| K Hemalata President of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions CITU addressing the March to Parliament by Child Care Workers organised by the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers AIFAWH New Delhi February 2019 Photo credits CITU Archives | MR Online K Hemalata, President of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), addressing the March to Parliament by Child Care Workers organised by the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH). New Delhi, February 2019. Photo credits: CITU Archives

Navigating Educational Empowerment Through Life Conditions: A Study of Rural Women in Indian Punjab

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are equal, irrespective of their race, religion, sex, birth status, nationality, property, political thought, or language. Additionally, the principle of gender equality is also enshrined in the Indian Constitution in its Preamble, Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and Directive Principles. The constitution not only grants equality to women, but also empowers the state to adopt measures to ensure gender equity. However, in reality, vast sections of women are yet to experience basic elements of equality. Crippled by poverty, lack of social services and resources, ideological barriers, and the all-pervasive agrarian crisis, rural women are often subject to dispossession and deprivation. Although they bear the heavy burden of multiple marginalities, these women have largely (although with some exceptions) remained out of the purview of both feminist discourse and social science research.

Let us have a look at some crucial social indicators in the Indian state of Punjab, which is predominantly a rural economy with 62.25 percent of its total population and 70 per cent of its total workers living in villages.1 Out of the total rural population of 17,344,192, there are 8,250,716 women and girls. The average literacy rate for the rural population is 71.42 percent, with the rural male literacy rate at 76.62 percent in contrast to the rural female literacy rate of 58.9 percent. Though the per capita income and human development indicators may sound impressive, there is overwhelming evidence that the supposed economic growth has had minimal and inconsistent impact on gender equality.2 The state has a dubious definition for unequal gender relations, the symptoms of which include low female-labor participation, large gender-based educational disparities, strong cultural preferences for having sons, pervasive neglect of female children, costly dowries, and extremely restricted property rights. Among all of India’s states, Punjab has the highest population—31.94 percent—of Scheduled Castes, or Dalits, officially designated groups of historically disadvantaged people in India. Out of the total Scheduled Castes population, 73.33 percent live in rural areas. Thus, educational deprivation is an outcome of class and caste inequalities, as well as a reinforcer of such disparities. Inevitably, women are at the lower rung in this hierarchy of inequality. They suffer caste discrimination for belonging to a socioeconomically and culturally marginalized section of society, they have lower educational levels, and they also experience gender oppression. The hardships of Dalit women are not simply due to their poverty, economic status, or lack of education, but are a direct result of the severe exploitation and suppression by the upper classes, orchestrated by the skewed developmental policies of the state.

In this manner, rural women hardly find space in development policy or socioeconomic discourse and research. The conditions of rural women in Punjab, their educational status, and the constraints ushered in by neoliberal policies have been scarcely researched so far. Some exceptions to this general trend include Naila Kabeer’s interviews of rural women and girls about their life conditions and the significance of the much-hyped notion of women’s empowerment.3

Gauging Educational Empowerment through Life Conditions

The attainment of educational opportunities for the respectable survival of rural women is significantly constrained by a number of factors. During my interviews with rural women in Punjab, most of them considered negative parental attitudes toward female education a major reason for the shattering of any personal educational dreams. Along with caste, class, and cultural hegemony, patriarchal ethe are clearly reflected in the mainstream view that educating girls is an unnecessary expenditure and waste of time.

Rural poverty is also an important factor in forfeiting girls’ education. The story of 25-year-old Gurpreet depicts how rural girls’ educational aspirations are undermined by such structural philosophies. Gurpreet completed her class examination with first-division scores and was ambitious in her desire to pursue higher education. Faced by the death of her mother and bleak economic conditions, her father, who was a brick-kiln laborer, decided to marry her off at the age of 18, taking a loan from the brick-kiln owner. Similarly, a majority of women cited that their parents were not in a position to afford their educational expenses.

A woman named Rani, 28, is the mother of two girls. She earns a bit of money from occasional tailoring work that comes her way. She recalled that, after matriculating in school, she was married off despite her repeated requests to further her education. The dominant patriarchal ideology that marriage is crucial for a woman, even more crucial than education, is apparent in these stories. Women in poor rural households are burdened with significant responsibilities for the subsistence of their family, so how a family views girls’ education factors a great deal into their life decisions. It is clear that the strict socialization of women starts right from early childhood, during which she is to prepare herself to be an “ideal” wife and homemaker—that is, an “ideal” woman. She is seldom encouraged to pursue her education and to become economically independent.

Girls’ education in rural Punjab remains in a state of neglect, as documented by a number of studies. In a 2012 study, I showed that girls dropped out of school due to safety concerns, poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and parental attitudes.4 The lack of educational institutions close to their homes also remains a major constraint on the access of education after primary and elementary levels. Many women cited that parents find it unsafe to send daughters to school. The lack of educational institutions in villages gets justified by the poor academic performances, leading to the exclusion of girls after certain points.

The bleak situation of education for young girls is also evident in the notorious 1997 incident of Kiranjeet, a young schoolgirl who was raped and murdered while returning to her village from school.5 To this day, many such cases are reported daily and create fear among parents who dread sending their daughters to school because of unsafe environments. As a result, most girls are educated only up until middle or secondary school and fail to achieve higher levels of education. An equally significant factor is the absence of facilities, like girls’ toilets, in schools, which renders girls’ educational experiences discouraging, uncomfortable, and painful. At least 16 per cent of the 28,200 total schools in Punjab, including 19,500 government ones, lack toilet facilities for girls.6 Undoubtedly, the unsafe and ill-equipped school environment is a deterrent for parents weighing the options of sending their daughters to school. The lauded Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (Save Daughters, Educate Daughters) campaign and other expressions of the coupling of girls’ education with their safety are unable to change sufficiently the life conditions of rural women by ensuring safety and quality education. Girls are withdrawn from schools once they hit puberty if the school is far away and especially if the school does not have a designated girls’ toilet. It is unsurprising, then, that the school dropout rates for girls are much higher than for boys at the middle and secondary levels. Today, the educational level of women over 25 is lower than that of men. Despite the international praise for being the fastest-growing country in the world, India is one of the most unsafe countries for women. In the Gender Inequality Index of the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2016, India ranked 125th out of 159 countries.7

My field visits and discussions with rural women in Punjab present their on-the-ground realities, which are usually left out of the rhetoric around so-called development. Jagjit, a 28-year-old Dalit woman living in rented lodging, stated that she dropped out of school after eighth grade and is currently working as a domestic laborer in a landlord’s home. Her husband works as an agricultural labor whenever he can. It is she who carries the burden of running the family. She expressed how low wages and the rising cost of living have pushed her family into debt, which she is slowly trying to repay through her waged domestic work. Her daughter is studying in the local government school and has complained about the discrimination she suffers at the hands of upper-caste teachers and students.

My discussions and observations also reveal that Scheduled Castes women have abysmally low levels of education caused by devastating socioeconomic conditions. A 27-year-old woman named Guddi lives in a house with a broken wooden door hanging from a nearby demolished boundary wall. She told me that she had a strong desire to pursue higher education and was even enrolled in school to fulfil this wish, but the bleak economic condition of her father, a small farmer, pushed her to give up her studies. Her husband is suffering from kidney failure, her two kids study in a government school, and she works as a peon in a private school for eight hundred rupees a month. She borrowed money from relatives for her husband’s kidney treatment and still hopes that one day she will get a job or receive some help from the government for her husband’s medical treatment.

Such stories validate the 2018 Oxfam report, which revealed that when public services are neglected, poor women and girls suffer the most.8 And when money is not available, girls are pulled out of school first. Women rack up hours of unpaid work looking after sick relatives when the health care system fails. Furthermore, in Those Who Did Not Die: Impact of the Agrarian Crisis on Women in Punjab, Ranjana Padhi argues that the agrarian crisis has deeply affected the lives of rural women and children.9

The insights gained from discussions with rural women prompt one to think about how so-called development in the state—usually symbolized by things such as wide highway roads, urban shopping malls, and bigger SUVs—has pushed the poor into corners so dark that some are simply unable to carry the burden of livelihood. Gurmail, for example, lives in a small house with two rooms (one of the rooms has a partially collapsed roof from rain). She is a mother of two and her husband is undergoing cancer treatment in the city of Bikaner. Her daughter stopped studying in ninth grade to take up domestic responsibilities while she looked after her ailing husband. Gurmail’s and her daughter’s presents and futures are tied to unpaid domestic labor, most crucially taking care of their sick family member.

Clearly, rural women are bearing the brunt of the uneven rise of urbanization and developmental distributions, which have worsened since the dawn of neoliberalism. The ushering in of global capital, free trade, and the opening up of international markets have always been accompanied by a withdrawal of state support for education, health, life opportunities, public transport, and other vital social services, infrastructure, and resources.

Furthermore, the dwindling rural economy has largely pushed out the rural poor from the social and economic margins. A vast majority of Indian women are engaged in household chores, which are usually invisible, unacknowledged, and unpaid. Again, the matrix of class, caste, and rurality is visible in the work distribution as the majority of lower-caste women are engaged in informal paid labor, largely as agricultural and domestic workers. Upper-caste rural women, however, do not necessarily have better educational or economic statuses. Nevertheless, due to social barriers and family prestige, they cannot themselves engage in informal labor and solely depend on male family members for financial needs.

The ways in which caste interlocks with class and patriarchy are evident in the case of restrictions imposed on the mobility of upper-caste women in the search of viable work options. My discussions with many women revealed that among the uneducated poor women of upper castes, there is no tradition of working for wages in the agricultural fields and they have no alternatives other than to pursue upper-caste occupations at home, like weaving and spinning cotton. Such occupations, however, are disappearing in many village communities with the ever-deeper capitalist penetration of rural India. On the flipside, the livelihoods of Dalit women depend more on labor and agriculture due to lack of employment histories and marketable skills, and most of them complain about health issues, lack of security, and the nonavailability of health facilities in their villages.

Despite being from diverse social groups, almost all the women I spoke with emphasized the role of female education in overcoming the chains of poverty, poor living conditions, and traditional gender roles. It seems that when any woman occasionally obtains employment in the public sector, her family moves to the nearby city. Almost all women heartily wished to educate their daughters, noting that rural women seldom have positive role models in village communities and thus that young girls prefer to move to towns and cities.

Though the voices of rural women are some of the least heard, rural women are not mere passive victims of deprivations. In fact, many strongly condemn their marginalization and pauperization—they denounce the neglect of rural people through the flawed and biased developmental polices of the state, which they hold responsible for their hardships today. Their invisible participation in economic activities, very little representation in political decision-making bodies, and mainstream sociocultural attitudes reflect and reinforce the poor social status of rural women.

It is clear that the rising levels of development in India and Punjab have not translated into gender equality. WhilePunjab, one of the most developed states of India, boasts a high growth rate of general education and high per capita income, it is still lagging behind in providing the majority of rural women with equal life opportunities. The deepening stronghold of patriarchy on women’s lives ushered in by neoliberal policies and bleak educational and socioeconomic conditions all come together to deprive rural women of the material conditions necessary to lead a dignified life. Their emancipation from oppressive structured realities is possible only through a fundamental change in the structure of society.


  1. 2011 Census Data, Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, available at http://censusindia.gov.in.
  2. Naila Kabeer, “Women’s Economic Empowerment and Inclusive Growth: Labour Markets and Enterprise Development” (SIG Working Paper 2012/1, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London); Esther Duflo, “Women Empowerment and Economic Development,” Journal of Economic Literature 50, no. 4 (2012): 1051–79.
  3. Naila Kabeer, “Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Critical Analysis of the Third Millennium Development Goal,” Gender and Development 13, no. 1 (2005): 13–24.
  4. Satvinderpal Kaur, “School Dropouts at Elementary Stage: A Study of Selected Districts of Punjab,” Man and Development 34, no. 3 (2012): 117–26.
  5. Mehal Kalan, “Kiranjit Case: Cancellation of Life Term Sought,” Tribune News, August 12, 2005.
  6. Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2018 (New Delhi: Annual Status of Education Report Centre, 2019), available at http://asercentre.org.
  7. Gender Inequality Index, in Human Development Report 2016 (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2016), 214–17, available at http://hdr.undp.org.
  8. Oxfam Annual Report 2017–2018 (Nairobi: Oxfam International, 2018), available at http://oxfam.org.
  9. Ranjana Padhi, Those Who Did Not Die: Impact of the Agrarian Crisis on Women in Punjab (New Delhi: SAGE, 2012).