From schools in Ludhiana, to Delhi, Author and journalist Amrita Tripathi finds out whether and how deeply children themselves internalise biases and prejudices, how they actualise stereotypes as learned behavior, imitating what they see, as they grow up.
There’s no question that in India, discrimination against the girl child in many cases, starts before birth. For the moment, leave aside India’s staggering problem of gender biased sex selection and sex selective elimination, evident from the skewing of the child sex ratio: From 927 girls to 1000 boys in 2001, to 918 girls to 1000 boys in 2011.
If a girl is born, her struggle is really only just beginning.
“Numerous studies point that once a parent learns the gender of a child, the nutritional investment in the child varies,” says the Country Director of Girl Rising India, Nidhi Dubey, noting the staggering cases of sex selective elimination. “And if girls are allowed to be born, behavioural, infrastructural, socio-cultural barriers keep them from availing opportunities. The perception of how the primary role of a woman is to be someone’s wife or a mother-in-waiting is the most rampant form of discrimination that begins during early childhood and ceases to stop! So much so, it impacts the way girls value themselves in their own eyes.”
And that’s what is really telling — how deeply children themselves internalise biases and prejudices, how they actualise stereotypes as learned behaviour — subconsciously replicating actions and vocalising what’s been said at home, picked up from family, teachers, elders… imitating what they see, as they grow up.
In our unguarded moments, we’ve all done it. Right? Made fun of different ethnic groups, marginalised people, used common ethnic slurs, or disparaging terms as insults? Haven’t you made sexist jokes with your friends? Or in an office setting? (Don’t be such a girl! Grow a pair! Stop being such a wimp…What are you, a girl?) Where did you learn this sort of behaviour — popular culture apart?
So much of it is social conditioning.
Anyone who comes into contacts with children, with students cant’ but remark on how avidly they imbibe things — lessons, facts about the world, and yes, even prejudice. And the stereotypes are evident to anyone within the school system, even at private schools in the metros. Madhulika Sen, Principal of Tagore International School in Delhi says, tellingly, “Girls today still have to help out in household chores, something the boys are excused from; wear ‘not revealing’ clothes; playing with stereotyped toys etc.”
Though she feels she’s seen a “major leap” in terms of stereotypes changing, many persist. “It is still a matter of concern if a girl travels to and from school alone, especially by public transport. We have girls telling us about their parents underestimating their abilities in subjects like Math and Science, refusing to let them train for a sport or not permitting them to go to a party, especially if there are likely to be boys there; or throwing a fit when they put their pictures up on social media,” Ms Sen recounts.
I visit a school in Jagraon, district Ludhiana, with the team from Girl Rising India one hot day in July, listening in to their focus group discussion with students and teachers.
They ask the students a range of questions, including who their heroes are. The answers are hardly surprising — mother, father… mother and father… mother, father, principal… mother, father, principal and teachers…
It really reinforces how easy it is to have herd mentality at this (or any?) age. Mind that these answers are given though the questioner was looking for Bollywood influences. One bright girl says Amitabh Bachchan, but she’s the only one to stray from the popular chorus.
These are 8th and 9th graders, and while they’re sitting split by gender, there’s also some healthy inter-group rivalry and ribbing going on. But you get the feeling they don’t really want to rock the boat.
They really come into their own, when they are asked questions on what the main difference is between a girl and a boy.
The way they walk, say a couple of kids. And demonstrate, when asked.
Their attitude, both girls and boys say. Apparently girls have more attitude.
While girls are acknowledged to be determined, by both girls and boys, interestingly, both groups feel boys are the strong ones.
Girls cry, they’re weak and soft, we’re told (by both girls and boys).
One kid — a very vocal and bright boy — says that this is probably true even in the army. (The only silver lining is that when he repeats this later individually, he’s called out by a girl.)
Girls are emotional, no? They get scared, we’re told.
Boys don’t, apparently.
Girls quietly later say that boys also cry, but hide it (one girl says in a smaller group of three later, that boys are “dheet”, which gets the laughs, and evokes a sense of relief, but maybe it’s harder to say in a big group).
Girls are caring, most agree, and are good cooks, the girls say. (Though some boys say that boys are too).
They almost all agree that girls are weak. Which isn’t surprising to hear, or it shouldn’t be, at any rate. But somehow it is startling. And trust me, it is sad to hear. Especially coming from the girls themselves.
We watch a girl and boy enact how the different genders walk — they show the boys walking with swagger. Attitude evident in the stride, shoulders pushed back, but it’s still a funny caricature. Right? (Until you think of the ‘weaker’ boys, the ‘effeminate’ ones, the ones who can’t really conform to a stereotype)
The boy and girl both imitate a girl walking coyly, hand to mouth, preening herself, giggling into her hand here and there.
How much of this is learned behaviour? And what ends up being reinforced in the classroom or school?
“It’s sad that these biases are so engrained in our systems that we do not realise it until someone points them out for us,” Ms Dubey says. “Recently, in a village in Rajasthan, during a meeting with government school teachers, an interesting incident came to the fore. After the mid-day meal, this teacher would ask girls to wash the dishes without realising that excluding boys from this task was reinforcing the belief that girls are supposed to be leading kitchen chores.” She adds that the teacher was made aware of his behaviour and how he was reinforcing stereotypes and has now started including both boys and girls in the task.
Change is possible. Even on a micro-level.
There’s a video I watch — shot at a school in Goregaon by film-maker Suchita Bhhatia, who shoots these reportedly untutored remarks from children as young as 8 and 9.
A little boy says that in his village, most girls stay home, which is “what happened to his mother, too”.
A young girl talks about societal biases: “They think girls shouldn’t study, they will marry and go away”.
“People think that the boy will study and earn money, but the girl’s marriage and dowry will have to be spent on,” a boy says very earnestly, adding that as an old tradition, the girls were killed at birth.
It’s heart-breaking but incredibly moving to see these children voice some of this and tell you exactly what’s wrong. It makes you stop to think about all the challenges we have ahead.
There are multiple things that need to change, societally, as Ms Sen points out. From laws to infrastructure, including safe roads, to societal changes including families being brought on board to support education. And even individual schools, individual women need to step up. “I haven’t understood why some schools, who should be progressive in thought, have replaced the girls’ skirts with salwar kurtas,” she says. “Sadly, it is more often than not the woman herself who is responsible for this mindset. I see mothers who walk into my office after the father and the children, and stand till they are seated. If the women themselves show they are satisfied with taking a backseat, who can help them?”
Ms Dubey has a counter-point to that…perhaps driving her more optimistic take. “There are just so many examples that have time and again, reinstated my belief in how change is possible. Recently, at a Girl Rising screening in Alwar, Rajasthan, a woman member of Panchayat spoke on the importance of girls’ education, while she was in veil. I find that especially empowering- because she didn’t have to disengage from the local settings, or adorn the stereotypical image of a woman who revolts — to be heard.”
It’s an empowering moment, she feels. “She addressed a gathering of 100+ community members and said that she is illiterate, and understands very well that it has deprived her of opportunities. She went onto say that she’ll work towards getting girls in her village to be educated, and help realise their potential. Changing mindsets and behaviours is a slow and hard process but every little step, every little voice counts.”
It really is the individual stories that stay with us, no?
The kids from that school in Goregaon go on to say that we have to think differently, not just rely on “tradition”. One girl talks about her own father ensuring that the family treats both her and her brother equally — in this case that means they both go to the municipal school, instead of her brother getting special treatment and being sent to a private school, as the mother wanted. Her smile is guaranteed to lift your spirits.
As Ms Dubey says, and so many of us feel: “Where you are born, what gender you associate with should not be the basis on which your opportunities unfold.”
At the end of the day, it’s such a personal journey for each family, but like a giant 3D jigsaw, it’s monumentally important that it comes together. What is the example we’re setting, after all?
These bright young minds, all too often they learn that bias is okay, that discrimination is the way of the world. Of course they aren’t born thinking it’s okay to be sexist or misogynistic. It’s what we — collectively — teach them.
And that’s a sobering thought.
And while some of the school kids in that school I visited in Ludhiana said they don’t like film heroes because they’re fake, there’s some comfort in having a Shah Rukh Khan recite: “You’re beautiful because you fight like a girl.”
Now let’s go learn that up, instead of his filmy dialogues!
Amrita Tripathi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She tweets @amritat