Women’s Illiteracy in India

The gap between male and female literacy in India is almost 20%. In a country where women are harassed and discriminated against everyday, how can education help build a brighter, fairer society?

Indian school children in class room.
At its current state of progress India will only attain universal literacy in 2060.


Women’s literacy rate in India is only 65%, for a country with such a high GDP growth rate this is worrying low. The outlook for women gets even worse when you compare it to the male rate of 82%. At its current state of progress India will only attain universal literacy in 2060, lagging far behind its neighbouring China. Illiterate women have higher rates of fertility and mortality, a literate woman averages two children per family whereas for an uneducated woman the average is around six. Thus a vicious cycle occurs where daughters of illiterate mothers are less likely to have the means to be educated and as a result will have more children and they too will not be educated.

Stories of hardship

Many families will blame their illiterate daughters on a lack of income. Women are traditionally only meant for marriage so education is a waste of time and money in comparison with their sons who will have careers. This view is still prevalent at a time when the leader of the ruling party, speaker of the lower house and many sports and business icons in the region are female.

But the real root of the problem lies in the traditional values of negativity and bias against females in the family. A age-old tradition in India is the dowry, money that has to be given to the son in-laws family for marrying a daughter.  It is largely because of this that female babies are seen as a financial burden with one-third of the countries population already below the poverty line. Twelve-million girls have been aborted over the past three decades and of those that are born 45% are married off uneducated before the age of 18.

These facts make it not surprising that out of a poll of 370 gender specialised from around the world, India was recently voted the worst G20 country to be a women. If a woman feels threatened all the time, of course empowerment via education comes far second to survival and in India women are understandably afraid, given discrimination against them begins from before birth. Every 20 minutes a woman in India is raped and those that survive the ordeal are often disowned by their families out of shame or worse murdered. Each year more than 100,000 women are killed by fires or acid attacks in the region and 52% of adolescent males think it is justifiable for a man to beat his wife.

These violent and sexist views towards women are ingrained in society so that in many cases girls who have the opportunity to go to school drop out around the age of puberty as being outside of their home itself increases the risk of  sexual violence. The school dropout rate for girls is currently 63.5%, it is blamed on the fact that children from rural areas have to walk long distances to the nearest school and subsequently are victims of harassment during this time. Furthermore 80% of schools do not have sufficient latrine facilities making girls too often the victim of juvenile boys ‘pranks’.


India is an interesting case, unlike other nations such as Afghanistan where the illiteracy rate is low due largely to a diminished economy and lack of funding; India has all the means to provide education to women it just lacks any motivation. In order for things to change traditions have to be modernised and equality has to be preached from an early age. If women were seen as equals, rape, forced married and female-infanticide would be perceived as the crimes that they are and not just a part of life. For women to seek and succeed in education they need to feel safe but that safety needs to evolve away from protectionism of being kept indoors and chaperoned into feeling free from danger in the knowledge that they live in a fair and secure society.

Indian woman holding protest sign.
India has all the means to provide education to women it just lacks any motivation.

Beams of hope

Amidst these stories of hardship there are beams of hope that attitudes are changing in some parts of India, such as Piplantri, a small rural village in Rajasthan. In the area of Rajasthan almost all rural women are illiterate and treated in the traditional mindset of inferiority and yet in Piplantri the birth of a female child is celebrated by the planting of 111 trees. This tradition started when former village leader Shyam Sundar Paliwal’s daughter passed away at a young age and he planted the trees to honour her memory. Ever since then upon the birth of another little girl, village members band together to raise a trust fund for the girl and the money is set aside till her twentieth birthday ensuring she will never become a financial burden on the parents. In return for the trust the parents sign a legal affidavit stating the daughter will only be married after eighteen years and having received a proper education. Not only does this empower women to recieve education but it also connects them with nature as villagers learn to nurture or take care of the trees and help sustain the growing population. Over the past six years one-quarter of a million trees have been planted and over 2,000 girls have received a high school education!

Indian women in garden.
India cannot achieve its full potential without the effort and inclusion of half its population.


As you can see female illiteracy is just one part of a larger story of the discrimination against women in India, but it could just be the key to change. There is no denying that India’s economic growth will reach a standing point if women are not allowed to contribute as currently they are only responsible for 17% of GDP. The country cannot achieve its full potential without the effort and inclusion of half its population. In the words of the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women’.

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Author: Holly McElroy