18 May, 2024


A Silent Revolution? ‘Free Education’ And Sri Lankan Women

By Carmen Wickramagamage –

Dr.Carmen Wickramagamage

It is no exaggeration to say that one of the social groups that has most benefited from the revolutionary education reforms implemented starting 1947 [which most of us know as either Free Education or Kannangara Reforms] is Women. In 1946, when the overall literacy rate for the country was 57.8%, only 43.8% of the female population was literate as opposed to 70.1% of the male population (Panditaratne and Selvanayagam, 1973). By 2001, however, the percentage of literate women had gone up to 90% of the female population in comparison with 93% for the male population. Among Lankan youth between the ages of 15-24, it is even higher at 97% literate females to 99% literate males, according to UNICEF Sri Lanka statistics for the 2005-10 period.

This poses an interesting question: How did the gap between the percentages of literate men and women come to be narrowed so rapidly and significantly during the intervening 60-odd year period? What was the equivalent of the “open sesame” that opened the closed doors of formal school-based education for Lankan women in the post-independence period? The simple answer: “Free Education.” While the Kannangara reforms did not introduce “free education” to Ceylon/Sri Lanka, they (i) abolished the earlier two-tiered education system very much pegged to class where fee-levying “English Medium” schools catered to the local elite and a system of “free” Vernacular Schools catered to the masses; (ii) introduced Swabhasha [or First Language] Education into the school system starting 1947, where it was made compulsory for students to be educated in their “mother tongue.” It was these two reforms that have enabled Education to function as an instrument of social justice in Sri Lanka, freeing individuals from the debilitating impacts of ascribed social status such as caste, class and gender and instituting a meritocracy of sorts in Sri Lanka, however imperfect it might be, where the deserving individual can move up the social and economic ladder on the basis of merit irrespective of his/her “origins.”

The education policy, however, was not alone in elevating women’s life-chances in Sri Lanka. The enlightened policy of “free health,” another revolutionary welfare policy measure, went hand in hand with “free education” in bringing about a remarkable improvement in Lankan women’s physical quality of life, as manifested in such indicators as maternal mortality and life-expectancy rates, making Sri Lanka at one time the ‘poster child’ in UN development circles for its counter-intuitive achievements in the Human Development Index despite its classification as a ‘low-income’ nation. As Dileni Gunewardena points out in a newspaper article (Daily News, July 12, 2012) citing a recent study by Seema Jayachandran and Adriana Lleras-Muney, women’s health indicators and women’s educational indicators are linked. As women live longer, parents appear more willing to invest in their education. Equally importantly, as researchers have pointed out, education for women carries other kinds of social dividends, among them, a deceleration in population growth due to shrinking family size. There is one simple reason: staying in school longer delays the age at first marriage and, combined with career requirements and increased receptivity to public service messages, such women have fewer children. Literate/educated women are also a good conduit for public health messages. The significantly lower under-5 child morbidity and mortality rates in the case of Sri Lanka in comparison with the rest of South Asia have been attributed to the higher education rates of women. Educated women are more receptive to information on children’s nutrition, family hygiene, etc. Though we have not sustained and consolidated these gains in the recent past due to many reasons such as the recently concluded Civil War, it is necessary to highlight the sea-change in Lankan women’s lives brought about by these achievements at this critical juncture when cuts in state expenditure on health and education threaten to arrest if not roll back the remarkable achievements that made Sri Lanka the ‘Miracle of Asia’ long before that slogan came to be adopted by the present government.

But how did ‘free education’ benefit women in particular? As long as education was not free, cultural reasons, or gender norms regarding the place of men and women in society, combined with economic reasons, in the case of women, to keep women at home and away from formal, school-based education. Let me explain: as long as education is not free, parents with limited resources must make a choice regarding whom to educate and how much. Considering that in the Sri Lankan context, deep-rooted gender norms

assign men the role of ‘bread’ winner and wage-earner, and women the home-based roles of housewife, wife and mother, it would seem logical for parents to expend their limited resources on the education of sons. Therefore, what the state expenditure on universal free education in the mother-tongue did was to take away the economic rationale to parental discrimination with regard to access to education for their sons and daughters.

One could then argue that it was not all Lankan women but women of the socially and culturally marginalised groups who were the real beneficiaries of the Kannangara Reforms; that certain women, who faced a double or triple jeopardy in access to education because gender combined with class, caste and other ‘disabilities’ to keep them out of school, were the ones who truly benefited. But was it only the economic rationale that prohibited women entry within the gateways of educational institutions? What about the cultural rationale that for long years saw “education” as spoiling women for marriage and making them less desirable in the marriage market so that parents with sufficient economic means would prefer to save for a dowry rather than invest in the education of their daughters? Among other reasons that, in the early years of female education in colonial Ceylon, kept even women of the local Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim elite out of formal school-based education were the fear of contamination due to inter-class and inter-caste mixing at school and the fear of conversion at Christian missionary schools. For these same reasons, as Malathi de Alwis has shown in her discussion of the Udduvil Girls’ School in Jaffna, sometimes it was women of the lower castes that first benefited from formal, school-based education while women of the upper-castes and classes were kept away. For women then to access educational opportunities, educated local men had to regard educated wives as an asset and upper-class parents had to see educated daughters as more a means for status-consolidation than a status-loss!

So how did the Reforms of 1945 help? It created the “visibility effect.” The inevitable increase in the school-going population of girls with universal free education ‘normalized’ or ‘naturalized’ the notion of the educated woman. The educated woman was no longer an anomaly. No family wanted to be denied its social and cultural dividends all else being equal.

Today, with some variation in gains attributable to ethnic, religious and class differences [the most deprived group being Indian Tamil women of the plantation sector], Lankan women as a whole have used education not only to break free of gender norms but to challenge gender-based stereotypes regarding women’s brain power, most famously articulated in the Sinhala saying, “gaenunge nuwana haendi mitei digai” [=women’s intelligence is only good enough to taste the quality of the curries they cook!]. Thus, according to the World Development Report 2009, the ratio of girls to boys in primary and secondary schools was 102 to 100 in the year 2006. The percentage of girls to boys in senior secondary school enrollment in fact has now come to be skewed in favour of girls. So, while the percentage of girls to boys in Grades 10-11 is 51%, the percentage of girls in Grades 12-13 increases to 58%! The percentage of women to men at the public universities repeats these numbers where female students comprise 58% of the overall intake to public universities according to UGC statistics for the year 2010. And if we were to break this percentage down along subject streams and in terms of the intake to different faculties, an interesting picture emerges that can only be attributed to the socially transformative potential of Free Education:

These numbers foreground the slow but sure feminization of higher education—a feminization that has gone unremarked but is the indubitable result of the silent revolution brought about by the gender-neutral policy of universal and compulsory free education. It is also a reality that should make policy makers and concerned citizens pause: Why are male students turning away from education, particularly higher education? How would certain spheres of study be affected by this feminization, for instance, the study of the social sciences and the humanities or law and medicine?

Since this piece is not an attempt to unequivocally celebrate women’s gains in education but to raise a red flag regarding certain half-concealed dimensions to where women are in education and higher education, let me now engage in a further disaggregation of the available statistics on women in education. Although more women than men are to be found in senior secondary education or A/Ls, the distribution of men and women across subject-streams at AL should give us pause. Of the 58% percent of women in senior secondary education or A/L classes, the majority are offering Arts subjects. Hence, of the number enrolled for A/L Arts subjects, 67% are female [which, in absolute numbers, is 152, 158 female students] while only 43% of the total or 76,339 are male. In contrast, the number of female students as a percentage of the total enrolled for Science subjects is 48% and for Commerce subjects 47%. Now, if we combine these figures with the following facts—that there are not only more jobs for science-qualified students but that these jobs on average carry higher wages [based on research conducted by Swarna Jayaweera and others] and that the female unemployment rate, Age 15 & above, is twice that of men (SL Labour Force Survey, 2009)—we have to worry about where the women are in education. A similar scenario repeats itself at university as Table II shows. University enrollment is most skewed in favour of women in the Arts Faculties at 78-80% of enrollments. Hence, if there is a higher percentage of unemployed or under-employed Arts graduates compared to, say, Commerce or Science graduates [though this claim is open to debate], then it stands to reason that a higher percentage of that number would be female.

The question is why are more women than men gravitating towards Arts subjects at A/Ls? Is it Biology or Socialization or Unequal Access to Senior Secondary Science Education that is determining this choice? In the case of Sri Lanka, a major reason for the higher enrollment of students in the Arts Stream at A/Ls is the relative inequity in the distribution of Type 1AB Schools: that is, schools offering senior secondary science education, which are mostly located in urban and semi-urban areas. Take just two districts: in Colombo, the number of Type 1AB schools is 68 to 83 Type 1 C schools [that is, schools offering AL classes without the Science Stream]; in Kandy, Type 1AB schools are only 50 compared to 175 of Type 1C schools! Combine this fact with the other known fact that more male students enroll for A/L science subjects and we have to ask if gender plays a role in who gains access to Science A/L education. Are parents with limited means more reluctant to enroll their daughters in senior secondary science education because of the higher costs involved or due to the longer distances they may have to travel in order to get to such schools? Today, private tuition is sometimes the only gateway to universities in the science stream with students sometimes attending two classes per subject! Are girls then opting for Arts because of easier access and lower costs?

The inequities in access to education, and I should say access to good-quality education, that I have outlined above makes it clear that despite 60-odd years of ‘free’ universal education, we are yet to arrive at a completely level playing field. However, the solution to these documented inequities does not lie in a withdrawal of the state from investment in education and further privatization of education. There is a very real danger, from the point of view of women, that parents if called upon to bear the cost of their off-spring’s education, may opt to invest more in the education of their sons at the expense of that of their daughters given the endemic son preference and entrenched gender norms of this country. While it is possible that both reduced family size, and the visibility effect that has ‘normalized’ the phenomenon of female education in the intervening years, may offset gender-based discrimination in access to education, we cannot leave it to chance. As Dileni Gunewardena has pointed out (Daily News, June 30, 2011) citing what happened in China where earlier gains in female life-expectancy were reversed when reforms came to be introduced in 1979, we cannot sit on our laurels banking on the goodwill of parents to decide on ‘merit’ rather than gender with regard to whom to educate in cases of limited resources—which is the case for a majority of parents in this country. It is therefore time for those of us, women and men, who take a justifiable pride in the near-miraculous gains in social indicators of well-being in this country to speak up in the face of the obvious withdrawal in commitment on the part of the present government to education as evidenced by the allocation of just 1.8% of the GDP in the 2012 Budget for both general and higher education. Education is a right, not a privilege. Now is the time for us to get together to save it for all citizens of this country!

The writer teaches English at the University of Peradeniya.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 1


    • 0

      No worries.. the Lankan academic spring is beginning to bloom – the tide is turning and a slow swell is building up into the tsunami that will sweep Rajapakse and his brothers to the Hague for a war crimes trial, and his cabinet of goons, fools, geriatrics and clown including the half-literate so called ministers of education who cannot speak two sentences of grammatical English, although English is the language of research and international education, into oblivion..

      • 0

        The clowns Bandulla and SB must go and FUTA must add their resignation and departure, preferably to a circus, as one of the conditions for ending the strike..

  • 0

    Blind man said:

    In the East

    the word acharya means a person who teaches by his conduct – more than with words…

    Too much book learning and too little practicing what we preach.

    It is the same in all fields starting with Buddhism….

    Is this where we went wrong. another old time great had advised a pupil

    adhyapanaya wikunanna epa!

  • 0

    Nice piece Carmen, many thanks, and keep up the good work and the long struggle to save education and indeed democracy from Dictatorship in Lanka!
    Although there are more women students in higher ed., what is the gender breakdown of the Proffessoriate or faculty? It seems that here men may dominate and like women who are practically invisible in government (national and local), women lack the support systems also from other women to play leadership roles?
    Also, there need to be women at the forefront of the FUTA leadership – this is NOT a criticism of FUTA and Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri who has done an impressive job – but of the women who seek so shy and not coming forward and taking their place in negotiating for the rights of women faculty and students..

  • 1

    Kannangara’s ‘free education’ was actually ‘free ENGLISH education’.Before this, in/upto 1935 there was the ‘Denham Pupils Scholarship’ which selected ONE pupil – who had passed the 5th Standard in sinhala/tamil before the 10th birthday – PER PROVINCE, on a competitive exam like the London Matriculation.
    The award was Rs.50/= per month for Six Years to study in any english medium school.After the six years, there was an Extension Scholarship Examination which extended the period a further Three years.
    Today, it is the desire of EVERY parent to educate his/her child in ENGLISH.Ask any parent.They know that ‘english speaking persons’ are the elite in society,leaders,professionals,scientists etc.They can travel to any country and pursue further training in any field.
    We should teach english plus sinhala/tamil from kindergarten onwards upto university entry – where too english must be the language of instruction.All nations which retained english have produced leaders in every field.
    As for females, they are/will be on par with males if this is done.

    • 0

      let me make small correction…Kanangara’s free education was “Free English Medium Higher Education”…He said this very clearly at the State Council Debate…His 50 Central Schools were English Medium Schools up to the University Entrants Level…

  • 0

    Sorry – I meant 1941. But I do not know when the Denham Pupils Scholarship commenced and ended.Robison was the Directer of Education.
    Also, Sirimavo abolished the London O & A Level exams held regularly by the Examinations Department. The London O & A level certificates were accepted by all Commonwealth countries, USA,Western Europe and many others for further education.There were two who scored high in A Level and won scholarships to two british universities – one became a surgeon & the other, PhD in Civil Engineering.But Sirimavo sent her children abroad to study.Even today,many students learn in english at the ‘international schools’ prior to going abroad.Some go direct and study.
    Why cannot there be teaching of english to all, plus the ‘mother tongue’ (to be only literate in it)? Many generations of students have lost their birthright to study in the language they desire.

  • 0

    You’re absolutely correct. Now is the time for all of us to unite and fight to safeguard the future of our young generation. Not only the female but each and every son and daughter of Sri Lanka. Indeed education is not a privilege it is the right of every citizen. Make our collective voices ring loud and clear at this critical juncture and let the academic spring roar into a huge torrent or Tsunami.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.