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Do Women’s Colleges In India Create A Protected Space Or A Utopia That Masks Reality?

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By Azra Qaisar

In India today there are close to 27.5 million students in higher education. Out of these, nearly 12 million students are women. As per the 2011 census, there has been an increase of 116 percent in women graduates in the past decade. With all these numbers coming in, the state of women’s education in India seems to be in a good place. Yet a British Council report of 2015 that states that in most of the Indian universities, the representation of women in academics is less than 40 per cent. The minorities form less than 20 percent.

college girls convocation
Image source: Harsha K.R/Flickr

 

While one side shows that women are claiming spaces and more importantly their right to education, the other side seems to show that there is still a long way to go. An important instrument of higher education for women in India remains a women’s college. A good number of premiere institutions in India like Lady Shri Ram College,Lady Hardinge Medical College, Miranda House and Sophia College are women’s colleges. A women’s college can be seen as both a constricting as well as a liberating space but its relevance is something that is being brought into question time and again in the 21st century.

Why Women’s Colleges?

In 1879, Bethune College was established in Kolkata. What set this college apart from any other was the fact that it had only one enrolment, a girl named Kadambini Bose. Bethune College went on to become the first of many women’s colleges in India. In a world that is considered to be a man’s space, a women’s college breaks this notion and creates a space exclusively for women giving them an opportunity to grow and realise their potential.

Women’s colleges take off from where many co-educational institutions fail. In a country where hundreds of young women are still struggling to get educated, a women’s college remains an important intervention. Mannat Tipnis, a student at LSR believes that the equality of opportunity in a co-educational space is an option and a reality for a very small section of upper middle class and upper class women. “For a majority of women, patriarchy still operates in the same form it did 50 years to deny them space in the public sphere. Even though men are affected by patriarchy too, for women to recognise their oppression and fight for empowerment an all women-space is more conducive,” she says.

While in urban educated India, the line between male and female zones is gradually blurring, the rest of the country considers these boundaries as set in stone. In such a scenario, for many girls the lack of an all-girls institution or an exclusive space for them can mean no education at all.

The Ideologies At Play In A Women’s College

The notions of masculinity and femininity manifest themselves in educational institutions more easily than we think. Men dominate discourses and discussions and the male view of things and the society becomes the dominant view. In such a scenario, a women’s college gives women a chance to lead. It allows them to shape their own discourse and allows them to take upon all kinds of activities. Women learn to do tasks that stereotypical notions don’t let them. From moving around the furniture to film making, from discussing politics and sports to playing football, these colleges give women a space to grow.

Women’s Colleges – The Only Way Out?

In a women’s college, an environment is created that does not have the male gaze. This sometimes becomes a part of a larger critique suggesting that women’s colleges, being a highly protected space, create a world completely different from what awaits outside the premises. Rajkanya Mahapatra, a student of journalism, doesn’t see creating separate spaces for women as a way to empower women. “Ever heard of a boy’s college? They exist but there are very few of them. Separating men and women in the field of education can create a utopia. At the end of the day you have to live and survive in the same world.

While all women’s institutes do allow room for growth, it is also true that not all of them do and some tend to be more patriarchal than co-ed colleges. The rules imposed by some women’s colleges tend to be more stringent than the ones imposed by co-ed ones. For instance, a few tend to emphasize on uniforms and don’t allow cell phones in colleges till date. The co-ed or all boys’ colleges get away with these things. While these practices are highly sexist and need to be changed if education is to empower women, such colleges also remain relevant because of the same reason – their absence might mean a much lesser number of women being able to get a graduate level of educated.

Until a day arrives when a woman and a man are treated at par in all respects, and the percentage of educated women reaches the skies, these colleges continue to be relevant in India. Till then, these institutes need to be there to educate, inform and more importantly empower women.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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