Engendering Pathways in Higher Education in India: Sharing Insights from WISCOMP’s Hamsa Campus Equity Initiative

Students at a campus in North India presenting a folk dance with a re-scripting of the verses from a gender lens. 

WISCOMP Team, Delhi


Image courtesy of WISCOMP: Students at a campus in North India presenting a folk dance with a re-scripting of the verses from a gender lens. 

India’s higher education landscape boasts of an impressive increase in the enrolment rate of female students over two decades (48.6 percent in 2018-19) and the hiring of female faculty (42.2% in 2018-19)[1]. However, the absence of robust gender just practices deny women substantive voice and equality in the higher education space.

In recent years, a spate of protests across campuses in India have highlighted the pervasiveness of gender discriminatory practices in higher educational institutes (HEIs). They brought to light several regressive practices, such as segregated public spaces for male and female students; differential timings for access to libraries and student hostels; imposition of dress codes; use of evaluation as a tool to ‘domesticate’ students, especially women, who raise their voice against gender-based violence; inhibiting the mobility of female students by designating areas as ‘unsafe’ for women in and around campuses; and intrusion into the privacy of female students through surveillance in the garb of ‘protection’. The magnitude of discrimination and violence is worse for those belonging to low-income groups, lower castes, religious minorities, sexual minorities and the differently abled.

Female faculty also have to combat glass ceilings. The representation of women in the higher echelons of the professoriate and senior management teams remains abysmally low [2]. In 2015, there were only 3% female Vice Chancellors in the country at the apex [3].

Several constitutional mandates, progressive legislations such as Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, and instructions from regulatory bodies like the University Grants Commission are in place. However, ground realities belie the aspirations of equity and gender justice.

WISCOMP’s Hamsa: Campus Equity Initiative seeks to facilitate gender-just norms and practices at HEIs through Gender Audits across diversities and faultlines. It brings together a rich confluence of over 50 diverse HEIs ranging from denominational religious institutes, tribal universities, private institutes, small liberal arts colleges, rural institutes, large public universities, single-sex colleges, co-educational institutes, among several others. Clusters of HEIs from diverse regions such as Bhubaneswar and Kolkata in the East; Jalandhar and New Delhi in the North; Kochi, Hyderabad and Chennai in the South; Guwahati in the North East; and Pune and Mumbai in the West, engaged in dialogue and deliberation on gender reflective practices to engender higher education. Inclusion of gender experts from the American academy and partnerships with HEIs across India encouraged feminist solidarities and a cross-fertilization of ideas across global contexts.


Images courtesy of WISCOMP: (clockwise from top) (1) and (2) Gender Audit animators at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune, with a representative of the US Embassy and the WISCOMP Team: Dr. Meenakshi Gopinath, Seema Kakran, Diksha Poddar and Shilpi Shabdita; (3)American Gender Expert, Dr. Kristy Kelly, leading a group discussion with the faculty and students on drafting Gender Audit templates for their campus; (4) Dr. Meenakshi Gopinath facilitating an elicitive session using posters from WISCOMP’s Exhibition When Women Write…In Words and Pictures; (5) Participants presenting their Gender Audit template on Curriculum as a priority area of concern; (centre) In Indic iconography, Hamsa or the Cosmic Swan depicts the transformation of consciousness. Hamsa is the vehicle of the Goddess of Knowledge and is believed to have the ability to be a denizen of land, water and air. Hamsa symbolizes the power of discernment, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and this makes it particularly significant for knowledge. Hamsa is also a talismanic symbol widely used in diverse cultures by followers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Five Workshops conducted by WISCOMP in 2019 with the participation of faculty, senior administrators and students, revealed deep layers of misogyny embedded within initiatives seeking to ‘empower’ women. WISCOMP’s decision to facilitate Gender Audit Templates was the first-ever unique and innovative Pan-India initiative at university and college campuses across the country.

Drawing from the work of Dr. Kristy Kelly, Dr. Debra Meyerson and Dr. Deborah Kolb, the workshops focused on six components that help identify ways in which policies, processes and practices at HEIs are gendered:

  1. Organizational Structure and Culture
  2. Administrative Practices
  3. Curriculum (Formal and Hidden)
  4. Media and Communication (Internal and External)
  5. Student Life and Services
  6. Campus Infrastructure and Surrounding Public Space (Usage and Design)

The process of getting a buy-in to the idea of Gender Audits across hierarchies, and particularly from the Senior Management Team at HEIs, was slow and challenging. By the middle of the workshops, we witnessed a palpable shift and wearing down of resistance to the idea of Gender Audits which were initially perceived as ‘intrusive’ and ‘top-down’. The understanding of Gender Audits as part of Social Audits that can help facilitate inclusive and engendered campuses gradually gained acceptance.

The workshop sessions elicited deeply personal narratives on exclusion, sexual violence and discrimination on campuses using WISCOMP’s mobile exhibition When Women Write…In Words and Pictures[4]. The Exhibition carries evocative pictorial representations juxtaposed with exegetical writings by renowned writers on gender. A great many hidden aspects of routinized and legitimized discriminatory practices on campuses came to light as did understandings of violence that included structural injustices and everyday exclusions and erasures.

Conversations among the diverse pool of HEIs located in different contexts revealed that gender concerns were embedded in specific cultural milieu, even as some common concerns spanned across contexts. Safety Audits conducted in and around all campuses revealed how infrastructure often neglects the mobility, accessibility and safety needs of vast sections of the population, particularly women, those differently abled and sexual minorities. Issues concerning different sexual orientations and gender identities found expression at the workshops through a critique of inadequate sanitation facilities, gender-binary framing of policies, and discriminatory attitudes and entrenched practices.

Log-in Gender, WISCOMP’s unique online Educators’ Portal, has also sparked dynamic conversations among university and college communities on issues of gender justice and inclusion. Through an innovative letter writing series, feminist journaling, photo essay competitions, online genderlogues, and compilation of a feminist glossary, the portal continues to sustain conversations in an expanding virtually connected academic community.

Through its Saahas Awards, WISCOMP will also celebrate the efforts of individuals whose resistance has helped break cultures of silence on gender based violence and discrimination on campuses, and nurtured an enabling and inclusive environment. The Hamsa Project has led to several spin-offs such as the monthly WISCOMP Dialogueswhich brings together civil society and academia for sustained public dialogue on pertinent contemporary issues through a gender lens.

WISCOMP believes that HEIs are not just conventional workspaces as they also have the potential to signal to society a broader transformative framework for engendering learning and workspaces across sectors. The new National Education Policy of India is likely to be passed in the Parliament very soon, and gender justice on campuses still remains an untenanted space of discourse. The journey for WISCOMP has just begun and the vistas for exploration are many.

Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP) is a pioneering peacebuilding initiative in South Asia. Established in 1999, it foregrounds women’s leadership in the areas of peace and security and promotes cultures of pluralism and coexistence in the region.

[1] All India Survey of Higher Education 2018-19, MHRD, GOI. http://aishe.nic.in/aishe/viewDocument.action;jsessionid=5716535F086C2D12E692E05663BB5CDE?documentId=262.

[2] All India Survey of Higher Education, Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, New Delhi, 2016-17.

[3] Kumar, Chethan (June, 2015), “Only 13 of Indian 431 Universities have Women VCs”; The Times of India. Retrieved from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/news/Only-13-of-Indias-431-universities-have-women-VCs/articleshow/47547616.cms

[4] When Women Write…In Words and Pictures (2017) is a unique digitalized mobile exhibition on an intersectional understanding of the diversity of women’s experiences and the contexts in which they unfold. It has been designed as a tool for advocacy and educational projects, and can be accessed at http://www.wiscomp.org.