Women, Education and Discursive Space for Empowerment

women empowerment

The famous Ghanian proverb attributed to the Ghanian scholar James Emmanuel Kwegyir- Aggrey “If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a women you educate a family” sheds light on how women were traditionally denied education. This maxim advocates for creating new opportunities for women by expanding their social space, but within the ideology of traditional gender roles, where men are key breadwinners and women are primary caretakers of their families and children. The same saying was quoted by UNESCO on its 50th anniversary to promote female education.  The convention of elimination of  all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) also talked about  women education in subtle ways.   The ideology of promoting women education on the traditional grounds is encouraged by all treaties and conventions, which emphasized women’s education in relation to enhanced household nutrition, decline fertility rate as well as infant mortality rate, and for improving the health and education of children. Also women education is viewed as to be effective for their participation as agents of developing their families and communities. Clearly such an approach to implement human rights  aid woman to act as agents of change solely; it may in fact , reproduce traditional social structures and gendered hierarchies.

Reflecting the international commitments to promote gender equality, overall female literacy in India is recorded as 65.46 in 2011 with an increase from 53.67 in 2001. GER of female students at school and higher education level increased substantially. The number of women as students in educational institutions, teachers and researchers also increased in the last decades. Females   outperform in all examinations in terms of merits and scores.    At the same time it is also realized that the increase in female literacy and employment rates in India does not demonstrate that the autonomy and individualism for women have been achieved.

The question is how does education play  a role  to maintain the existing gender hierarchies and division of labour?   The persistent discrimination faced by the educated women has been brought by a study on urban educated women in Delhi and Haryana to examine how women education is being used by women themselves for the purpose of empowerment and for accommodating traditional gender roles and social expectations. The study found that the promotion of female education couched in patriarchal values, such as its capacity to make women better and more efficient carriers of tradition and ensure lower fertility rate. Though education empowers women, but it is equally true that no one can give power to another.  The patterns of female education and employment among the middle class Indians are remarkable examples  where both modern and traditional values coexist.  Education given by powerful to powerless is education which does not produce criticality, questioning, decision making and autonomy, rather subordination.   In Indian context women’s education exists where combination of oppression- empowerment, equality- inequality and patriarchy exist together.  The interaction of contemporary and traditional practices has led to the alteration and  reproduction of elements social structure elements with redefined gender equality.

Educationist Krishna Kumar writes that addressing gender disparity in education goes beyond increasing the presence of females in institutions. What matters is the range and rigours of experiences and space our society provides to them, so that they develop confidence and skills to participate in the governance of the society and this is toughest challenge in India. Women empowerment and educational development promoted alongside structures, which encourage women’s constant patriarchal subordination.  Hence it is common that  the highly educated and economically independent women continue to occupy marginalised positions  in the power structure of educational institutions.

The gendered space of role and responsibility is apparently visible in institutional structures and modes of governance. If an institution fills the positions of director and deputy director at the same time, it is obvious that the director’s position will go to a man and of deputy director to a woman. Women too accept subordinate positions happily and negotiate for not more   than the visibility in the hierarchy of power. They  are being co-opted  into the patriarchal establishment as ‘honorary males’, because their promotions and maintenance of power share depend on how well they support to maintain the patriarchal establishments and find their place within it.  Clearly the question is if education improves women’ decision making authority and empowerment, then, how education can empower them unless they share equal spaces with men where most of the decisions are made.   Such gendered   spaces in the educational sphere are enough to maintain the gender hierarchies and reproduction of social structures.

The Sabrimala Controversy against women is an indicator from a   state where women are mostly educated and employed.  The state has produced a vast cohort of educated  women, many of them bright and creative, but the social conditions are such that  majority of them  are not willing to question the long held patriarchal beliefs or traditionally ordained social roles. The education in India from its failure to dilute a patriarchal ethos, has also performed well in widening the space of questions. Women’s empowerment and development has promoted alongside structures, which encourage their constant subordination. Unfortunately, educated women themselves could not realize it rationally and perceive ‘naturalness’ of gendered roles and space.

Educating women has not been adopted so far as women’s human right approaches, as perceived by the Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rather to increase   economic negotiations vital for the capitalist economy.  Education is being used for reproduction and transformation of social structures in a novel manner where idea of women emancipation and subordination coexist. The roots of discrimination are deeply entrenched even in the educated, employed and economically sound elite.   In India the  education has not primarily advocated to promote women’s  actualisation as individuals.


Education may increase women’s bargaining power within their households as it endows them with knowledge, skills, and resources to make life choices that improve their welfare. But the significant value of education lies in its ability to alter women’s consciousness, so that they   analyse critically and  may question  the traditions, practices and hegemonic structures of the society.  To make  them  independent, so that  they bring about a change in their everyday lives by asserting themselves through a positive understanding and appreciation of their identities as women. The need is to overcome the deep mental blocks about efficiency and capacity of women and to provide them unique ‘space’ to foster their empowerment in actual.

Satvinderpal Kaur,  Department of Education , Panjab University Chandigarh


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