility to complete the syllabus. This, along with trusting teachers and encouraging teacher autonomy, allows teachers to pace their own teaching-learning processes to accommodate a more holistic curriculum, and to create the time and space needed for meaningful and empowering dialogic activities with the girls.
Ensure scaffolding for teachers through effective institutional provisions.
Empowerment of teachers requires that teachers at all levels of the education system be respected and adequately remunerated; have access to training, ongoing professional development, and on-site mentoring; and be able to participate locally and nationally in decisions affecting their professional lives and teaching environments. This also requires a comprehensive teacher development strategy focused on strengthening teachers’ agency through leadership, learning, and training.
Foster a “universe of care” at all levels of the system.
This includes from senior management to school heads to teachers, students and the supporting staff. Nurturing non–hierarchical relationships built on trust, value, and compassion creates a sense of pride and ownership of the school program by the teachers, who are then motivated to take on their responsibilities diligently. In addition, investing in teachers the right to participate in the determination of school goals and policies and to exercise professional judgment about what and how to teach invariably influences their ability to influence change and affect student outcomes, especially for girls.
The above principles—based on equity, diversity, and rights—function together to empower teachers to play an empowering role for girls. Empowered teachers can then be promoters of gender equality, organize quality teaching-learning processes that apply feminist pedagogical solutions, and create platforms for leadership and free expression that address the underlying social norms, attitudes, and behaviors that have prevented other strategies from empowering girls. As empowered role models, they can then touch the lives of girls in a number of ways and help them overcome challenges of marginalization, discrimination, and subordination.