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Education Plus Development

Will we ever be able to read? Barriers for tribal girls in India

India’s scheduled tribes, or Adivasis, are a historically excluded community, marginalized by their geographic isolation and their social, religious, linguistic, and cultural distinctiveness. Their powerlessness as a community is compounded by systematic barriers that prevent them from accessing their rights to opportunities and resources. Not surprisingly, within such marginalization, girls in Adivasis communities experience significantly greater exclusion in the above domains on the basis of their gender.

adivasi girls


Source: CARE India.

While access to education is generally viewed as a vital pathway to empowerment for marginalized communities, children from Adivasi communities face a significant barrier before they even come to school: language. As they speak various dialects at home, they arrive at school unable to participate in learning transactions that take place in the state or mainstream language, Odiya. In this regard, reading in the mainstream language is an essential skill to acquire as quickly as possible.

The girls from tribal schools face three unique barriers in acquiring early grade reading skills in the state language: social, pedagogical, and policy. Social barriers include issues of constraints on their time or few educational resources in the home. For example, girls from tribal communities shoulder household responsibilities that prevent them from learning the state language through interacting with members of the community outside the home. They may also be first generation learners and receive no introduction to literacy skills from their parents. Thus, girls enter school at the age of 6 without knowledge of the language in which classroom transactions are taking place. They go to school but they do not understand, participate, or learn. While boys face similar challenges, they are often able to graduate to the next level of schooling despite having the same level of reading skills, as parents sometimes find more value in educating them. Girls more often than not lose the battle as they do not have the power to negotiate continuing their education.

The pedagogical barriers refer primarily to the teaching and learning transactions that happen in schools with large populations of Adivasi children. These schools have few teachers from the tribal communities who can understand the language of children in a classroom. They are thus taught mostly by non-tribal teachers, who often have low expectations of their ability to learn. This reinforces feelings of unworthiness, which can be especially harmful for girls from excluded communities who already face the social barriers discussed above. Through my work at CARE India, I have observed teachers frequently pointing out mistakes that Adivasi children make or remind them that they can never learn because they belong to excluded families with limited capabilities. These instances have been shared by the children we work with as well. These disempowering classroom interactions are accentuated by corporal punishment that still exists in large parts of the country, leading to an environment of fear and lack of safety among girls.

The final barrier deals with a weak multilingual policy environment in states where Adivasi reside. Existing models of language instruction being practiced in schools do not include the process of transition from mother tongue to mainstream language, thereby excluding children from marginalized and linguistically diverse communities. As a result, the school system mirrors the larger society, ignoring the learning needs of children who come from diverse cultural, economic, and linguistic backgrounds. This exclusion adds to the burden on vulnerable children, especially girls who are already disadvantaged before and after school.

As an Echidna research fellow, I will explore more intensively the various social, pedagogical, and policy barriers and enablers that hinder or ensure girls’ education in tribal settings in the state of Odisha, where government primary schools have large numbers of children from the Adivasis. By focusing on their access to a quality early grade reading program, this research will identify policy gaps in addressing their needs. The research will provide evidence to guide the development of multilingual policy in those states of India that do not have it and will review the policy for strengthening, wherever it is available, specifically keeping the focus on the needs of the Adivasi girls. In doing so, this research aims to help achieve the kind of education that will equip the Adivasi girls with voice and power to negotiate for their rights in their communities and in the larger world.

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