The Gender Gap in Education & Mental Health: India as a Case Study

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By Dr. Rajendra Dhamane, founder of Mauli House, and Annemarie Schumacher-Dimech, co-founder and President of the Women’s Brain Project

The gender gap in education affects women across the spectrum, from career development and progress to mental health. In this article, WBP worked with Dr. Rajendra Dhamane, founder of the Mauli House, to showcase why it is imperative for us to invest in girls and women’s education both because it is a fundamental human right and because of its implications for mental health – using India as a case study. This was done in celebration of the International Day of Education (January 24 each year).

Education is a fundamental right of every person in the world. In India, The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education (RTE) Act is an Act of the Parliament of India enacted on the 4th of August 2009. It describes the modalities of the importance of free and compulsory education for children between the ages of 6 to 14 years of age under Article 21A of the Indian Constitution.

India became one of 135 countries to make education a fundamental right of every child when the act came into force on 1 April 2010. The title of the RTE Act incorporates the words ‘free and compulsory’.

‘Free education’ means that no child, other than a child who has been admitted by his or her parents to a school which is not supported by the Government, shall be liable to pay any kind of fee or charges or expenses which may prevent him or her from pursuing and completing elementary education.

‘Compulsory education’ casts an obligation on the relevant Government and local authorities to provide and ensure admission, attendance, and completion of elementary education by all children in the 6-14 age group. With this Act, India has moved forward to a rights-based framework that casts a legal obligation on the Central government and State in India.

Notwithstanding the RTE Act in India, discriminatory attitudes towards either sex have existed for generations and affects lives of both sexes. The Constitution of India grants men and women equal rights, however, gender disparities remain. Education is not equally attained by Indian men and women. For instance, the female literacy rate stands at 65.46%, lagging behind the male literacy rate of 82.14%.

The attitude of parents towards their daughters’ education is very biased due to cultural norms and beliefs related to gender. Daughters are often deprived in the area of education. The reason for this is that parents perceive education for girls as a waste of resources and money since their daughters will eventually get married and live with their husband’s families. There is strong belief that due to their traditional duty and role as homemakers and mothers, daughters would not benefit directly from an investment in their education.

In rural India, girls continue to be less educated than boys. Recently, many studies have investigated underlying factors that contribute to greater or less educational attainment by girls in different regions of India.

One study, performed by Kugler and Kumar in 2017 and published in Demography, examined the role of familial size and child composition in terms of gender of the first-born child and others on the educational attainment achieved in a family. According to this study, as the family size increased by each additional child after the first, on average there was quarter of a year decrease in overall years of schooling, with this statistic disfavouring female children in the family compared to male children. In addition, the educational level of the mother in the family also played a role in the educational attainment of the children, with the study indicating that in families with mothers that had a lower educational level, the outcomes tended to be more disadvantageous for the children’s educational attainment.

Nevertheless, and regardless of the original “deadline” for this to happen by 2015, India is on target to meet its Millennium Development Goal* of gender parity in education with parity at primary level being achieved. However, women’s literacy rates still lag behind. UNICEF’s measure of attendance rate and Gender Equality in Education Index (GEEI) capture the quality of education. Despite some gains, India needs to triple its rate of improvement to reach GEEI score of 95% under the Millennium Development Goals.

Secondary education

In examining educational disparities between boys and girls, the transition from primary to secondary education displays an increase in the disparity gap, as a greater percentage of females compared to males drop out from their educational journey after the age of twelve. The statistics of dropout in the secondary school transition and its contributing factors in rural India indicated that among the students who stopped schooling after primary education, nearly 70% of them were females. The most common reasons for girls to stop attending school is the distance of travel and social reasons.

In terms of distance of travel, families fear for the safety and security of girls traveling unaccompanied to school every day. In rural areas, the social reasons included families’ perception their daughter’s role of belonging to her future husband’s house after marriage, with plans for the daughter’s marriage occurring at secondary school age in some cases (although organizations such as Girls Not Brides are working hard to change that).

Post-secondary education

Participation in post-secondary education for girls in India has changed over time. One study investigated the aspect of inclusiveness for girls in the realm of higher education. This study indicates that overall participation for girls in higher education has increased over time, especially in recent years.

Still, disparities persist in terms of spread across disciplines. While boys tend to be better represented in all educational disciplines, girls tend to concentrate on specific disciplines, while lacking representation in other educational realms. Particularly in STEM subjects, girls in India are lagging behind and performance disparities grow as students progress from primary to secondary level.

There has also been research on the dropout statistics across time in higher education. A 2007 study, by Upadhyay in the journal Economic and Political Weekly, reported that the dropout rate in higher education is greater for boys rather than girls. This trend is reversed in secondary education with dropout rates being greater for girls versus boys. The article suggests that the dropout rates in higher education could be explained by the sense of necessity and urgency that boys may feel to acquire employment.

Long-term effects of lack of education

The gender gap in education affects diverse aspects in the lives of women from career development and progress to mental health. Numerous studies have shown links between education and health as well as quality of life. Individuals with a higher level of education enjoy better health both due to their better prospects of employment and income as well as due to better health literacy and access to health resources. Education has also been associated with lower risk of cognitive decline in old age.

Thus, the gender gap in education plays a significant role in the development of female children with reference to both general well-being and mental health as well as quality of life. Further work in the implementation of policies and strategies addressing this gap will not only improve girls’ and women’s lives but also that of their families and communities.


[Photo gallery caption] – In India, the Mauli House provides a home for homeless women living with mental disorders, and also provides care for their children. This includes a good education for all to ensure a better future for the next generation to grow up at Mauli House.


Due to the stigma attached to mental health disorders as well as gendered norms, mentally ill women are often abandoned by their families. The Mauli House provides medical care and shelter to homeless women suffering from mental health problems. More than that, it offers a home for life in a family environment for these women and their children. The Mauli House depends on charitable donations and was founded by Dr. Rajendra Dhamane and Dr. Sucheta Dhamane.


*Millennium Development Goals include eight goals defined by the UN in the lead up to 2015 – in many ways, they were the earlier precursors to today’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Note: Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

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