The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi’s program on gender equality, in collaboration with WISCOMP, aims to make the education sector in India more equitable.
By Paromita Pain
Meenakshi Gopinath (center), former principal of Lady Shri Ram College and founder and director of WISCOMP, got the idea of the gender equity program when the UGC requested her to steer a report on gender-related violence and attitudes toward women on campuses. Photograph courtesy WISCOMP
There was a time when attending school was a dream for most women in India. But today, as 2018 reports from the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) show, the higher education space in India has almost equal numbers of men and women. Women also outnumber men when it comes to pursuing post graduate and M.Phil degrees in some disciplines. While this is a welcome change, much more needs to be done to make the educational sphere more equitable. The “Gender Equity: Women’s Equality, Empowerment and Leadership through Safe Higher Educational and Work Spaces” program of the Public Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy New Delhi, is being implemented by Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP). The program seeks to ensure that India’s institutions of higher education serve women students and staff by being more receptive to their needs as well as congruent of their rights.
Focus on gender rights
The program involves working with colleges and universities to put together gender sensitization training workshops for faculty and administrators across India to provide them the tools to undertake gender audits on their campuses.
Meenakshi Gopinath, former principal of Lady Shri Ram College and founder and director of WISCOMP, got the idea of the program in 2012, when the UGC requested her to steer a report on gender-related violence and attitudes toward women on campuses. “We travelled the length and breadth of the country visiting different colleges and institutions,” she says. “The report had some startling evidence on systemic and structural violence against women.”
The first two workshops under the Gender Equality program were recently concluded in Kochi and Guwahati, and three more will be held in Jalandhar, Pune and Bhubaneswar. “These are located in the four regions of India, and the selected colleges and universities partner with those in the closest metropolitan city to share best practices,” says Gopinath. Led by American and Indian experts, the workshops aim to equip higher education administrators and decision-making faculty to implement programs, policies and practices at their institutions to promote women’s safety and empowerment on campus.
“In many colleges, men and women are segregated,” says Gopinath. “There are different timings for access to libraries and student hostels; imposition of dress codes; and, sometimes, designation of separate entry gates for male and female students. These gender inequities need to be addressed.” Thus, the Gender Equality program has the following objectives.
Besides faculty, the program also identifies students who collaborate with faculty members to conduct safety audits of their campus after the workshops. Seema Kakran, WISCOMP’s deputy director, believes that such forums are crucial because they create spaces where free discussions and the inculcation of different perspectives help even the experts to critically evaluate the different layers of discrimination and the many complexities involved. “An understanding of the nuances of gender discrimination is very important if we are to effectively address issues of gender justice,” she says. “Higher education institutions are not conventional workplaces, and need to nurture and sustain innovative mechanisms to combat gender inequity.”
The process of creating templates for conducting gender audits through these workshops is an innovative aspect of the program. Learnings from the different workshops are shared through exhibitions, films, theater and other creative ways. “Future influentials”—core faculty members and administrators at the middle rung of leadership—at each partner university are empowered to take on project goals. WISCOMP encourages queries from colleges and institutions about the program.
Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.