Abstract: With greater awareness about human rights, the status of women in the society has been in focus for some decades now. National and international summits have been held to discuss the issues pertaining to women. Committees were set up to study and prepare reports on the status of women in India. Retrograde social customs like sati, child marriage, dowry, social boycott of widows etc. make women experience several accumulated disadvantages. Women face not only gender discrimination of various degrees and types at different levels, but also suffer the most from sexual harassment, atrocities and crimes. All these coupled with low female literacy rate, make the role of education as an agent of social change very challenging.
Keywords: women’s education, women’s empowerment strategies, empowerment challenges, national education policy, national/international empowerment summits, empowerment parameters, gender positive initiatives, women’s status, women’s leadership position, Sati, child marriage, dowry, feminine oriented courses, female enrolment ratio, role of education, women students, low female literacy
Education and Empowerment
With greater awareness about human rights, the status of women in the society has been in focus for some decades now. National and international summits have been held to discuss the issues pertaining to women. A committee was set up as far back as 1974 to study and prepare a report on the status of women in India. Historically, by and large, women have been accorded an inferior status in society. Coupled with retrograde social customs like sati, child marriage, dowry, social boycott of widows etc. women experience several accumulated disadvantages. Though several of these practices are disappearing due to legislation and other social reform measures, some of these practices like dowry and female infanticide are still prevalent in some parts of the country. Women face not only gender discrimination of various degrees and types at different levels, but also suffer the most from sexual harassment, atrocities and crimes. All these coupled with low female literacy rate, make the role of education as an agent of social change very challenging.
At present there is an increasing awareness, at all levels, of the need to empower women in order to raise their status. It is strongly believed that providing education to women who have been denied opportunities in this area hitherto would bring about the desired changes. Intense efforts are being made to enhance the enrolment of women at all levels including higher education. While one cannot deny that access to education is a very significant factor, it must be realized that educating women involves more than mere access to colleges and universities originally designed for men. In other words, just providing access will not serve the purpose of empowering women unless specific efforts are made in this direction.
National Policy of Education and Parameters of Empowerment
It is significant to note that the National Policy of Education (1986) has recognized not only the need for empowerment of women but also the role of education in bringing about social change, a new social order with greater gender equality. The NPE states: “Education will be used as an agent of basic change in the status of women. In order to neutralize the accumulated distortions of the past, there will be well-conceived edge in favor of women. The national system will play a positive intervention role in the empowerment of women. It will foster the development of new values through redesigned curricula, textbooks, the training and orientation of teachers, decision makers and administrators and the active involvement of educational institutions. This will be an act of faith and social engineering”
The NPE document has also clearly spelt out the parameters of empowerment as follows:
• Enhancing the self-esteem and self confidence of women
• Building a positive image of women by recognizing their contribution to society, polity and economy
• Developing the ability to think critically
• Fostering decision making and action through collective processes
• Enabling women to make informed choices in areas like education, employment and health, especially reproductive health
• Ensuring equal participation in development processes
• Providing the information, knowledge and skill required for economic empowerment
• Enhancing access to legal literacy and information relating to their rights and entitlements in society, with a view to enhancing their participation on an equal footing in all areas.
These are, indeed, very laudable objectives for any educational institution. The issue here is, how far have there been efforts in the educational institutions to achieve these stated objectives.
Growth of Women’s Colleges
India perhaps has the largest system of higher education institutions exclusively for women students. The following table indicates the growth of women’s colleges in the country.
It is noticed that there has been a significant increase in the number of exclusive colleges for women. In addition, there are five universities exclusively for women. India is the only country where there is a medical college exclusively for women. There are proposals to have exclusive colleges for women in engineering. Women’s enrolment in higher education has crossed the 33% mark. However, over 50% of the students are in arts courses and only about 20% in science courses. There are less than 2% in engineering and technology.
The Challenges of Empowering Women
While the enrolment of women students in higher education has increased significantly, it is noticed that a large percentage of them are in arts courses. There is only a very small percentage of women in science and engineering where there are high paying and high profile jobs. Further, the number of women in leadership positions is very small all over the world. According to the UNDP report of 1995, women occupy only 14% of managerial and administrative jobs, 10% of parliamentary seats and 6% of cabinet positions. Several arguments have been put forward to explain the presence of so few women in leadership positions. One approach is the person centred approach that attributes the limited participation of women in leadership positions, to women’s own lack of self esteem, low career aspirations, conflict between affiliation and power and so on. Another perspective refers to societal and structural barriers like “chilly climate” and “glass ceiling” which prevent women from reaching leadership positions.
Gender disparities is a complex issue of the interaction of the personal and social factors. Various socio-cultural factors have stunted the growth and development of women. There is a need to understand these various factors affecting the non-realization of the full potential of women. As stated in the NPE, educational institutions have an important role to play, especially for women who come from not so advantaged, conservative and traditional families, in providing the required initiatives to set right this long accumulated gender imbalance.
What are Women’s Colleges Doing for Women’s Empowerment?
The mandate of the NPE cannot be fulfilled unless and until the colleges move beyond access and academics and provide the required life skills to women to cope with the challenges of gender stereotype, gender discrimination and gender inequality that exists in society. As mentioned earlier there are over 1000 exclusive women’s colleges in India. The issue here is are these women’s colleges doing anything beyond academics to provide opportunities for women’s total development? What are the gender positive initiatives undertaken by the colleges? Gender positive initiative here refers to any program, project or activity, undertaken by the colleges that would promote any dimension of women’s development. It could be within or outside the academic or curricular arena. It could be within or outside the classroom. It could be part of the content included for examination or outside the purview of the grading system. The gender positive initiative has a broad definition and includes a variety of happenings in the colleges.
A national study (Indiresan, 2002) was undertaken by the author to uncover the gender positive initiatives in the women’s colleges in India. This empirical study was based on a specially designed questionnaire and in-depth interviews with key stakeholders like students, teachers, principals, parents and alumni. Data was obtained from 136 women’s colleges from all over the country. The sample included government and private colleges managed by Hindu, Muslim and Christian trusts. From among these colleges 20 pace setting colleges that were high in their gender positive initiatives, were identified for in-depth study. This yielded rich data on the good practices of these pace setting colleges, in promoting the total development of women students. This article briefly presents some of these good practices for the empowerment of women.
Good Practices for Women’s Empowerment
The good practices of these colleges cover the various parameters as delineated in the NPE through both their academic and non-academic agenda. The academic agenda include the provision to women students all the opportunities available to men so that women can compete with men on equal footing. This means offering courses not only in the traditional feminine oriented courses like home science, fine arts etc. but also in the emerging areas like computers, microbiology, biotechnology, electronics etc. It is in these emerging areas, that there are high paying and high profile jobs. This would enable women to shed their inhibitions and enter the modern frontiers of knowledge. At the same time, for those who desire, feminine oriented courses are available, as these are totally neglected in the co-educational colleges. The academic agenda also include the promotion of women’s studies and gender sensitization through curricular interventions, This is another area totally marginalized in co-educational colleges.
These colleges realized that it is not enough if women are given just knowledge and information. Women need to be given opportunities to promote their ability for critical thinking and decision making. This is very important, as the socialization of women from the girlhood in traditional homes does not encourage critical thinking and all decisions for the women are taken by significant others in the family.
More and more women are becoming keen to enter the world of work. They need to be equipped to handle high-profile and high-paying jobs and not be confined to low-status and low-paying jobs. Realizing this, these colleges provide not only career guidance but also offer job-oriented vocational courses. A career development agenda goes a long way in assuring economic independence and thus empowering them. This also helps in raising the status of women in society.
To achieve true equality, capacity building, and not protection and special privileges, should be a major concern. This means equipping women with special abilities and skills to enter life with confidence and dignity. Women need to be made economically, socially, emotionally and spiritually independent. Opportunities need to be provided to enhance their self-esteem and rely on their own ability. All these capacity building efforts were very evident in these pace setting colleges to unlock the enormous potential available in women.
These colleges, through various awareness building activities, help women students to acquire the skills to face the challenges of gender discrimination and exploitation. They are informed about their legal and social rights. Education is also provided on health, especially reproductive health and other matters related to hygiene etc. Women are also given information about the various schemes, provisions, career options and opportunities available. A knowledgeable woman is an empowered woman.
The forces of globalization, liberalization and urbanization, as well as the impact of the media, are causing tremendous social change. At the same time, there exist several myths, stereotypes and prejudices against women. Traditional values are changing but women are expected to preserve the culture and heritage. The role of women is changing from one of mere reproduction to active participation in production. All these result in serious dilemmas. The pace setting women’s colleges are aware of these challenges and efforts are being made to provide value clarification to help women to cope with these dilemmas.
It is heartening to note that there are women’s colleges that are fully aware of their responsibilities towards the empowerment of women and are taking initiatives through several capacity building exercises. However, the study showed that the percentage of colleges making these efforts is very small. Some colleges are not even aware that they need to do something more than providing mere academic inputs. Some colleges even deny that they have a responsibility in this direction. They argue that their mandate is to prepare the students for the examinations and nothing more. Unless the leadership of the colleges have some commitment in this direction, no changes will take place. However, it is the teachers who are the real change agents and they may have the awareness, concern and commitment but may not have the competence to carry out the desired initiatives. An orientation and training to the teachers with support from the management will go a long way in implementing these gender positive initiatives for the empowerment of women. The good practices of the pace-setting colleges should provide the required inspiration for bringing out the transformation of a more egalitarian society with greater gender justice.
Human Development Report 1995, UNDP, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Indiresan, Jaya. Education for Women’s Empowerment: Gender Positive Initiatives in Pace-Setting Women’s Colleges. New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 2002.
National Policy of Education, Ministry of Human Resources Development, New Delhi: Government of India, 1986.
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