The literacy rate is generally considered as one of the important indicators of the development of a population and the educational level of a population is seen as an important determinant of its quality of life. Education interacts with other human development variables in many crucial ways. Women education plays important role in Cultural and traditional values stand between girls and their prospects for education. The achievement of girls’ right to education can address some of societies’ deeply rooted inequalities, which condemn millions of girls to a life without quality education-and, therefore, also all too often to a life of missed opportunities. Improving educational opportunities for girls and women helps them to develop skills that allow them to make decisions and influence community change in key areas. The improvement in literacy has been relatively slow in West Bengal, especially for women. While rural female literacy is lower than in urban areas, it has improved more rapidly in recent past. This paper aims to find out the causes and consequences of illiteracy among women and also make some recommendations for betterment of women.

Author: Dr. Sanghamitra Adhya

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Assistant Professor in Geography, Kalyani Mahavidyalaya.

Published in: Contemporary Researches in Education, Edited by Dr.Asha J.V. and Naseerali M.K.



Basic education provides girls and women with an understanding of basic health, nutrition and family planning, giving those choices and the power to decide over their own lives and bodies. Women’s education leads directly to better reproductive health, improved family health, economic growth, for the family and for society, as well as lower rates of child mortality and malnutrition. It is also a key in the fight against the spread of HIV & AIDS. It reduces female infant mortality and child mortality rates. Educating girls and women is an important step in overcoming poverty. Inequality and poverty are not inevitable. “The focus on poverty reduction enables the right to education to be a powerful tool in making a change in the lives of girls and women.

Women in West Bengal are commonly portrayed as among the most oppressed and majority of them are grounded in both poverty and patriarchy. Patriarchy limits women’s ownership and control of property and other economic resources including the products of their own labour. Women’s mobility in West Bengal is constrained and their access to education and information hindered. They are practically excluded from decision making. Preventable diseases and unequal access to health care still affect women and girls, especially those in rural sector. Despite the land of various political, social, economic and cultural movements, the state has failed to organize a movement for development and upliftment of women as an entire class. The problem of gender inequality and discrimination is interlinked with the differential rates of literacy of a particular locality, access to primary and basic education, health and nutrition indicators.

The first census in free India was carried out in 1951 and at that time, only one fourth of the total state population was literate. While in 2011, more than two thirds of the total population (7+ age group) was found to be literate in the state. Over the last 50 years almost all the districts has made a literacy jump of more than 30%, but some of the districts recorded a higher jump than the others. In fact, a heterogeneous increase is being observed across the districts of the state.

In education field there exists a large gap of attaining literacy between male and female; this gap is manifold when we consider the same in the higher as well as professional field of education. State Government has undertaken many measures to minimize the gap and if required undertake positive discrimination in favour of females and introduce infrastructure to bring women to the arena of education. Emphasis on higher education for women is an imperative especially at the district level and more importance may be given to science education for girls with proper laboratory facilities. Concept and approaches of Gender & related Social legislations will suitably a part of Primary Education as well as Secondary Education. For this purpose different action plan may be worked out in coordination with the School Education, Higher Education and Technical Education Department. State Government may relax the age limit in scholarships & may also think about the revision of age limit for women appearing for competitive examinations.


In 1854 there were 288 girls’ schools in the then Bengal. These schools were very small and the total number of girls receiving this education was minuscule in relation to the total population. Between 1849, when Bethune School opened, and 1882, when the Indian Education (Hunter) Commission reviewed the progress of education in India, serious efforts had been made to develop primary schools for girls and teacher-training institutions. Higher education for women and co-education were still contentious issues. Faced with the fact that 98 percent of school-age girls were not in school, authors of the Hunter Education Commission Report recommended more liberal grants-in-aid for girls’ schools than for boys’ and special scholarships and prizes for girls. In the next two decades higher education expanded rapidly; whereas there were only six women in Indian universities in 1881-82, by the turn of the century there were 264. First the Brahmo Samaj, and later the Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj and Theosophical Society all supported female education.

After independence, the education of upper-class women proceeded apace. So did the expansion of their opportunities. But in the hamlets of rural areas and the slums of urban areas, young girls were still encouraged to stay within the home (first their own, then that of their husband’s). Slowly, the demand for education grew among women from poorer families as well. But progress was slow, and uneven. Broadly speaking, the southern districts were more supportive of women’s education than the states of the northern districts. There was also religious differentiation – Christians were generally the most keen to send their girls to school, followed by Hindus and only then by Muslims.

A century ago the Indian women’s movement placed ‘female education’ very high on its agenda. NGO Pratham and its partners surveyed nearly 6 lakh children in 2.4 lakh households from 12,000 villages in 525 rural districts between Nov 11 and Dec 18, 2004; volunteers visited randomly picked villages in each district of India and surveyed 20 randomly chosen households in each village. In each household, children in the age group of 6-14 years were interviewed and tested for basic reading, writing, and arithmetic on a one-on-one basis; the result is the First Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2005. The gender gap in the percentage of children out of school, however, has dropped. In 2001, it was estimated that 2 out of 3 dropouts were girls, but this study finds that only a little more than half (52-55%) of the children out of school are girls. It is equally amazing that the spontaneous interventions from the floor from women without distinction of class, location, religion, caste or literacy.

Factors Responsible for Poor Female Literacy Rate

The United Nation for Education, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) revealed on September 8th, 2010 (World Literacy Day), that of the 796 million adult illiterates in the world, two out of every three is a woman (UNESCO, 2010). Historically, a variety of factors have been found to be responsible for poor female literacy rate in West Bengal.

  1. Gender Based Inequality: There is a perception in society even urban that girls are more homely and are better at taking care of things. That is why arts, fashion, designing and drama are generally fields reserved for women.  Engineering and other related fields are considered hardcore; so more men than women enrol in these programmes. This perception is gradually changing. Women students have family affairs to attend to. The so called soft disciplines are Education and Social Sciences, while the male disciplines are engineering and IT.  That is how most of the women’s colleges running Social Sciences, Humanities and Mass Media programmes. Again, while Business/Commerce and Science disciplines are (to a great extent) skewed in favour of men.
  2. Social Discrimination and Economic Exploitation: Our state has been unable to eradicate its many social evils completely. Child labour, child marriage, untouchability and the caste system are strong causes of a large percentage of Indian children being denied even basic primary school education. Child female labour is rampant among poor families who aim to increase their family income by sending out children to work from a very young age. Moreover, these children are forced into illegal early marriages and then saddled forever with the responsibility of managing a household, family and work on their young shoulders before even gaining the maturity to fully comprehend the meaning of any of them.

According to the data published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), New Delhi, West Bengal stands very high in the list of states when it comes to trafficking in women. The 2005 statistics provided by the NCRB reveal that in 2005, West Bengal ranked second, coming after Bihar, in importation of girls. The traffickers mostly target women and children who belong to the rural areas. Trafficking in women is most prominent in the southern part of South 24 Parganas, the eastern part of Murshidabad, the eastern side of Nadia, and the eastern region of North 24 Parganas.

iii. Low Retention Rate and High Dropout Rate: In India, for example, only one girl in three will finish primary school. Most drop out of school to help with housework, or to get a job and earn a living. Many parents prefer to invest in the education of their sons due to strong social norms. As in many parts of the developing world, marriage often takes place at an early age for Indian girls, and education is replaced by the responsibilities of motherhood.

  1. Attitude towards Learning: There are certain sections of people who think otherwise, who look down upon education and regard it with contempt. They claim that it is of no use to build a scholarly mind or enlighten it through academics. Families of poor financial standing often discourage studying in their households as they wish to engage the children in work as soon as possible to expand their collective remuneration.

Some people consider modern education as a threat to their beliefs and way of life. Consequently, the children of such households are also deprived of the opportunity to study in modern schools and free their minds of meaningless conventions and conservative ideologies.

  1. Geographical Factors: The families in remote locations-like deep within the Himalayan forests or in the arid lands of Puruliya, they are often cut-off from mainstream civilization and all convenient facilities of education. This is true especially in the case of wandering tribes like the Warlis of the West and the numerous forest communities residing at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. These tribes often follow shifting cultivation as a result of which they have no permanent dwelling place. Moreover, their culture and practices are so different from the mainstream that it is difficult to bring them in sync with modern society and provide them with similar kind of education.
  2. Individual Disabilities: The most unfortunate are those whose physical or mental conditions do not allow them to educate themselves easily. Disabled female child in many families find it exceedingly difficult to read, write, absorb and remember information. For example, a dyslexic child will find it hard to remember the letters of the alphabet and to interpret words when they are formed with those same letters. Physical disabilities also inhibit literacy. A blind child will find it difficult to read without assistance. A child with a disabled arm will find writing a tough task. Such persons are often neglected and shunned from schools.

vii. Inadequate Facilities: It is shocking how many schools have been unable to create facilities e.g. sanitation and safe drinking water for even paid education for all female children, who are essentially the future of this nation. Many schools do not have enough classrooms to accommodate all school-age children.

  1. Lack of Qualified Female Teachers: Girls are more likely to attend schools if they have female teachers. Girls are more comfortable and more vocal with lady teachers, thus actively focusing and participating in the learning process. Also, parents – especially in rural areas – are hesitant to send their girls to schools that have only male teachers. Parents often complain about insecurity for girls attending schools.
  2. Lack of Transport Facilities: Particularly in rural areas, transportation is needed for girls to attend primary and secondary schools, which are often far away from their homes. Primary education is often accessible much closer, but secondary education facilities assume that children will drop out as they age, and therefore fewer schools are established to cater to older children.
  3. Lack of Hostel Facilities for Girls: Many girls desirous of pursuing education above primary level, facilities for which are available away from their homes, cannot avail themselves of these facilities due to lack of hostel arrangements. Girls, particularly those belonging to minority groups would continue their education at middle and above levels if they could find free or inexpensive residential facilities nearer the educational institution.
  4. d. Fixed Schooling Hours: Fixed schooling hours do not suit girls in rural areas, as they are needed for domestic work at home or in farms and fields during these hours. This is one of the causes of lower participation rates of girls in education. The enrolment rates of girls and their retention can be improved if educational facilities are made available to girls during periods suitable to them when they are free from domestic chores. Flexible school timings have been tried in Rajasthan through the Shiksha Karmi Project and Lok Jumbish, and the results are encouraging.

viii. Population Explosion: The combination of increasing population and development has led to a situation where the state has innumerable citizens who wish to learn but not enough educational institutions to teach them. The existing schools are already overflowing with students and lack the infrastructure to take in more. As more and more children are born every year, the pressure on these institutions keeps ballooning up continuously. Consequently, entry into these schools gets increasingly difficult and majorities of the vast population, who are poor, are denied a chance to admit their children owing to insufficient funds.

  1. Poverty: A huge portion of our population (29.8%) lies below the National Poverty Line, which indicates that they do not have access to basic requirements of essential commodities, including food and water, for themselves or their families. These families earn barely enough to feed their children one square meal a day. Education is a luxury they cannot afford. A great portion of West Bengal’s population is deprived of education because it is poor. The vicious circle of poverty stands between the society and its education.

Due to the gradual expansion of basic or primary education, women representatives express their desired role in rural development, planning and agree to assume responsibility for pure water facilities, set up village school and the anganwadi. The facilitating factors have been the increasing participation of women in public and private spheres, the equalizing of salary for equal work, targeted credit and economic assistance and incentive linked girls’ education.

Government will utilise different educational Institutions, Women study Centres, State Resource Centre for Women to assess status of Women across the state and districts annually which will help to undertake future development planning for achieving the Goal. A resource pool of fund will be reserved annually for the purpose. Government will consider developing trained personnel up to village level from the existing village level staff or volunteers for collection of data regularly.


Table 1. Decadal Growth of Literacy Rates in West Bengal after Independence


  1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 2001 2011
Total 24.61 34.46 38.86 48.64 57.72 68.64 77.08
Male 34.79 46.57 49.57 59.93 67.81 77.02 82.67
Female 12.77 20.27 26.56 36.07 46.56 59.61 71.16

Note: Literacy rates for 1951, 1961 and 1971 Census relate to population aged 5 years and above. The rates for 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011 Censuses relate to the population aged 7 years and above.



Figure 1. Decadal Growth of Literacy Rate in West Bengal after Independence

Source of Data: Census of India 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011


Although Government will arrange proper resource allocation for women, but effective implementation is possible if proper monitoring mechanism is there. The Government has initiated effective monitoring mechanism at the District level by setting up Development Monitoring Committee under the leadership of District Magistrate and same has been replicated up to Block level. Government will consider setting up Level Board/Council for Welfare of Women with adequate power/authority by enacting legislation or administrative order whichever is appropriate for the same. Such Body/Council may be headed by any eminent women activist/personalities of the District supported by other such women personalities with the right perspective as well as District level senior Officers will also be inducted into the Committee. District Social Welfare Officer may be made Member-Convener of the same.

Despite these improvements, there still remains a lot to be done in terms of improvement and certain pockets of illiteracy in particular need to be addressed. According to provisional DISE Data (2010-11), there are 51016 schools offering Primary Education and 10574 schools offering Upper Primary Education in West Bengal. Total 8901 and 8822 schools are offering Secondary and Higher Secondary Education in West Bengal respectively.

The incidence of literacy, enrolment or retention/drop-out, education as such, is dependent not only on the delivery system but also upon the societal factors. Thus, gender, caste/community, occupational and rural-urban inequalities all affect education.

A major vexing phenomenon observed mainly in the low literacy regions, in the country and elsewhere, is the high rate of dropouts at a very early stage of education. The primary education policies in different parts of the state are aimed at reducing this high dropout rate by creating incentives to the students and the parents to keep the children in the school till they complete the desired level of education.


People from all classes and socio-economic backgrounds expend ‘considerable amount’ of money for the education of their children. According to Tilak (2002), the “free” education is a misnomer in the Indian context given the economic barriers to its accessibility. A host of factors such as household income, household expenditure, and educational qualifications of the head of the household, demographic burden, caste and religion impinge on the educational expenditure. Likewise, availability of the school in the neighbourhood, distance of the school and various incentives (namely, mid-day meal, distribution of text-books, school uniforms) directly influence the quantum of educational expenses.

More importantly, the widely prevalent practice of private tuitions has added to the quantum of educational expenditure. In the Pratichi (India) Report, 2002, Amartya Sen writes that the “evil of private tuition” perpetuates the ‘class divisions’ in an uninterrupted way. It also violates the commitment of the Indian Constitution for “free education”.


India is positioned almost at the bottom of the heap in measures of the Gender Parity Index which traces the growth of female enrollment in schools. While a GPI of 1 indicates perfect parity between the sexes, India measures 0.83 at the primary level (2003), a figure that is only slightly better than worse performers like Mali (0.72), Liberia (0.73) and Pakistan (0.74). This distinction in Indian figures is nowhere in the list of countries (including Nepal and Pakistan) that have shown the greatest improvement in girls’ enrollment. The government plans to set up Balika Shivirs (residential camps for girls), bridge courses and some 750 residential schools (Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas) for under-privileged girls in difficult-to-reach areas. The National Programme for Education of Girls at Elementary Level envisages a ‘model cluster school’ per cluster (that is, 8 to 10 villages) – in ‘educationally backward blocks’. These model schools are envisaged as girl-friendly, with provision for special incentives, libraries, gender-sensitisation of teachers, crèches next to schools, girls’ collectives (Meena Manch) and Mothers’ Committees.

Although a number of NGOs such as Eklavya, Nirantar, Ankur, Digantar, Urmul and Aditi have focused on improving education, particularly girls’ education, these have remained small-scale efforts, restricted to certain pockets of the country. The biggest scheme demonstrating positive links between education and empowerment is a government-run scheme (presently running in nine states) called the Mahila Samakhya. It draws in the energies of several movement activists, providing it with energy and direction.

The main aim of all the educational programmes is to make every girl child of the society literate.


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