By Manasi Susarla*
India has always been a patriarchal, feudalistic society, and even now, it is. There are certain societal and cultural norms, so deeply rooted in our culture, that a shift in mindset for the better is extremely slow, and sometimes, even close to impossible. Even today, in the 21st century, we see oppression against women prevails in India in various forms such as female infanticide, female feticide, sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, child trafficking, and many other heinous crimes. While policy changes, awareness campaigns, sensitization initiatives have been launched by several governmental and non-governmental organizations like NGOs, activists, and private philanthropy foundations, what lies at the root of these issues is a very deeply rooted patriarchal mindset.
Dr. Urvashi Sahni, an Ashoka fellow, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in the U.S., an honorary member of the Clinton Global Initiative, and the winner of the India Social Entrepreneur Award, is extremely passionate about bringing about a mindset shift. A feminist at heart, Dr. Sahni is also an educator, social entrepreneur, and a women’s rights activist. In a candid, heart-warming, and extremely inspiring conversation with a few second-year students of IIM Ahmedabad, she talks about the importance of making education broader, wider, and deeper. Quoting Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Youth, “reading the world before reading the word”, she says that education is a very strong and powerful personal and social transformative force, provided we first transform education itself.
With the world changing so fast, and India’s rapid growth to become a one of the nations with the highest number of young people, it was imperative for the country to change the way it educates its young. The most recent National Education Policy (NEP 2020), a welcome step from the Government, has come in after having the same guidelines for education for 34 years. In some ways, it is a huge milestone for the country in terms of its education system. Dr. Sahni is a nominated member of the steering committee that will effective implementation of the NEP 2020 in Uttar Pradesh’s secondary schools. She believes that the Policy will drive the nation towards achieving learning outcomes that are currently desired and ensure that education has more real-life application, instead of what it is currently.
Propagating Gender Studies
Furthering thoughts on the transformative power of education, the conversation also shed light on the impact it can have on children of all age groups, genders, castes, and economic sections of the society. When equality is taught, it should be taught to both boys and girls – says Dr. Sahni. The psychological and social turn must happen with both boys and girls – where boys treat the girls as their equals, and the girls are aware, and they believe that they are equal to everyone else around them.
An entire section of the NEP 2020 is focused on equity and inclusion – making it favorable for a diverse set of Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs). One great thing is that the policy also identifies SEDGs as children who often drop out, are left unrolled, or learn less for whatever underlying reasons. This encompasses girls also, and the policy specifically states that its measures will be specifically targeted towards girls, again making a welcome step for today’s Indian society.
Building a Responsible Nation through its Youth
The current education structure and curriculum of India is sterile in producing critically curious and inquisitive minds. Dr. Sahni believes that the role of education needs to be to empower people to think critically and to question. Currently, it propagates rote learning and content-based learning, but does not teach children to question existing norms, answer important existential questions, and just to navigate actual life in general. Education needs to have a strong foundation in social justice, equality, gender, caste, and religion – topics of real importance and sensitivity in a country like India. According to Dr. Sahni, a deep, structural change, along with a reformed curriculum laying high focus on these aspects will enable development of a social, political, and critical perspective in India’s youth.
Dr. Sahni has worked in the field of education and women empowerment for over three decades now, and is the founding president and CEO of the Study Hall Educational Foundation (SHEF) – which works towards providing affordable and high quality education to disadvantaged girls from urban slums. In social discourse, there can be several forms in which one can raise their voice or bring about a change – these could be violent action, protest, community mobilization and many more. Dr. Sahni proclaims that she has chosen Education as her path and wants to be a Changemaker by making education accessible to as many people as possible and enabling them to be Nation-Builders. She says – “Start with small steps towards Change – one person at a time. Because Change is like a Rubik’s Cube – when one person changes, everything around them will have to change.”
*Pursuing an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad