Gender and Open Schooling in India

Sushmita Mitra, National Institute of Open Schooling, New Delhi

Access to education has been recognized as a basic human right to bring competence leading to higher productivity, empowerment of the people and national development. India had been trying to extend the reach of education to larger sections of its society through a multi approach strategy. The Open and Distance Learning (ODL) system at school levels is considered as one of the ways to provide educational opportunities to everybody.
The National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) is an autonomous organization under the Department of Education, Govt. of India. Established to provide school educational opportunities to all who cannot and do not go to school, it is the largest Open school in the world. Although, enrolment of girls in secondary classes per 1000 boys increased from 16 to 70 since 1950-1951, the gender gap in traditional school system remains a matter of concern. One of the key objectives of NIOS has been overcoming this gap.
This paper highlights the gender profile of learners who enrol in NIOS from the different states of India and examines gender equality with respect to enrolment at the secondary level. Since one of the unique features in NIOS is the provision for 'choice of subjects', the paper also highlights the distribution of females in different major subjects. An examination of these gender distribution trends in NIOS centers across the country leads towards answering questions of NIOS effectiveness in addressing this issue.The analysis would assist in determining future course of action so as to increase access to school education.

Author names - Title of article


The emergence of Open and Distance Learning (ODL) Systems are directly linked with the issue of access to education and has implications for empowering people and, in turn, national development. It is a manifestation of the constitutional commitment to provide educational opportunities to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups including women/girls. This paper attempts to review the situation with respect to gender equality in the Open Schooling system in India.


ODL systems are considered the most viable alternative strategies with potential for reaching the unreached. This is primarily due to its features promoting openness and flexibility. These are:

  • Openness with respect to age and entry qualifications;
  • Open choice of courses / subjects of study from a wide range of academic and vocational courses and combinations;
  • Open choice of medium of instruction including several regional languages;
  • Flexible scheme of examination;
  • Credit Accumulation and Credit Transfer allowing for self-directed pace of learning over a 5 year period

NIOS has also been facilitating access for girls/women and other special categories of learners through fee exemptions. It has been functioning for about three decades. It is appropriate to consider the extent to which targets related to MDG 3 i.e. eliminating gender disparity in the educational system have been achieved.


Gender, functions as a socio-economic variable for analysing roles, responsibilities, constraints, opportunities, and needs of men and women in a given context. In most countries, women and girls are at a disadvantage in terms of males access and control over facilities and services and other resources as well as influence and control over decision-making processes that determine the quality of life.

According to ILO, gender equality starts with equal valuing of girls and boys. This implies that women and men have equal conditions for realising their full potential and contributing to and benefiting from economic, social, cultural and political development.

UNESCO indicates that,

“Gender equality means equality between men and women; the freedom to develop and make choices unhindered by gender stereotypes roles and prejudices; that the different behaviours, aspirations and needs of women and men are considered, valued and favoured equally. It does not mean that women and men have to become the same, but that their rights, responsibilities and opportunities do not depend on whether they are born male or female”. (http//

Therefore, gender inequality, is when women typically have less access to and control over facilities, opportunities and resources. In terms of education this needs to be understood as the right to education [access and participation], as well as rights within education [gender-aware educational environments, processes, and outcomes], and rights through education [meaningful education outcomes that link education equality with wider processes of gender justice] (Wilson, 2003).Measuring meaningful progress towards the right to education is the first step in assessing progress towards gender equality. Also essential is assessing both quantitative and qualitative information and phenomena that underpin the rights of men and women (Subrahmanian, 2003/04).

In the Human Development Index (HDI) of UNDP, adult literacy rates and combined primary, secondary and tertiary Gross Enrolment Ratio's (GERs) are used as indicators. Share of enrolment at Secondary level being an element of HDI, one of the indicators considered in this paper to highlight the situation regarding gender in Open Schooling is called Gender Equality Index (GEI) , which is a comparison index. It is a comparison of various States of India with respect to literacy rate and enrolment of male and female learners in an open and flexible system.

If F = female and M = male, then GEI is defined as,

GEI = 1 – (M-F) / (M+F)

If F = M, GEI = 1 which indicates the absence of gaps. That is a situation of complete gender equality.

If F = 0 or M=0, GEI = 0 which indicates maximum gender inequality.

In other words the values of the GEI lie in the range 0 = GEI= 1.

The Gender Equality Index (GEI) can be considered as an indicator of the relationship between males and females in terms of educational access and participation at a given moment in time. Analysis of gender equality trends can then serve as an important signal of the probability that wider changes have taken place. Although the number of boys and girls/ males and females in a school is a key quantitative indicator of gender equality, there are several other critical measures. Two indicators considered here are:

• subject choice and

• performance in examinations.

The former allows an analysis of whether girls / women are being streamed into specific even stereotyped subjects despite the flexible scheme of studies in the open schooling system and whether there is any equality in the representation of boys and girls/ males and females across different subjects. The latter indicator, measures the extent to which girls/ females can convert educational access into educational capital. This provides a relative sense of how girls/ females function within the educational system helping to understand thereby inequalities that remain unaddressed or are being created within the open schooling process. Each indicator considered here also has intervening family and social factors, which influence equality within the system. These too, need to be studied to understand the situation and processes of gender equality better but that is beyond the scope of this paper.


The sources of data relating to distribution of females (in NIOS & formal schools) are:

  • Student Database from NIOS for the year 2003-04 (Admissions) and 2005 (Examination)
  • Annual Reports of NIOS
  • Selected Educational Statistics, 2003-04, Government of India
  • Census of India 2001.


In order to create easier access and wider coverage across the country, NIOS utilises existing available resources through partner institutions called Accredited Institutions (AIs) in different States. These AIs are usually recognised formal schools or other reputed agencies involved in social or educational activities. They assist NIOS to reach out and reach all. The State wise distribution of AIs in 2003–04 is shown in Fig: 1. through which the total enrolment of learners in academic courses for the session 2003-04 was 321754. Enrolment of learners in any educational system is often considered an indicator of its acceptance and popularity.

Fig 1: Number of AI's in different parts of the Country

The State wise distribution of enrolment of male /female learners in NIOS through these AI's is represented in Fig 2. It shows that there has not only been great variation between states in enrolment and hence participation but also great variation in male and female enrolments. Some states show increased enrolment of female learners compared to male learners while some states show that despite large numbers of AI's there have been considerable gaps in male-female enrolment resulting in gender inequality in participation.

Fig 2: State wise Distribution of AI's and the Enrolment of male and female learners in NIOS

Reasons for such variations in participation in the open schooling system could be similar to reasons for similar variations in the formal schooling system.

Enrolment Trend in NIOS vis a vis Formal Schools at Secondary/Senior Secondary level of Education

Fig 3 shows the genderwise enrolment trend at Secondary/Senior Secondary level in NIOS whereas Fig 4 shows the genderwise enrolment trend in formal schools for the same level of school education level during the same period. The figures show a consistent trend in female enrolment in both systems of school education. During this period the average enrolment of female learners was 33.28% in NIOS and 37.09% in formal schools at Secondary /senior secondary level.

While the formal schooling system took many decades to reach the present proportion of female learners in schools, the Open Schooling System can credit itself with having achieved almost the same level of participation in a much shorter time. However, in both systems the participation of female learners is still below fifty per cent and far from reaching gender equity.

Fig 3 Fig 4

The yearwise enrolment of female learners in NIOS and formal schools shown in Fig 5 indicates that the enrolment of female learners in NIOS in the beginning years (1990 to 1993) was higher than in the formal schooling system. From the year 1994, enrolment in formal schools started increasing and became more than in NIOS.

Fig 5

This could be attributed to non-availability or limited availability of nearby formal schools, fee concession of 25% to girls/women and other unique features of open schooling attracted more female learners lead to more participation in NIOS initially. With the intervention of the Government through the establishment of new formal schools, other barriers to education reduced by providing free education up to secondary level, recruitment of lady teachers, availability of adequate sanitation facilities, a bicycle to go to school, etc. access to formal schools has increased. In 1990-91, the number of High/ Higher Secondary/ Inter/Pre/Junior Colleges was 79,796. This increased to about 1.8 times to 14, 5962 in 2003-04. In fact in 1993-94 Government and Local bodies put together accounted for 47.05% of schools whereas Private aided management alone managed between 37.78% while Private unaided management accounted for 15.17%.

Further, the drop out rate of female learners from formal Secondary schools which was 82.5% in 1980-81 has decreased to 62.59% in 2003-04 in classes implying an improvement in retention in formal schools. Also in most states formal education at secondary level is totally free for female learners. However, even with such increased enrolment in formal schools a large number of girls/women continue to remain outside the formal education system at the secondary level.

State wise enrolment of Female learners in NIOS

India has 28 states and 7 Union Territories. The literacy rate for the country as a whole was 64.84% for the population aged seven years and over (Census of India 2001). The corresponding figures for males and females were 75.26% and 53.67% respectively. However the literacy rates for different States varied. This relates to enrolment in schools. Fig 6 shows the Statewise Female Literacy rates.

Fig 6: State wise Female Literacy rate

It can be seen that none of the States in India has a female literacy rate between 90-100% although the highest female literacy rate is in Kerala, Mizoram and Lakshyadeep. In these states the male literacy rate is also very high being between 90-100%.

Fig 7: Statewise Gender Equality Index for Literacy Rate

Fig 7 shows the Gender Equality Index (GEI) as defined in this paper for different States with respect to literacy rate as per the Census report 2001.

Next to Kerala, the State of Mizoram recorded the highest male (90.69%) and female (86.13%) literacy rates whereas the state of Bihar is the lowest in male (60.32%) and female (33.57%) literacy rates. But the male /female differential is lowest in Mizoram and hence the GEI is found to be highest (0.97) making Mizoram lead all the States/ Union Territories in the country. Next to Kerala the state of Meghalaya is found to have a very high GEI (0.95) indicating that the gender gap is very low in the state i.e. almost equal percent of males and females are literate in the state. Similarly although for Rajasthan there had been considerable improvement in male literacy rate (76.4%), there has been high male /female differential and hence the GEI is almost the same as Jharkhand, which has low male and female literacy rates. The consequences of such variations are expected to have an impact on enrolment at other levels of education.

With this status of the literacy situation in the country Fig 8 shows the State wise distribution of Female learners in NIOS at secondary level of education in the year 2003-04. It is noticed that Meghalaya has the highest and Haryana has the lowest female enrolment in NIOS. It is seen that the female enrolment in NIOS is higher in North Eastern States except Tripura and Eastern States of India compared to other parts. This could be attributed to the high literacy rate in conjunction with high drop out rates of girls and women from classes1-X.

Fig 8: State wise Distribution of Female Learners in NIOS

Fig: 8, indicates that the low literate State of Bihar had more enrolment of female learners in NIOS than many other highly populous States like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Some of the Southern states like Tamilnadu, Karnataka, had much lower female enrolment compared to Andhra Pradesh where the enrolment was higher. This could be due to non-availability of the regional medium of instruction in these states. NIOS offers secondary level courses in the Telugu medium, the regional language of Andhra Pradesh. The enrolment in NIOS for the highly literate State of Kerala is also low. This could be due to high female literacy, lower female drop out rate (4.88% from classes 1-X) in the State and hence less demand for this alternative system. It is found that in states where the drop-out rates of girls from classes' I-X are very high and where NIOS has provided centres to access secondary education through Open schooling, the enrolment has been significantly high, like Meghalaya, Nagaland, West Bengal, Sikkim. However, even though the drop out rate in Manipur is less than 50% the enrolment in NIOS has been more than 40% as there are large numbers of centres in the state and it is felt that those who can afford to go to formal schools, instead are taking advantage of the ODL system offered by NIOS .

Considering State wise enrolment of female learners in ascending order, the distribution of male and female learners in NIOS is shown graphically in Fig 9. This shows that with the male enrolment declining across the States, female enrolment continues increasing with the gap between male and female enrolment also decreasing. However, there is a cross over from West Bengal where the gap is almost nil. Thereafter female enrolment is higher than male highlighting reverse gender inequality. More female learners are enrolled in Meghalaya, Sikkim, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh all of them being in the North Eastern part of the country where the female literacy is reasonably high. This indicates that the demand for secondary education from girls/females in these states is higher than males and the Open schooling system provides this opportunity.

Fig 9: State wise distribution of female learners in NIOS in ascending order along with the corresponding male enrolment

Fig 10: State wise distribution of Gender Equality Index for Enrolment in NIOS

From Fig 10, and Fig 11, it is seen that GEI is highest for West Bengal (0.99) and least for Haryana (0.36).

Fig 11: Distribution of GEI at Secondary level for Participation

This indicates that with a GEI value of > 0.9 in Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and West Bengal participation of male and female learners is almost equal. As mentioned earlier, in spite of high GEI for literacy rate in Kerala, there is a considerable gap between male and female enrolment in NIOS at Secondary level resulting in low GEI (0.41) in case of open schooling. This could be due to non-availability of regional language programmes or the demand for secondary education could be lower among females.


NIOS provides a choice of subjects to learners at the Secondary level. A learner can choose any five subjects from among 23, with one language subject being a compulsory requirement for certification. The usual school subjects at this level are Hindi, English, Mathematics, Science, and Social Science. The female share in each of these subjects in NIOS for the year 2003-04 has been examined keeping in mind that learners can choose different combinations of subjects. Table 1 shows the Statewise percent of female distribution by field of study. In all states less than 50% female learners enrolled in NIOS opted for Mathematics. The lowest percent of female learners in mathematics is in Uttar Pradesh (6.54%). Considering the choice between Science and Mathematics, it is seen that in all states except Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala, more female learners preferred Science as a subject of study. In today's technological world, proficiency in science and mathematics has become particularly important as jobs increasingly require workers with mathematical skills and scientific knowledge to solve problems. Females will lag behind and create gender differences in the job market as well if they are not prepared academically in these two subjects. For educationally backward states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, Hindi seems to be the preferred subject of study by female learners as compared to other subjects probably because Hindi is also the mother tongue in these States. However, it is seen that in Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar island more than 50 % female learners' opted for Hindi, English, Science and Social Science subjects. This indicates that most female learners in these states choose these four subjects along with another different subject to fulfil the criteria required for secondary level. In an earlier analysis by Sujatha (2002), it was found that the subjects which more than 50% of the enrolled learners opted for are Hindi, English, Mathematics, Science, Social Science, Commerce and Home Science.


Thus, there are not only gender differences in the enrolment of learners in NIOS but also in subject choices across the states of the country.


Academic performance is a key measure of school success. This could be studied in the context of NIOS female enrolment and subject choice. Examinations are conducted twice a year and a learner gets nine chances to fulfil the requirements of certification at the secondary level. Considering the results of a typical year (April 2005 examination result) it is seen that the average percent of female learners certified at the secondary level is about 32%. While this may seem small but there are large numbers of female learners qualifying in one or more subjects, and since they accumulate the credits, it cannot be treated as failure. Fig 12 shows the State wise Percent of Females Certified in 2005 April Examination.

Fig 12: State wise Percent of females Certified in 2005 April Examination

It is seen that next to Orissa, Bihar (a state with low literacy but high female enrolment in NIOS) had high numbers of female learners getting certified indicating that female learners in Bihar take the opportunity offered by this system. Although GEI with respect to access and participation has been found to be high for Andhra Pradesh, the overall female certification after the examination in the state was found to be very low in 2005. This could be due to female learners availing the opportunity of flexible examination system by appearing in one or two subjects only i.e. pacing out the studies and getting certificates as and when they are ready. Most learners who receive certificates were able to complete the course over two years. Despite the flexibility offered by NIOS, most learners opt to take either all subjects or more than three or four subjects at a time. This leads to what appears as a high rate of failures. Subject wise pass percent of female learners in the five common school subjects shown in Fig: 13 clearly indicate this trend.

Fig 13: Subject wise Pass % of female learners


Access to education appears not to be sufficient to create an enabling environment for gender equality in education across states and countries. It is believed that enabling conditions that enhance substantive freedom and choice and focus on equality in treatment and opportunity is the basis of actions that States should take in order to secure rights for men and women related to education. The open schooling system with its inherent features of freedom and choice can provide such enabling conditions and States in India need to promote and enhance this. For this, it is necessary to have awareness and correct perceptions of the open schooling system without which learners may not really benefit from the flexible system. By following the norms of the conventional system in open schooling system the existing gender disparities will continue to exist as is reflected in the analysis in this paper. It may not be prudent to say that the analysis reveals that gender inequality exists in the open schooling system in a similar manner as it does in the formal schooling system. Promising signs are seen in some backward states like Bihar. On the other hand, concerns about male learners not participating in secondary education through this flexible system in the north eastern state of Nagaland and Mizoram are also reflected. Hence it is felt that a more detailed study is needed to draw generalisations about this system and compare it with the formal system on the issue of gender. This is an important issue since balanced and sustainable development goes hand in hand with gender equality.


  1. Census of India. 2001.
  2. Govt. of India (2006), Selected Educational Statistics, 2003-04 , MHRD, New Delhi.
  3. National Open School. (2004). Annual Report: 2003-04, New Delhi.
  4. NIOS: At a Glance (2006), New Delhi, NIOS.
  5. Sujatha, K. (2002). Distance Education at Secondary level in India: the National Open School. Paris: UNSECO: International Institute for Educational Planning.
  6. Subrahmanian, Ramya. (2003/04). “ GENDER EQUALITY IN EDUCATION: Definition and Measurements”. Background Paper for UNESCO Global Monitoring Report 2003-043.
  7. Wilson, D (2003). “Human Rights: Promoting gender equality in and through Education”. Background Paper for EFA GMR2003/4


I take this opportunity to acknowledge Dr Suneeta Kulkarni, and Dr Sugata Mitra for providing valuable inputs to make the concept meaningful. Also my sincere thanks are due to Mr S K Prasad who provided me with the relevant data for the paper.


Fig 1: Number of AI’s in different parts of the Country

Fig 2: State wise Distribution of AI’s and the Enrolment of male and female learners in NIOS

Fig 3

Fig 4

Fig 5

Fig 6: State wise Female Literacy rate

Fig 7: Statewise Gender Equality Index for Literacy Rate

Fig 8: State wise Distribution of Female Learners in NIOS

Fig 9: State wise distribution of female learners in NIOS in ascending order along with the corresponding male enrolment

Fig 10: State wise distribution of Gender Equality Index for Enrolment in NIOS

Fig 11: Distribution of GEI at Secondary level for Participation


Fig 12: State wise Percent of females Certified in 2005 April Examination

Fig 13: Subject wise Pass % of female learners

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