Empowering Indian Women through Distance Education
By Meena Laad, associate professor of physics at Symbiosis Institute of Technology, Symbiosis International University, Pune, Maharashtra, India
Education empowers women to flourish: to realize their full identities and develop their inherent abilities in all spheres of life. It also empowers their communities to thrive, and it has often been observed that a nation’s progress depends on women’s social, economic, and educational development. Indeed, education is an essential tool for achieving equality, development, peace, and prosperity (Chaudhary 1991). In this article, I discuss the barriers to and possibilities for women’s educational empowerment in India. I focus particularly on the potential of distance education to promote flourishing for women, their families, and their society.
Education and Social Change
Education improves women’s well-being and gives them the confidence to actively participate in important household decisions. It provides women the freedom and power to shape their lives and to participate in the community and workforce. Education inculcates women’s confidence and increases awareness of their social, economic, and political rights. It is essential to creating an environment where women can equip themselves with the knowledge and information they need to change their status in society.
Education is not just about changing individual women’s status, however; it also plays an important role in social change. Research by Bhalla, Saigal, and Basu (2003) reveals that educated women are more likely to educate their children, particularly their daughters, by enrolling them in school. Education itself is a way of transferring traditions, culture, knowledge, and skills from one generation to another, and conversely can initiate new ideas and values. It helps younger generations set goals to pursue and achieve.
The role of women’s education in social change is particularly evident in the realm of health. Women’s literacy is an important factor in improving a family’s health and nourishment (Chandra 2007). Basic education of girls and women helps reduce child and maternal mortality rates. Smith and Haddad (1999) have observed that it is the strongest instrument for reducing infant mortality and child malnutrition. In Cambodia, Miller and Roger (2009) found that women’s education improves child health by giving mothers greater knowledge of the importance of hygiene and of simple medical remedies.
Barriers to Women’s Education in India
Despite the clear benefits at stake, social, economic, and cultural systems throughout much of the world fail to support women’s education. According to the Beijing Declaration at the Fourth World Conference on Women, “Discrimination in girls' access to education persists in many areas, owing to customary attitudes, early marriages and pregnancies, inadequate and gender-biased teaching and educational materials, sexual harassment and lack of adequate and physically and otherwise accessible schooling facilities” (1995).
This observation holds true in parts of India today, particularly in the rural areas where nearly 70 percent of the country’s population resides (Census of India 2011). The Indian constitution grants men and women equal rights, but patriarchal social systems, traditions, and customs continue to shape women's lives (Varshneya 2011). In rural India, girls are burdened with heavy domestic responsibilities from an early age, including cooking, cleaning, caring for younger siblings, and fetching drinking water from remote locations. Without a support system, they may struggle to simultaneously manage educational and domestic responsibilities, resulting in poor academic performance and even withdrawal from school.
Indeed, research has found that girls’ dropout rates are particularly high compared with those of their male counterparts. According to Das (2010), 60 percent of all children age six to fourteen from rural areas in India do not enroll in school, and dropout rates at the primary and upper primary stages are higher among girls than among boys. In 2006–07, 27 percent of girls enrolled in classes I-VIII (elementary) and 62 percent of girls enrolled in classes I-X (secondary) dropped out of school, a pattern that is more intense in rural areas. In a study conducted in rural Salem village of the Indian state of Tamilnadu, for example, R. Umarani (2011) found that 49 percent of children age six to fourteen had dropped out of school, and 60 percent of these were girls. Among girls age fifteen and older, none had studied beyond middle school.
Benefits of Distance Education
The government of India has prioritized women’s education, addressing its limitations through various programs and schemes. Often available and affordable to women across social or economic backgrounds, distance education is one method that has the potential to empower rural and tribal women. It overcomes obstacles of geography and time, providing access to educational resources in remote areas.
After independence in 1947, the government of India realized that traditional educational methods were not sufficient to fulfill the constitutional obligation to democratize education and make it accessible to all citizens. It thus began to develop alternative modes of education, such as distance education, correspondence courses, and open learning. Special committees were formed to investigate potential modes of delivery, leading to the creation of institutes of correspondence (with Delhi University creating the first correspondence institute in 1962). Directorates of distance education were then formed to help universities impart quality education through technology. The Council of Distance Education, created in 1985, coordinates distance learning, and any entity offering distance education programs must apply to the council for approval before starting a new center, institution, directorate, or program (Pulist 2001).
Today directorates of distance education and their parent universities offer undergraduate, postgraduate, diploma, and certificate courses that are innovative, flexible, and cost effective. Some focus exclusively on teaching students to read, write, or develop specific skills, while others are designed to provide access to higher education or allow working professionals to enhance their qualifications and skills for career advancement. Directorates of distance education are attached to conventional universities and adopt these institutions’ course and syllabi guidelines as well as their administrative rules and regulations. All distance education directorates are expected to provide well-equipped study centers where students can access direct lectures, audio–video, radio presentations, and online programs using a variety of technologies, including internet, television, tape, and print materials. Students also receive tutorial support and counseling. The directorates conduct assessments and exams, with degrees awarded by the parent universities (Pulist 2001).
A study conducted in several Indian states (Voluntary Association for People Service 2005) suggests the many ways programs like these can empower rural women. In Himachal Pradesh, women middle-school dropouts repaired water pumps and maintained them using computer data. With the help of information and communication technology training, rural women working at NGOs in Gujrat and Andhrapradesh used audio and video equipment to communicate effectively. Flower vendors in Tamil Nadu, though illiterate, became well-informed about technologies that helped them keep flowers fresh for a longer period of time.
Distance education programs not only promote gender equity in the workforce, but also give women the courage to make decisions about their lives, families, and communities. Indeed, evidence suggests that women experience increased confidence and improved respect from their families and communities after participating in distance education programs (Janaki 2006).
Distance Education’s Future
To read Meena Laad's recommendations for creating effective distance learning programs for Indian women, click here.
To ensure that distance education programs meet women’s needs, curriculum design committees at parent universities—comprised of academics, representatives from industry and research and development organizations, and subject area experts—should invite women from different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds to actively participate in designing the curriculum. Programs should help students attain increasingly sophisticated knowledge and skills as they proceed through the stages of education. Curricula and teaching materials should be sensitive to women’s specific needs and provide opportunities for them to become equal partners in society. For example, programs on science and technology might encourage women to pursue advanced study in these areas and take active roles in the nation’s technological and industrial development. Programs that promote vocational training in nontraditional fields and encourage life skills development may also be helpful in reaching these goals (Hartl 2009).
Governmental and volunteer organizations in India have worked tirelessly to attain universal literacy and expand opportunities for women. Distance education has emerged as a powerful tool in these efforts, one that empowers women of all ages across social and economic backgrounds. It has helped women acquire knowledge, improve their career opportunities, upgrade their skills, enhance their decision making abilities, and connect with other women through social networking. As a result, Indian women experience not only stronger self-worth, but also greater awareness of the issues that affect them. They are thus empowered to fight for their social, economic, and political rights and to participate in social development. According to Dafne Sabanes Plou, “Women’s access to information sources and communication channels are crucial if they are to attain democratic participation, respect for their human rights and an equal voice in the public sphere” (2003). As distance learning in India evolves and expands, it must continue to provide access to these critical tools for women’s full empowerment in society.
Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. 1995. Fourth World Conference on Women, September 15. A/CONF.177/20 and A/CONF.177/20/Add.1.
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