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How do we ensure gender justice in Indian colleges and universities? This book shows the way forward

How does gender shape universities and colleges in India? A new book by WISCOMP reveals the facts and suggests gender-audit solutions along with success stories.

Do campuses of higher learning in India embed gender justice in the practices and daily rhythm of their work? If not, how can support be mobilised to this end, both from within the campus and the larger society?

To offer solutions, nonprofit organisation Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP) recently launched the handbook Navigating the Terrain of Gender Justice: A Handbook for Gender Audits at Higher Education Institutes in India. The book addresses gender concerns in the Indian higher education space, and suggests methodologies, tools and resources to foster gender equity on campuses.

Authored by Dr Meenakshi Gopinath, Seema Kakran and Shilpi Shabdita, the book offers practical ways to push the envelope on gender justice on campuses. It suggests processes to help institutes self-reflect and answer questions such as: Do the institutional rules and regulations cater to the needs and interests of male, female, and transgender faculty, students and non-teaching staff? Is there a gender difference in on-campus hostel policies on curfew timings, dress code, phone usage? Who is given prominence in the photographs and visuals on the website or brochures? Are differently abled persons represented? How often do male students opt for courses on gender? Are programs on masculinity offered?

Founder and director of WISCOMP, Dr Meenakshi Gopinath is an educationist and political scientist who has received several awards including the Padma Shri for her contribution to the field of women’s education and empowerment. Seema Kakran is a gender facilitator and political scientist specialising in public policy. She is deputy director, WISCOMP. Shilpi Shabdita is a peace studies scholar and practitioner who serves as program officer, WISCOMP.

We asked the three authors about the book and the concept of gender audits in higher education institutes (HEIs) in India.

What are the systemic and social issues that a gender audit can identify and address in the context of a higher education institute? 

The gender audit framework that we have evolved through WISCOMP’s engagement with a diverse set of institutions – rural-urban, public-private, single sex-coeducational, denominational, tribal, large-small – across the country offers space for identifying a range of gender concerns that go beyond ‘numeric’ representation or perhaps even ‘glass ceilings’ that women encounter.

Generally, the yardsticks that have been used to gauge an HEI’s ‘gender sensitivity’ include zero tolerance for gender-based violence and sexual harassment on the campus, gender parity in admissions, especially in the STEM fields, offering leadership programs for female faculty and students.

What is unique about the framework we have proposed is that it allows an institute to critically look at the steps it is taking (or not taking) to pave a smooth transition for women from education into the world of work; how it is preparing them to negotiate gender relations within the home and society, not just on the campus; and how is the campus infrastructure design catering to the needs of all genders – women, sexual minorities and men. How are the organisational policies and administrative practices of the institute supporting for instance, women in navigating professional responsibilities and care work at home?

Our approach also includes a closer look at the media and communication strategies adopted by the HEI to address gendered imagery on website and brochures, internal and external ‘messaging’ on the core values of the institute.

Actually, a gender audit process once initiated can open up spaces for dialogue on a campus on a large number of intersecting inclusion concerns, like, disability, class, caste, ethnicity, religious identity.

Dr Meenakshi Gopinath, Shilpi Shabdita, Seema Kakran and others with the late feminist activist Kamla Bhasin at WISCOMP’s Gender Audit workshop at Kanya Maha Vidyalaya in Jalandhar

What are some of the stereotypes that act as barriers to gender justice in higher education institutions despite the best intentions of those at the helm?

Sometimes those at the helm take great pride in noting how ‘safe’ their campus is and how efficient their Internal Committee (for redressal of cases of sexual harassment) is by noting that either very few or no cases of sexual harassment are reported on their campuses.

Is that an accurate measure of how safe and enabling a campus truly is? Compared to a complete lack of cases, very often an increase in sexual harassment cases being reported and handled by an Internal Committee can be an indication of transparency, impartiality, trust and awareness of rights on campus.

Similarly, there are widespread myths that STEM fields are not gendered, that all women’s institutes are ‘naturally’ gender sensitive, and that gender equality is achieved at the elimination of sexual harassment. The handbook actually brings these inconsistencies to the fore and addresses the myths that are so widely prevalent.

There are widespread myths that STEM fields are not gendered (Photo credit: Canva)

Are gender audits required by accreditation agencies in India and, if yes, why don’t more higher education institutes opt for them?

Gender audits can help immensely in building the capacity of HEIs to perform well on the parameters for quality assurance set by accreditation agencies like National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and National Institute of Ranking Framework (NIRF).

For instance, in NAAC’s evaluation framework for universities (2020), the word ‘gender’ appears six times. Criterion I has an indicator that evaluates whether the institution has integrated issues relevant to gender into the curriculum. Indicators within Criterion VII elicit information on facilities that the institution provides specifically for women in terms of day-care centres, counseling, common rooms, safety and security among others. It also takes note of curricular and co-curricular activities that promote gender equity and sensitisation on the campus.

These are only two examples, amongst several others, which highlight where and how gender equality appears as a goal in the quality assurance framework of NAAC.

Ideally, gender audits must go beyond the conventional framings of gathering information only on the number of sexual harassment cases registered or sex-disaggregated data on ‘how many women have enrolled, how many have dropped out’.

It must also include more expansive areas of inquiry such as the curriculum, both formal and informal, the design and usage of the campus infrastructure, everyday administrative practices etc. can truly push the envelope on enhancing gender justice on campuses. These, in turn, could in the long run result in more holistic evaluations by accrediting agencies.

WISCOMP’s efforts are to engage with HEIs to help them recognise these linkages, particularly the senior management. Alongside, we also try to address misconceptions about gender audits as ‘intrusive’ and ‘top-down’ processes. We emphasise that ideally these should be envisioned and planned as internally-driven participatory processes led by members of the campus community.

Dr Meenakshi Gopinath speaking at a dialogue on ‘Embedding Gender Justice in the Academy’ on 26 March 2022 at India International Centre, Delhi, where the Handbook was also introduced

Higher education institutions are vulnerable to politicisation, in part due to the attempts of those in power to harness or control the passion and energy of the youth. In this respect, how can more gender-equal educational spaces lend to more gender-equal societies in general?

Higher education institutions are a microcosm of society. Today Indian higher education is very diverse. We have a large number of students and staff who come from the erstwhile marginalised groups.

If you look at only the numbers, the growth in the past three decades has been phenomenal. Women are overall close to 49 percent of the enrolments as per the 2019-20 All India Survey of Higher Education. In the faculty, they are 42.5 percent. Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education in India is 27.1 (calculated for 18-23 years of age group). GER for male population is 26.9 and for female, it is 27.3. For Scheduled Castes, it is 23.4 and for Scheduled Tribes, it is 18.0.

So, a large number of young people and their families are investing in higher education. We can look at this heterogeneity as an opportunity or strength. HEIs prepare young people for citizenship. So, the involvement in ‘politics’ is not necessarily bad, provided you think of politics as ‘the art of possible’ or as a demand for the redefinition of power – from ‘power over’ to ‘power to’ or ‘power with’.  

In an ideal world, more gender-equal higher education would prepare young women and men to question patriarchal norms that legitimise power inequity between women and men, cis-gender and sexual minorities and between women across class, caste and religious groupings.  It could lead to change in behaviour and attitudes, and re-scripting of patriarchal norms.

Eminent leaders from the fields of higher education, law and the policy space unveil WISCOMP’s Navigating the Terrain of Gender Justice

What are the unique barriers that higher education institutes in small towns and rural areas face when it comes to ensuring gender equality on campus? How do they fare compared with their counterparts in the metros?

Every institute is different. The challenges that HEIs in rural areas and small towns encounter are different from those in metros. We cannot assume that those in rural areas are somehow automatically more regressive in their handling of gender concerns across the board and all those in the metros are more progressive along multiple dimensions.

In our experience, some colleges in small towns and rural areas have curriculum that is very gender sensitive and there are multidisciplinary universities in urban areas that are completely gender blind when it comes to curriculum. Their students are stifled under paternalistic and protectionist rules and regulations.

At the same time, greater opportunities for interaction, exposure and awareness can allow those in the metros to articulate perspectives that are ‘politically correct’. However, awareness does not automatically always translate into more progressive behaviour and attitude.

Those in metros may be able to articulate viewpoints in a more gender-sensitive language. Here we should reiterate that gender equality like all other struggles for equality and dignity is an everyday battle. There are too many frontiers and each day new ones are emerging.

Were there any surprising findings that you came across during your research?

Dr Gopinath: As co-chair of the Task Force that was set up by the UGC in 2013 on Measures for Ensuring the Safety of Women and Programmes for Gender Sensitisation on Campuses, I came across some startling practices at HEIs during the course of research and visits to institutes across the country.

The Report of the Task Force documented these findings – widespread misogyny, segregation of spaces for male and female students; differential timings for access to libraries and student hostels; imposition of dress codes and sometimes designating separate entry gates for male and female students; use of evaluation as a tool to “domesticate” students, especially women, who raise their voice against gender-based violence; inhibiting the mobility of female students by designating areas as unsafe.

The SAKSHAM Report of the University Grants Commission was only the beginning – it provided the conceptual framework. As a next step to SAKSHAM and following from it, what we tried to do was to convert it into practical pathways and inscribe some of the ideas into the daily practices at institutes. It was against this backdrop that WISCOMP actually developed the participatory gender audit framework. 

During the course of our own research, we were surprised that while institutes talked about women’s ’empowerment’ and gender equality, their gaze was mostly pointing outwards. They were looking at marginalised groups outside the campus, or at ‘rural communities’. In urban areas, this included the resettlement colonies and slum clusters. Seldom was this gaze inward on an institution’s own curriculum, policies, practices and processes.

St Teresa’s College in Kochi

Can you share any inspiring case study from the book that demonstrates the value of gender audits?

When WISCOMP introduced the idea of a gender audit at a denominational all-women’s college in Kerala, the senior management and faculty were ambivalent about its relevance for their institute. The perception was that since the institute was founded to further women’s empowerment and leadership, it could not be anything but gender-just.

As the gender audit process unfolded, there was a realisation that even an all-women’s institute can be gendered! With the active participation of students, faculty and administrative staff, the gender audit process revealed several concerns – lack of awareness on different sexual orientations and gender identities on campus, protectionist and paternalistic student hostel rules, limited courses on gender, inadequate and exclusionary sanitation facilities, and so on.  

The senior management prioritised some of these issues and designed interventions that enhance gender justice on campus.

In a span of a few months, the college organised seminars and panel discussions on gender issues with male, female and trans speakers, with the active engagement of students in the designing of the programs. Some high points included a conference on gay rights and a film festival convening female directors in collaboration with a local NGO – The Women’s Media Collective.

It was considered a ‘revolutionary’ act for a denominational college in that context to partner with a local queer collective to organize night walks as an advocacy campaign to reclaim equal rights of all genders to public spaces.

Dialogues were organised between the senior management, hostel residents and hostel staff to understand the perspectives of the students, share the rationale and intention behind certain rules, and collectively explore ways to shift away from a culture of protectionism and surveillance towards trust and responsible choice.

The college also imagined innovative solutions to accommodate more sanitation facilitates in the midst of budgetary constraints to carry out renovations. They purchased low-cost mobile toilet facilities and converted some existing toilets into accessible facilities for the differently abled and trans persons. A crèche facility was also established on campus so that faculty with young children could balance their professional and care commitments.

There are several other notable examples in the book, like a new university in the Northeast.

Shilpi Shabdita speaking at the launch of the Handbook

Can the format and guidelines for gender audits mentioned in the book also be used by other institutions and industries?

The purpose of writing this Handbook was to offer a framework that can be used by senior administrators and faculty at Indian universities to push the envelope on gender justice. So, the six parameters that we have based our work on and the questions that have been raised under each speak largely to the higher education space can be adapted easily by other institutions.

Some of the parameters could be equally useful for other institutions and industries. For instance, within the infrastructure parameter we look at crèche facilities, lighting and its link to safety, toilet facilities, and wheelchair accessibility. These could be as relevant for a gender audit at a manufacturing unit that employs women or a non-government organisation.

Similarly, within the organisational policies parameter, we look at questions of dissemination of anti-harassment policy, adherence to legal mandates on constitution and procedure of the Internal Committee, hiring, and the informal culture within institutions. These could also be useful for corporate workspaces.

In the framework we propose, curriculum both formal and the hidden (unwritten, unofficial and unintended lessons or values that students learn during their time on campus) is extremely important. How do the employees at a corporation learn its curriculum? This could include the mission of the corporation, and how the employees are inducted into the organisation. The framework we propose lends itself to being adapted. Institutions and industry can also come up with others parameters that are relevant to their specific context.

For more information on initiating a gender audit at your institution, visit WISCOMP.org or write to WISCOMP2006@gmail.com.

About eShe

eShe is an independent women’s magazine and blog based in New Delhi that amplifies women's voices and stories about our shared humanity. Reach us at mail@eshe.in

1 comment on “How do we ensure gender justice in Indian colleges and universities? This book shows the way forward

  1. A good post. Thank you 🙏

    Like

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