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Women in higher education

Sabiha Mansoor

Studies on women stress the role of higher education for empowerment of women, the need to provide equal opportunities to women for employment and professional development, and the critical role of media in reversing negative attitudes to women in a patriarchal society

Women face numerous problems in higher education, especially access and retention. The significant gap between university women graduates and employment is also a matter of concern. As such, there is an urgent need for the government and Higher Education Commission (HEC) to formulate policies and strictly monitor their implementation to make Vision 2020 embrace the EFA and MDG of strengthening women and enabling them to become equal partners in economic development.

There is a close link between social and economic development of a country and the provision of quality higher education to its youth, irrespective of gender. The constitution ensures equality of human rights and discourages any discrimination based on sex. It also affirms its mission of taking practical steps to ensure women’s participation in all spheres of life.

Educational policies in Pakistan have systematically included two objectives: increase in female access to education and reduction in the gender gap. A close look however reveals that many of these policies till the late 1990s maintained the status quo of the traditional role of women as homemakers, primary schoolteachers, nurses and secretaries. Focus on access to higher education for women came with the National Education Policy, 1998-2010, which recommended the establishment of one or more women’s universities, with campuses in all provinces.

Women face a host of issues in terms of access, retention, and completion in higher education even today. The main factors are: first, there is a limited pool of female students who can access higher education due to gender disparity in primary and secondary education; poverty; cultural constraints such as early marriages; physical distance to higher education institutes, and sexual harassment at the workplace. Second, there is limited participation of women in fields related to science and technology and professional degrees due to restricted disciplines in the area of humanities and social sciences being offered in women’s universities, reinforcing the stereotype of women as mothers and housewives. Third, there is low self-esteem and lack of confidence in women undergraduates due to negative societal attitudes and deprivation of their due rights. Fourth, there is low representation of women in leadership positions in higher education due to a male-dominated outlook that relegates women to inferior positions.

Research studies have also identified that negative university policies act as a hindrance for women to pursue higher studies and careers. These include residence requirements, the inability to transfer credits, insistence on fulltime study, lack of childcare facilities, and inadequate health services. In addition, unequal and inadequate opportunities for employment, advancement and compensation, including a lack of fellowships and grants are additional problems for women seeking academic careers.

During the last decade, the HEC has invested heavily in enhancing access of school graduates to higher education. Consequently, the number of students enrolled in higher education has doubled and currently there is gender parity in higher education institutions with female students achieving overall higher grades than male students. Despite the increase in number of university women graduates, there is still a very low percentage of women taking up employment, leading to a great loss of national wealth and resulting in a status quo and limited role for women. As one sociologist puts it, “Our best women — those in whom society has invested most heavily — underperform, underachieve, and under produce. We waste them and they waste themselves.”

According to the Human Development Report (2000), less than two percent of all employed women are working as legislators, managers, and other senior officials of Pakistan. The average monthly income of females in Pakistan is Rs 2,477 ($ 42) compared to males at Rs 3686 ($ 62) indicating a gap between the opportunities available to men and women to access professions and leadership positions. It is, therefore, important to identify the factors that facilitate women to become successful professionals.

Studies on women stress the role of higher education for empowerment of women, the need to provide equal opportunities to women for employment and professional development, and the critical role of media in reversing negative attitudes to women in a patriarchal society. The rapid development of social support mechanisms to enable Pakistani women to achieve their full potential in a dominant patriarchal society must be emphasised.

The findings of various studies on women and higher education and employment help to suggest policy for gender and education reforms to enhance the status and role of women as professionals and maximise their impact on their beneficiaries, as well as to bring qualitative improvements in education in Pakistan. These include the need for all organs of the state and government machinery, including the HEC, to adopt the following steps:

Provide resistance to the ‘Talibanisation’ of Pakistani society, which promotes the radical version of Islam highly detrimental to women’s rights in Pakistan. It can be done by propagating the liberal view of Islam as the underlying foundation of values and beliefs, and developing a code of conduct as well an action plan to safeguard women’s rights in higher education. The HEC should also develop and introduce a curriculum for Islamic Studies in higher education that helps students to develop a tolerant attitude and respect towards others, irrespective of caste, creed, or gender.

Support the judiciary to play its due role of striking down all types of inhuman and traditional tribal customs, such as honour killings, ‘karo-kari,’ ‘wata-satta’. All societal practices must be eradicated that are detrimental to strengthening the status and role of professional women by setting up departments of Women’s Studies in all universities to help create awareness of injustices in society towards women and promote an environment conducive to women’s development.

Develop textbooks and conduct media awareness campaigns depicting women as active contributors to socio-economic development, to help change stereotypical attitudes against women, and to impose restrictions on all textbooks, media and advertising campaigns in universities that downgrade the status and role of professional women.

Provide ample opportunities for women to access higher education through reserved seats for women in higher education institutes along with full scholarships for bright and hardworking women. As a temporary measure, 50 percent of all undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships including foreign scholarships should be earmarked for women for the next five years. The HEC should help set up Career Counseling and Job Placement Centres in universities to provide ample opportunities for professional development of promising women graduates who are hardworking and committed so as to access the most lucrative jobs.

Provide safety and security of women and support mechanisms in the workplace, particularly for single women, at various stages and levels of her personal and professional life to enable women to make their maximum contribution. The setting up of the HEC Task Force on sexual harassment is encouraging. Further work needs to be done to enhance the scope of legislation of the Protection against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act 2010 as a comprehensive Act that takes into consideration all aspects of safety and security of women, including separate transport and residential facilities for professional women. Day care centres should be set up to facilitate young mothers in universities. In addition, support should be provided to all forums and women organisations that work towards strengthening the status of professional women.

Provide equal opportunities as well as additional support to rural women students to access quality education and avail scholarships for higher studies abroad. Also, the HEC should ensure that the funds for development of rural women are earmarked so as to make up for the existing gaps. The HEC should also provide improvements in physical infrastructure of higher education institutions as well adequate human resources and technology for women.

Provide support to women to undertake research studies as well as training in developing research skills with a focus on gender- and education-related projects so as to provide insights in these critical areas. The reasons for these poor linkages between graduates and the employment sector need to be explored through a major research study.

Adopt a policy to provide equal number of senior leadership positions so that women can have an equal voice in policy-making. One such step should be to have an equal number of women in key areas such as vice-chancellors in universities. The HEC needs to appoint women on selection panels for vice-chancellors of different universities, especially women’s universities.

Provide support to minority women students by imparting high quality education as well as in facilitating their development through incentives and rewards. Special seats should be earmarked for minority students and faculty.

Adopt a gender-specific approach in preparing and implementing its budget in all areas so that women students can be developed at par with male students.

Since its inception in 2002, the HEC has aimed its efforts to help improve the participation of women in higher education by creating opportunities and offering incentives. The need to enhance the role and participation of women in higher education and employment is dependent on a multitude of socio-cultural and economic factors. As such, the HEC should develop a policy statement on women along with a multi-dimensional strategy for structural changes including a coordinated effort with the Ministry of Women’s Development, NGOs, and other stakeholders for effective implementation.

The writer is the Vice-Chancellor Lahore College University for Women. She can be contacted drsabihamansoor@gmail.com

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