Updated: June 14, 2021 7:33:53 am
When it comes to gender equality, there are miles to go in numerous aspects of Indian social life. But the gap is closing in the undergraduate classroom. The All-India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) reports that the number of women and men enrolled in Bachelor of Commerce (B Com) programmes across the country is now equal — a reversal from the state of affairs even five years ago. This follows significant strides in other undergraduate programmes. Not only did women catch up with men in BSc and MBBS programmes in 2017-18, they have gone on to outpace them in 2019-20. The disparity remains worrying in engineering and law. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the rise in gross enrolment ratio in higher education (from 24.5 per cent in 2015-16 to 27 per cent in 2020), which measures the proportion of students who transition from secondary education, is being driven by a sharper relative rise in GER for women. This is good news, even if these numbers need to be parsed for disparities of caste and class.
The cloud attached to this silver lining is the pandemic. The economic shock of the first wave of Covid-19 and a harsh lockdown has been worsened by the second wave. The disruptive shift to an online mode of education has disproportionately left out weaker sections of students. Women are likely to bear the brunt of this exclusion, undoing these precious gains. Governments at central and state levels must devise a response to this challenge, from considering monetary support to girl students to pushing higher educational institutions to hand-hold them through a difficult time. Colleges and universities must also keep the gender composition of their classroom in mind as they embark on the admission process.
The influx of women into higher education is a welcome shift. But, for many years now, it has added up to a paradox — the appalling labour force participation rate of Indian women. That is not only a function of lack of opportunity and education, but also of the cultural values that see women’s work as primarily circumscribed to home. The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened these inequalities. CMIE data shows that female labour force participation fell alarmingly in urban areas, where more educated women are likely to be found, in early 2020 — as employment shrank and domestic work increased. A critical mass of educated, employable women is an asset for any economy and society; these are gains that the state can ill afford to squander.
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