Navigating the terrain of gender justice in higher education - Hindustan Times

Navigating the terrain of gender justice in higher education

ByHindustan Times
Jan 27, 2024 12:07 PM IST

This article is authored by Meenakshi Gopinath.

Framing robust inclusive and participatory Gender Audits with each HEI crafting and piloting them to respond to their own specific needs and shortcomings would open up more hospitable avenues for Naari Shakti in the Academy.

Education (Shutterstock/ Representational image)
Education (Shutterstock/ Representational image)

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are spaces where a large number of newly enfranchised groups actually discover and experience ‘autonomy’ for the first time, explore or even articulate citizenship – and often confront their personal sexual preferences. It is a space both of ferment and discovery, infused with multiple articulations. In its best representation, it is potentially a transformative universe signalling to society ideas whose time has come and arguably best positioned to embrace constitutional ideals. It is over a decade now that the pathbreaking SAKSHAM Report of the University Grants Commission (UGC) 2013 had called out misogynistic practices and cultures of silence and impunity on our campuses and made sweeping recommendations to redress these.

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A closer analysis of institutional practices, policies and procedures on gender justice is needed. to comprehend the full impact of the layers of embedded inequalities beyond those captured only by numeric gender parity indices.

It is here that gender audits come in and have a crucial role. Unfortunately, gender audits have officially shrunk to reporting on sexual harassment cases. The UGC gender audit proforma, seeks data primarily on complaints.

The reference to a gender audit appears only in the ‘Glossary and Notes’ section in the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) assessment guidelines (2018). The 2020 NAAC guidelines mention, environment audit, administrative and financial audit, quality audit, academic audit, green audit, energy audit. Interestingly ‘gender’ audit is obscure.

Clearly, a wider-angle lens with a transformative vision is needed. Gender audits must be seen as qualitatively different from, say a financial audit. They must not be processes where external experts parachute in to monitor compliance or correct deviations. They are not an intrusive “top down” – “only for women” processes, but driven by analysis, authentic data collection and research, an internally generated organic participatory processes, fuelled by the HEI community itself, that determines its own priorities against a larger normative canvas; sets its pace, deploys dedicated staff, and generates a ‘buy in’, both within the HEI and society at large.

As part of social audits, gender audits must be seen as one among several participatory tools to enhance gender justice on campuses, that address both overt and structural forms of violence and exclusion.

On portals that assess HEIs, parameters for gender audits are routinely framed around statistics on sexual harassment cases; measuring access to education through sex-disaggregated data on enrolment, drop-outs and policy implementation that invariably stop at ‘safety measures.’

There is a need to revisit these ‘conventional’ and ‘default’ frameworks and introduce a new vocabulary for the audit process, with a focus on substantive equality (for women and sexual minorities), representation, presence and voice, evaluating knowledge production, campus infrastructure, administrative structures, student services, communication practices, evolving mission and organizational culture, through a gender lens, seeing safety audits as integral to, but not the only element on the trajectory of gender justice on HEI campuses.

The questions to ask are how does gender shape, for instance.

Administrative practices on campus (do timetables, reflect sensitivity to care needs, who teaches gender courses, are patterns of hiring transparent? Who heads committees and care responsibilities and soon)

How does it shape campus curriculum – (what are the gendered inclusions and exclusions in textbooks, syllabi across departments. Are courses on masculinity offered?)

Organisation structure and culture on campus – (how often are women chief guests at events and convocations, Are there funds for counsellors for LGBTQAI or affirmative counselling practice?)

How does it shape students’ professional development on campus and student services (e.g. are campus recruitments filtered for gender sensitivity)?

How does gender shape an HEIs’ internal and external communications? (What appears on prospectuses, websites and social media?)

How does gender shape the campus infrastructure? (e.g. toilet facilities for transgender curfew timings and dress code in hostels?)

Audits are reluctantly undertaken by HEIs as technical requirements, forced on them by external monitoring bodies involving largely box-ticking exercises. Across campuses there is zero ownership of processes, and several myths pervade – like gender audits only benefit women – or that women’s colleges and universities are ‘naturally’ gender sensitive and so on. A large number of HEIs still lack functioning or transparent redressal mechanisms and often the members of grievance committees are either inaccessible or simply invisible to the community. All this calls out for change.

Navigating the terrain of gender justice in HEIs requires that they frontally chart their own trajectories – not with a one-size-fits-all approach, but arrived at through transparent, consultative, participatory, processes, informed by their location, historical context, ethos, and demographics. An innovative toolkit, developed by Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace WISCOMP is available here.

Such a process has multiple components, involving all constituencies of the HEI community, the SMT leadership, faculty, support staff and students and even alumni. It employs multiple formats--from elicitive workshops to agenda setting exercises continuously revisiting mission, ethos, and everyday practice.

Gender audits must be situated within a framework that embeds equity and justice involving, as Poonam Batra says, all actors in the space to “disrupt hegemonies, develop capacities to discern even subtle forms of patriarchy, learn to become self-reflexive and cultivate agency to call out everyday injustices that intersect with gender”.

Such is the aspiration of Sakshamta.

This article is authored by Meenakshi Gopinath.

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