For many school-going children, stories in textbooks are their first source of exposure to the world that lies beyond their home and classroom. Inevitably, the contents of these stories shape what children perceive as ‘normal’ in society. Gayatri Bhatnagar explains why bringing diversity in the curriculum – be it in terms of gender, religion, socio-economic status, physical disability, or sexual orientation – is the first step towards making the classroom more inclusive.

As is with most school-going children, the most exciting part of a new school year for me was the new textbooks – especially the English and Hindi textbooks! They came with a promise of showing me a new world of stories that I could happily get lost in.

However, I always wondered why women in these stories were often written as traditional, vulnerable, and side characters. Most of these stories were written by men, about men.

For a large number of children in India, school textbooks are their only source of stories. Hence, it is crucial to expose them to the right kind of literature in their primary and secondary language subjects.

India has primarily 4 boards of school education, out of which the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is the most popular one. CBSE prescribes books published by the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT). Since these books are used all over the country, analyzing them in terms of diversity becomes particularly important.

According to the latest All India School Education Survey by NCERT, 51 percent of schools in India use Hindi as the medium of instruction at the elementary and upper-secondary stages, whereas English is used by about 15 and 33 percent schools at the elementary and upper-secondary stages, respectively.

In order to find out how diverse NCERT books are in terms of gender, I looked into the NCERT books prescribed to classes 3, 6, 9, and 12. Taking into account both main and supplementary books (which include both prose and poetry chapters), I looked at the ratio of writers/poets by gender, and here’s what I found –

Hindi textbooks

Class 3 Class 6 Class 9 Class 12
Male 10 14 40 44
Female 1 4 5 4
Unknown/Anonymous/Folktales 4 1 0 0
Total 15 19 45 48

English textbooks

Class 3 Class 6 Class 9 Class 12
Male 2 10 18 31
Female 7 7 5 13
Unknown/Anonymous/Folktales 9 11 0 0
Total 18 28 23 44

Some of the questions that arise after this analysis are: for a language that is the medium of education for 51 percent of schools in India, why is the gender representation of women in literature so low? Without undermining the importance of stories of women like Bachendri Pal included in the Class 12 syllabus, where are the ordinary women, their everyday stories, and even their disappearing dreams?

The few examples I did find of women telling their own stories include Zitkala Sa’s 'The Cutting of my Long Hair,' Bama's 'We too are human beings,' Krishna Sobti’s ‘Bachpan,' Mridula Garg’s ‘Mere Sang ki Aurtein,' and Kamala Das’ ‘My Mother at Sixty Six’ amongst many others.

Even then, the proportion of these stories to the number of stories by male authors is exceptionally low. Other studies have also confirmed that the representation in NCERT textbooks unfortunately still leans towards the male narrative and showcases age-old gender stereotypes.

When we talk about diversity, we should think not only about gender but religion, socio-economic status, being able-bodied, and even sexual orientation. Girls, children of lower castes, differently-abled children, and those belonging to the LGBTQ community are conspicuously underrepresented in the curricula of most schools. This lack of representation can send a negative message to young minds: one that tells them they are not worthy of being shown in a positive light, or even being shown as they are.

When we include more diverse stories in textbooks, a lot of things can happen: cross-cultural understanding, the development of tolerance and empathy towards different people and environments, the understanding of class and its repercussions, and much more. Diverse stories can also help children discard harmful stereotypes that might be passed onto them by people in their lives and help reduce bullying – one of the most common problems in schools all over the country. Studies have also shown that students thrive in diverse environments, improving both their academic and creative performance.

Of course, diverse literature cannot fully impact the classroom unless teachers are trained better, paid enough, or in some cases, held accountable for helping the children absorb the underlying morals; but that is a different debate. With nearly 1 in 6 elementary school teachers and 1 in 7 secondary school teachers not professionally qualified, teacher training is also something that India needs to improve on. Teachers need to be equipped to improve the learning outcomes of students at any level, but improving the curriculum is perhaps the first step towards this goal.

So, what about school libraries and exposure to literature outside of textbooks?

School libraries in rural India face a multitude of problems: lack of funds, lack of space, inadequately trained staff, and lack of approval for relevant books. In this case, what are the possible immediate solutions?

A lot of non-profit organizations have come up with initiatives and could use donations. Childfund International’s "Books, My Friends" program, Room to Read’s collaboration with local communities to expose children to relevant literature, ThinkSharp Foundation’s Modular Hanging Library, and Pratham Books’ non-profit publishing initiative, are all initiatives that could use monetary donations. Some initiatives that accept donations in the form of books areBookathon, a donation drive based in Thiruvananthapuram, 10000books, an initiative that will collect book donations from your doorstep and has centers all over India, and India Literacy Project, an organization that is making huge strides in every aspect relating to primary and secondary education in Indian schools. Teach for India provides volunteer opportunities like Classroom engagement and conducting of Extra-curricular activities.

Recently, the Government of Karnataka has launched a state-wide book collection drive to promote reading amongst school-going children in over 5600 Gram Panchayats in the state. It plans to revitalize Gram Panchayat libraries by creating a children’s section and a digital library; giving millions of children in rural and semi-urban areas a chance to explore the world through the pages of a book.

In the long term, ideally, we need to realize that one narrative does not fit all. Including more diverse writers and stories will make for a more well-rounded education.

Granted, in a country like India, where there is no lack of diversity, it is near impossible to include stories from all walks of life. But each new story published, even in supplementary textbooks, can be a window or a mirror, leading to the necessary reflection that teaches a young, impressionable mind that each story matters.

Edited by: Vrinda Varnekar