As I googled “mental health of female students of India” expecting to find several articles and studies on the issue, I was shocked at what I found. There were barely any pieces focused on female students and their problems, which speaks a lot about the kind of work being done around mental health.
After speaking to some female college students about what factors affect their mental health, it was clear that a major gap exists between female students and their male counterparts.
“On the same road, I would have to go through rocks, boulders and uneven terrains, while my male counterparts get a smooth track to run on.” This analogy by Afrah Asif, a law student from Hyderabad, sums up the difficulties faced by female students.
Among the many important issues raised, one that was mentioned by all of the interviewees was the difficulty in socialising and networking in a male-dominated, male administered society.
In a piece on Scroll, several women talked about networking issues faced by them in a male-dominated field. The same goes for educational institutions which are built around the needs and requirements of men.
Even among peers of similar age groups, women have difficulty fitting in because of the sexist biases prevalent in society. “As a Muslim hijabi I feel that people get biased, and I feel like they judge me,” said Anam Asif , a psychology student from Hyderabad.
Women in educational spaces are expected to do only certain kinds of work or behave in a certain manner. Madiha Majid, a medical student in Kashmir says, “As a female medical student, you are not considered well enough to opt for certain fields like surgery.”
Another issue faced by Madiha and Janvi Gupta, both of whom are medical students in Kashmir, was that female medical students and female doctors are assumed to be nurses by the patients and sometimes, even by their own male counterparts. The patients keep looking for “doctor saheb” i.e., a male doctor.
Safety was another issue raised, as many female students do not feel safe among their male teachers and peers. Janvi summed it up by saying that, “We cannot trust anyone.” In a survey of 500 female students across India, it was found out that one in 10 students had been sexually harassed in their higher education institution.
Most of the cases of sexual harassment go unreported as there are no committees set up for female students to reach out to. In some cases, the lives and/or futures of the female students might get endangered just by reporting it.
The administration and the policies of the institution play a role in the mental health of female students As mentioned by Afrah, “the behavior of the institutions” has a major impact.
The institution expects women to dress a certain way i.e., “modestly”. If the male staff is blatantly slut-shaming women and not facing any kind of repercussions; if the institution is appointing more male students in its elections and leadership roles—these issues end up affecting the mental health of the female students.
As the administration in institutions is mostly male-dominated, the policies are attuned towards male students. This can be seen by the lack of policies against sexual harassment.
As all the policies are centered around men, there is a total disregard for the menstrual health of female students, as they have to sit through exams, sit through eight hours of classes etc. even when they are going through their menstrual cycles.
Another problem agreed upon by most of the interviewees was the inaccessibility of the male-dominated administration. As Anam says, “Men have this idea that when a woman talks about important issues it should not be taken seriously as they cannot think in a practical way”, which can clearly be seen by the male-focused structure of the educational institutions.
After speaking to four female students (Afrah, Anam, Madiha and Janvi), it became very clear that the structure and policies of educational institutions, combined with the inherent sexism of our society, negatively affected the mental health of female students severely.
The lack of safe spaces for female students in their educational institutions and a large number of male staff and male students blatantly partaking in inappropriate behaviour towards their female counterparts, leads to increase in anxiety and depression; and in some cases, even self harm.
All four of my interviewees strongly agreed about these major, negative impacts on their mental health. I would like to pose this question to the readers: how can we increase awareness about the mental health of female students in India?
We, as a society, need to take steps in the right direction. In order to do so, we need to educate ourselves and the people around us about the issues faced by women. Administrators and policymakers need to work on policies centered around women in educational spaces.