Women Studies Centres: A Vital tool in Women’s Development

Abstract: The civil rights movements led to formation of black studies and ethnic studies, and the students movement in l960s that demanded fundamental changes in the academic curricula and created a foothold for women’s studies in the United States of America. Women’s studies today is considered an established branch of study in the universities having full-fledged academic faculty and has developed voluminous study materials and knowledge pertaining to this field. Not only has it survived as a special branch of study, but also, legitimised its presence in the educational system of western world. However, in the Asian region only recently it emerged from within the academic, inspired by UN sponsored women’s decade.

Keywords: women’s studies centre, women’s development, civil rights movements, ethnic studies, black studies, required fundamental changes, educational system, western education, educational policy

It is interesting to note that women studies have become a part of the higher education system all over the world. No doubt in the western world, it is due to impact of various movements that it became a part of curriculum. it was the civil rights movements, which led to formation of black studies and ethnic studies, and the students movement in 1960’s that demanded fundamental changes in the academic curricula that created a foothold for women’s studies in the United States of America. Women’s studies today, is considered an established branch of study in the universities having full-fledged academic faculty and has developed voluminous study materials and knowledge pertaining this field. Not only has it survived as a special branch of study, but it has also, legitimised its presence in the educational system of the western world. However, in the Asian region it emerged from within the academic and hence remained basically a campus activity inspired, of course, by UN sponsored women’s decade. Still the prevailing conditions are not supportive enough to promote much activity in this field.

Though study relating to women issues and the needed action for improving the conditions of women is not new in India, still, its genesis is found only in social reform movement and nationalist movement, but the recent development in terms of a discipline in the regular education system is strictly new in both perspective, based on theoretical knowledge and ideological underpinning in research and in action.

Though in the various educational policies and programme mention of action has been made, there is a lackadaisical attitude in the educational system for promoting of the value of equality and gender justice. In many ways the educational system seem to actively reinforce gender differences though curriculum, text books and the teachers bias. It is only recently and due to the various world development that attention has been focused on women in the educational system. The indifference of the system in incorporating women’s dimensions in the syllabi was clearly made evident at the first National Conference on Women’s Studies held in Bombay 1981. A review of curricula in different disciplines undertaken by the conference highlighted the virtual absence of women in curricula. In response to an appeal sent by the conference organisers to one hundred universities and nearly fifty institutions of higher learning, technical or otherwise for a status report on research on women and women’s presence in curricula only fifty-seven institutions responded and out of them only twenty-three institutions sent their syllabi. Even a cursory look at the syllabi of various social sciences and literature left no one in doubt about the near total absence of women in the curriculum. More concentrated effort was made by the research center on Women’s Studies–SNDT in 1984, by listing the universities where women’s studies was likely to be taught. When forty-three universities were approached only thirty responded. Of these, twenty-six universities reported having some kind of women’s studies programmes but of these again, barely twelve had teaching programmes at various levels. This has been considered a marked improvement within the course of three years of beginning, an encouraging development.

A number of reviews on researches in India on women have brought out a few features of research activity in this field. The researches of the Indologists, sociologists, social historians, anthropologists, particularly of the pre-independence period have highlighted and criticised inhuman social practices and have provided descriptions of position of elite women in family, marriage and kinship network. By and large, the studies glamorised the position of women in the earlier periods. A trend survey research on women revealed that up to the seventies the focus of research was primarily on women’s role in the family, kinship and other institutions. Studies on working women during the sixties were essentially studies of urban educated workingwomen. Further the role conflict of the middle class working women acquired prominence in Ph.D. studies in Sociology. While the legal studies focused on scriptural and statutory family law, which affected mainly the urban, educated, upper class women, the customary laws which governed the lives of the majority of women were out of the purview of the researches. The studies on employment of women were eagerly concerned with women entering the modern sphere, and women’s labour force participation. There were hardly any studies on women in agrarian situation or of the lower strata. The middle-class bias of the study not only limited the coverage, but also, restricted the perspective in the analysis of the situation.

Since 1970s, the research interest in women has not only gained momentum but also has given rise to new dimensions in the field of employment, such as supply characteristics of women workers, impact of technology on women, female headed households, conditions of work, female-poverty, authority and power in the family, nature of political participation, grassroots level of women organisations and analysis of women’s movement. New dimensions have been suggested for understanding the position of women in the past. The conventional method of studying women have been replaced by case studies, oral histories, folk material and non-Brahminical sources. Dearth of conceptual, theoretical and methodological work is one of the striking limitations of the researches in India. Weaving of micro level studies within the conceptual frameworks, to enhance theoretical understanding of our problems needs attention. It is believed that such a theoretical exercise may enrich the discipline as well. Experiences in western world may be of limited relevance to India, as the country’s socio-cultural background is totally different. Hence it is necessary to evolve locally relevant concepts and theories taking into account the Third World social structures.

A major concern amongst those involved and committed to women’s studies movement is that though all these developments are gratifying, yet their entry into mainstream teaching is yet to be done on a large scale. The main objective of women’s studies is not just to introduce it as a separate subject or a new study but is intended to practically break all conventional definitions of disciplines and weave the theoretical concepts and practical experiences with other disciplines. For achieving this objective concerted effort on the part of the teachers to combine teaching, research and action are necessary. Remedying the phenomenal dearth of systematic teaching material for various courses and for a variety of audiences is a voluminous task yet it is absolutely essential.

As has been well depicted in the UGC document, the purpose of women’s studies is to examine and redefine the conceptual frameworks of discipline so as to evolve new formulations in which women’s experiences are accommodated. It is not to be included as one more discipline added to perpetuate the elitist bias of our academic institutions. Rather the organic knowledge on women is expected to enrich thorough interaction of theory and field experience. It is expected to bridge the gap between the academics and the grassroots workers. Thus women studies in India should be considered both as instrument for women development and as a necessary step to develop the knowledge base of various disciplines.

The directives of Programme of Action 1992, which states that Women studies is a critical input to promote better understanding of women’s contribution to social processes within social, technological and environmental change, their struggles and aspirations, conceptual abstracts that make them invisible in many areas of scientific inquires. The programme aims to investigate and remove structural, cultural or attitudinal causes of gender discrimination and thus empower women to achieve effective participation in all areas of national or international development. Keeping in view the above the UGC developed guidelines for Women Studies Centres.

The objectives of the women’s studies centres, as detailed in the guidelines of the University Grant Commission may be summarised as follows:

• change the present attitudes/values in society regarding woman’s role and rights to one of equal participation;

• promote awareness with regard to equal needs among men and women to develop and utilise women to their full potential;

• revitalise university education by bringing it closer to social issues;

• produce teachers who are aware of the need for a non sexist education;

• contribute to the global debate on the women’s question through rediscovery of the debate in India.

It was also envisaged that networks would be initiated to develop in sufficient numbers quality teaching materials especially in regional languages, training of staff, and curriculum design and decentralised area-specific models of intervention.

With the above objectives in view WSCs were set up in different universities and women studies cells were started in colleges. As per available data (2002) there are 34 women study centres and 6 women study cells are in operation. It was felt that an analysis of these WSC and their progress keeping in view the objectives with which these centers were established was considered necessary to provide input to the future directions.

Thus the study is aimed at general understanding, analysing and comprehensive reporting of the efforts of women study centers in the country. The specific objectives of study are to:

• explore the underlying assumptions and actual implementation with regard to actual teaching, research and extension activities of the centres.

• analyse the repetition and duplication of efforts made by the women activist groups, NGO’s, Adult, Continuing Education and Extension Departments.

• identify the gaps in the existing policy, planning and programmes if any, which requires the attention of decision makers and finally,

• Based on the above to suggest planning and management strategies for effective management of women study centres in universities and colleges.

The total sample of this study included 19 WSCs, 84 teachers and 14 NGOs. These 19 WSCs were taken on the basis of all those existing WSCs till 31st March 1997, Though there were 21 WSCs two of them had closed down. Similarly 84 teachers were contacted personally to get the feedback responses. The same method was adopted for NGOs. A specific questionnaire was developed to collect data from all these. In spite of our repeated reminders, the NGO’s did not respond and hence are deleted from the sample, the description of actual WSC establishment wise is provided in Table No.1:
Table No. 1

During the Year No. of WSC %
1974 1 5.2
1983 1 5.2
1987-90 16 84.2
No Response 1 5.2
Status wise distribution of WSCs as under
Status Number %
Independent 13 68.4
Full fledged Department 3 15.7
Part of the existing Department 2 10.5
No Response 1 5.2

It is revealing to note that as early as in 1974 the WSC was established and to establish the second center it took another eight years (1983). The education policy of 1986 gave boost to the establishment of WSCs and thus after 1986 the majority of the WSCs were founded in 1987-90 in the universities. The above table also reveals that based on functioning of the WSCs, they could be categorised as independent, centers, full-fledged department, and as part of the other existing departments. Amongst the sampled WSCs, 68.4%, are independent centers,15.7% are enjoying the status of full-fledged department and 10.5% functioning as part of the existing department.

The following methodology was adopted for achieving the stated objectives:

Specific tools were prepared in the form of questionnaires.

Three sets of questionnaires for each were developed:

i. NGO working in the area of women development

ii. Teachers involved in the higher education

iii. Directors, Women Studies

Open ended questionnaire were administrated to elicit frank opinion of the respondents and to understand the actual implementation of the programmes in the WSCs. The investigators also visited few Women’s Studies Centres, to obtain first hand information regarding the functioning and management of WSC. In addition to the above, investigators also conducted interviews with the functionaries of National Women’s Commission, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, UGC and others who are concerned to record the views of eminent persons involved in the field of planning and management of women’s studies centers in the country.

For analysing the data both qualitative and quantitative methods of analysis were done. Further the data has been tabulated to project the achievements of the women’s studies centres in a better way. To substantiate the data and its interpretation the information and data obtained through documentary sources were also made use of, through review of the existing literature on the subject. Multivariable data thus collected have been arranged item wise while the numerical data have been analyzed by using simple statistical method. Content analysis methods have been adopted to analyze the responses obtained through open ended questions.

Based on the analysis, presentations in the following paragraphs have been made under different headings:

Status of WSCs

The majority of the WSCs were founded in late 80s and early 1990s. out of this 68.4 percent are functioning as independent establishments 15.7 percent as full fledged departments of the university, whereas 10.5 percent WSC are part of the existing related departments.

Status of Director

In general women studies centres are headed by a Director though their status varies from centre to centre to the extent that on the one extreme end we have the full fledged Director, and on the other, we have the Readers who have been assigned incharge position to look after the center. In addition to their regular activities, it has been observed that only 21.05 percent of the centers have full time directors. 52.5 per cent of the centres have Directors who are holding the position in the honorary capacity and 15.7 per cent have part time Directors, another 5.2 per cent centers are headed by conveners. Most of the Directors hold simultaneously more than one position. For example 5.2 per cent of Directors are also Deans. 21% of the university WSC Directors are also heads of departments. 36.8 per cent of the Directors have regular teaching workload as professors of their respective departments. Out of these, 88% are involved in various committees such as Academic Council, Executive Council, Senate, Syndicate, etc. Hence the Directors have not been able to devote much time to seriously plan the suitable activity of the center and the other needed inputs to make sure that the center attains importance and status. It is time that the issue need to be revoked and necessary arrangements be made to provide full time Directors WSCs.

Staff Structure

Analysis of staff structure reveals that in each center there are both academic and non-academic positions. As far as the academic leadership position is concerned in 15.78% of the WSCs the academic staff that are at the rank of Reader in the university have been assigned this responsibility and these persons have appointed other academic staff with the designation of Research Officers, either as part time or on ad-hoc basis in 58% of the WSCs. Similarly 42% of WSC have appointed Research Associates on temporary or ad hoc basis. As far as the non-academic positions are concerned, 21% of WSCs have appointed professional assistants and 79% of them have appointed both project and other support staff as well.

In most of the WSCs the posts are lying vacant due to administrative bottlenecks or due to financial constraints.

Infrastructure Facilities

It is observed from the sampled WSCs that there are great variations in the infrastructure facilities of the centers. Only a few of them, 47.36%, have separate room for the Director and computers; only 21.05% have a library, whereas in large number of WSC these facilities are being shared with other departments.

Table No. 2

Physical Facilities available to WSCs

Facility Sharing Independent No Response
Freq. Percentage Freq. Percentage Freq. Percentage
4 21.05 9 47.36 6 31.57
Seminar Room 7 36.84 4 21.05 8 42.1
5 26.31 6 31.57 8 42.1
Faculty Room 6 31.57 2 10.52 11 57.89
Office Space 4 21.05 6 31.57 9 47.36
2 10.52 4 21.05 13 68.42
Reading Room 1 5.2 6 31.57 12 63.15
Others 1 5.2 1 5.2 17 89.47

The above table is depicts in detail the physical facilities available with the different WSCs. Yet the work done by WSCs in no way matches the facilities provided. There are WSCs with great facilities who have done less work while WSCs with minimum facilities have done much.

Impact on the University System

The activities undertaken by women’s studies centre have been viewed as instrumental in facilitating changes in the very functioning of the university system. For example, till then the mother’s name never appeared in admission forms. Now, in many of the universities it has been included. Similarly some universities have reserved a certain percent of seats only for women candidate at the time of admission. WSCs have also been able to change the rules and regulations in the universities. some universities have made special rules/ ordinances for prevention of ragging and sexual harassment. It has been noticed that interventions of WSCs change the attitude of both male and female employees and students. In fact, they have started supporting sensitisation programmes, workshops and other gender related programmes.

Further, centers have reported that there is considerable change in the behaviour of teachers, students and other employees of the university. Some centers are successful in making interventions in the academic activities of the universities such as restructuring syllabi, curriculum, teaching methodology, research projects and extension work in addition to the organisation of training programmes. The centres have been playing a catalytic role in this process.

A small percentage of WSCs are actively involved in preparing course material pertaining to women studies with specific reference to humanities and social sciences for both undergraduate and post graduate levels. These centers prepare training material in various other topics. It is interesting to note that the centers themselves have developed expertises in certain areas and have started focusing their attention in their chosen area.

Coordination and Collaboration

All the women study centres have been conducting various types of programmes either independently or in collaboration with internal departments and outside organisations such as NGOs. They have been conducting seminars and programmes to facilitate awareness.

WSCs have been focusing so far on gender studies, development of most disadvantaged groups, playing an interventionist and catalytic role changing the attitude of people, acquisition of knowledge, indepth study of women issues, conducting participatory workshops on curriculum development and playing a proactive role in providing information and advocacy.

It is interesting to note the behaviour of the university personnel towards acceptance and change. Students, women teachers and some administrative staff and other members of arts faculty are found to be least resistant in the efforts of WSCs and also co-operate fully with the efforts WSC. Where as, traditional males, senior members of the faculty, some non-academic staff sometimes even students, bureaucrats and syndicate members are found to be most resistant towards the functioning of WSCs. In order to overcome the resistance WSCs have used strategies ranging from presentations and active interaction to frequent and comprehensive sensitisation programme. Still it is observed that there is a great gap between the lip service and actual practice of males when it come to decision making.

Facilitating for other Centres/NGOs/Agencies

Majority of the WSCs are actively facilitating the work related to women in government as well as non-government organisations by organising awareness programmes, workshops, seminars, campaigns and income generating activities. It is also providing guidance and counseling services. These activities are found to be facilitating rapport between the government and non-government groups, networking within academicians and also enhancing participation of women from grass root level.

Mobilisation of Funds

It is interesting to note that the majority of WSCs have been successful in mobilising resources from various other National as well as International agencies in addition to UGC, ICSSR. For example DFID, UNICEF, WHO, Ford Foundation etc for conducting research, seminars, conferences as well as for purchase of books.

Some of the important suggestions for the benefit of the system are at the policy level. No doubt that there is an urgent need for gender sensitive policies to cater to the women’s needs and also to ensure women representation in all policy making bodies. It is high time that the women reservation bill is passed. Initiation of gender sensitive laws and curriculum, teaching and administrative reforms are the priority agendas. State governments should take over the WSCs and hence fund the faculty salaries along with the other regular staff of the universities. Micro Level Policy Planning, facilitation, co-ordination are to be thought of at the level of colleges. Proper action plan at the university level along with the review including revision of policies/programmes needs to be worked out by the states.

Mere conducting of number of programmes is found to be meaningless in bringing out the required results. Rather there is a great need for co-ordinated concerted effort in the direction of achieving objectives as stated in the guidelines of the WSCs. There is need for a proper monitoring of the activities of these cells and for review. WSCs, in short, contribute towards the enhancement of the status of women.


Bhagwat, Vidyut. “Engagement and Disruptions” Indian Journal Of Gender Studies 9.2. (2002): 235-43.

Sharma, Kumud. “Women Studies and Higher Education–Troubled Journey”, Indian Journal of Gender Studies 9.2. (2002).

Indiresan, Jaya. “Women Studies Centres Rhetoric Vs Reality” University News 32.1. (1994): 3-6.

Rukmani, K. “Women Studies In India” University News 38.6. (2000): 55-60.

Is at present Senior Fellow and Head, Educational Policy Unit, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA). As a Fulbright scholar from India, she did her post- doctoral studies in Harvard University Cambridge U.S.A. She has worked with several national agencies such as UGC, MHRD, AICTE, Planning Commission and international agencies such as UNESCO, UNDP, ESCAP, World Bank USEFI in different capacities. Has authored more than a hundred publications including books, self –learning modules, national level documents, projects reports, training modules, research articles, papers and has published in national and international journals.

ARTI CHATRAPATHI. Is registered for PhD in Psychology at the Delhi University and is at present working as a Project Assistant, in Educational Policy Unit, National Institute Of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA). Is pursuing her research in the area of psycho -social barriers to professional development of women in organisations.

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