Sunday, March 1, 2009

Girls,Women and the Legacy of Mahatma Phule

It is common wisdom that literacy is a reasonably good indicator of development in a society. Increase and distribution of literacy is generally associated with necessary traits of today’s civilization such as modernization, urbanization, industrialization, communication and commerce. For the purpose of census, a person aged seven and above, who can both read and write with any understanding in any language, is treated as literate.

As per the 2001 Census, the overall literacy rate of India is 65.38%. The male literacy rate is 75.96% and female literacy rate is 54.28% Historically, a variety of factors have been found to be responsible for poor female literate rate,viz Gender based inequality, Social discrimination and economic exploitation, Occupation of girl child in domestic chores, Low enrolment of girls in schools, Low retention rate and high dropout rate.

A literacy rate of 54 percent means that there is a long way to go yet for women’s’ literacy in India to get to where it ought to be – a literacy rate of close to 100. But we should still be grateful for where we are in the journey and for the man who began it all, the mahatma of the 19th century who has been some what obscured by time – Mahatma Jyotiba Phule.

Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and his wife Savitribai were remarkable personalities, especially for their times. He started the first school for girls, at Pune, in the year 1848. He advocated Education for women- female students from the downtrodden (Shudras/ Atee Shudras) communities and adults. He started schools. He established institutes like the ‘Pune Female Native Schools’ and the ‘Society for Promoting Education for Mahar, Mangs’.

But of course Pune has forgotten all that. The historical structure where the school functioned was taken over by a builder, demolished and replaced with a commercial complex, but the government has now realised its mistake and wants this piece of history back. The structure was taken over by a builder, demolished and replaced with a commercial complex, but the government has now realised its mistake and wants this piece of history back.

More importantly or equally importantly, he engaged in his education at home too. Jotirao prepared his wife Savitribai to teach in the girls’ school, with a view to educating the women first, in order to bring in the value of equality at home. Savitribai had to face bitter opposition from the orthodox society of the time for teaching girls and people from the underprivileged groups in the school. Despite this bitter opposition, Jotirao and Savitribai continued their work with sincerity.

Interestingly, Mahatma Phule nurtured a favourable perspective on the British Rule in India because he thought it at least introduced the modern notions of justice and equality into the Indian society. Phule vehemently advocated widow-remarriage and even got a home built for housing upper caste widows during 1854. In order to set an example before the people, he opened his own house and let all make use of the well water without any prejudice. Similarly he started the infanticide prevention centre (’Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha’) for infants born to hapless widows because of their deviant behaviour or exploitation.


Considering the legacy that Mahatma Phule has left; grappling with issues that we have still not resolved more than 125 years after his death in 1890, he could have deserved better name recognition than having the building from where he ran his school for the education of the girl child being demolished by a nameless builder. May be Aamir Khan can add some other slices to his campaign to the defacing and destruction of historical monuments and give his legacy a facelift!

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