Every morning, Savitri, a 20-year-old student living in rural Tamil Nadu, wakes up at 5 am to prepare breakfast and lunch for her mother, father, and sister. At 6 am, when her mother opens the family shop, Savitri packs herself some tiffin and boards the public bus that will take her on the one-hour journey to college. She likes to get to campus early to study—something she can’t do at home because of her family’s constant demands on her attention.
After six hours of classes, additional study time, and another bus ride, she returns home to clean the house and prepare dinner. Throughout, she avoids the watchful eyes of neighbours, who, at the slightest provocation, remind her parents that sending daughters to college is a waste.
Savitri is willing to face these challenges in pursuit of higher education, in the hope that she can help make it easier for other women to do the same. “I have to change my country,” she says.
In recent years, India has made substantial gains in achieving gender parity in higher education. But there is much more work to be done. According to the most recent All India Survey on Higher Education, about 3% fewer women enroll in higher education compared to men. In populous India, this translates to about three million fewer women in higher education than men.
This gap is even more pronounced in rural areas and poor communities. This disparity extends to the working world: recent studies have shown that India is not creating enough jobs and that the number of Indian women in the workforce is falling fast.
Our team of researchers spoke with many young women like Savitri as part of a six-month independent study on the state of higher education in India, conducted by the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development. We received feedback from over 6,000 young people through a combination of surveys and focus groups.
The young women we spoke to overwhelmingly reported that the biggest challenge they face in pursuing further studies is outdated ideas about girls’ education. Many narrated stories about family members and neighbours convincing otherwise-supportive parents that sending their daughters to college is a bad investment or against tradition. One student from western India said, “In the village area, most people get their girls married off at an early age… Till when will it keep going like this?”
To combat this problem, participants recommended counseling parents about gender equity right from the time their children are in primary school. They also say that schools should hire more gender-sensitive faculty–especially women.
Female professors routinely intervene with unsupportive parents, provide emotional support to young women negotiating complicated lives, and intervene when students and faculty make sexist comments. In addition, students considered their female professors to be powerful role models. Many girls said that understanding the struggles these older women faced gave them courage to pursue their own ambitions.
Concern for women’s safety has also made some families reluctant to allow their daughters to pursue higher education. This is particularly relevant given India’s dismal record in the area of preventing sexual assault, which continues to receive media attention both in India and abroad. As one student from rural Kerala told us, “If India can provide safety for girls on campus as well as in society, maybe more parents will encourage girls to go out and study.”
Participants said that improving campus security, increasing safe and reliable transportation options, and changing schedules so that classes are offered during daylight hours would make both parents and daughters feel more secure. They also expressed a need to increase the number and quality of all-girl institutions, particularly in rural areas like the northeast.
A final issue that disproportionately affected girl students was access to financial aid. The most common reason women who took our survey did not enroll in college was that they didn’t have enough money. As Savitri told us, “Relations will always do that, [say] she is a girl. Why (do) you have to spend money on her? Deposit (the money) in a bank. You will get interest.”
According to our participants, low-income families with resources to send only one child to college inevitably choose sons over daughters. This means scholarships are essential for girls. India must invest more in scholarships and would be wise to consider work-study programs that let students support themselves while pursuing higher education as well.
This spring, Savitri will be the first person from her family to graduate. She will become an example for her sister, and a rebuke to the relatives and neighbours who told her to stop studying at class 12. Her commitment to her education and future is an inspiring reminder of the responsibility that we, as a nation, have towards India’s young women. Making our colleges and universities more accessible to them will undoubtedly help the country as a whole.