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Along with the fees hike, there are other questions from the perspective of women students which need answers in the context of JNU impasse situation.
“We know that the prospects back home for many of us are worse than lathi-charge on us. JNU has been a level playing field for the dreams of several rural and underprivileged women. And so, every single woman on the campus is ready to go out and support this movement.” Tanya, a JNU PhD student, first woman PhD scholar from her village in Dadri, UP.
The ongoing protest against the fees hike at JNU has caught everyone’s attention. While the fees hike has been the primary area of debate, there have been several developments in the recent past, which are detrimental to the higher education of women students. For a university identified worldwide for its inclusivity, these changes can prove suicidal. These will not just assassinate its character but will also put a question mark on the dreams of many young women. Majority of these women are first-generation higher education seekers, for whom the university has been a haven protecting them from becoming a victim to the patriarchal norms.
I recently had the opportunity of speaking to a few women students, and they voiced their opinion about the recent regressive developments and the impact specifically to the women students. The revelations were startling both from social and gender justice perspective.
Myths and Facts
“It’s not as simple as about increase from Rs 10 to Rs 300 or Rs 20 to Rs 600 as room rent. What is being shown in the media is a farce. Apart from the room rent, there is a mess charge of minimum Rs 2500 right now, and this will have a service charge and utility charges based on usage which can make it as high as Rs 6000- Rs 7000 per month.” Pooja, A second semester PhD student.
On October 28th 2019, the JNU administration released a new hostel manual in an exclusionary way of a closed-door meeting. The existing room rent was revised, and new categories, namely service and utility charges, added to the monthly fee structure.
After the initial round of protests by the students, the administration rolled back the fee hike partially. Interestingly, the manual now had the mention of BPL (Below poverty line) category and 50% concession for BPL students.
However, as good as it may sound on paper, the fact is that BPL (last revised in 2002) is a category with monthly family income less than Rs 2500. While the use of BPL for discrimination in fees is debatable, the university has never explicitly sought BPL information from the students.
Thus, the partial rollback appears to be a mere eyewash for the students and raises following questions –
A huge discouragement for women from economically challenged backgrounds
40% of JNU students come from economically challenged (do click on this – has the numbers) backgrounds, with a majority of these being women. A fee hike could mean an end to many of their aspirations, since Indians tend to spend less on a daughter if they have to pick priorities in educating their children.
Says Soumya, a second semester Masters student at JNU who is from a remote village in Puri, Orissa, “I have been able to reach till this point through scholarships only. My father, who suffered from paralysis for the past 20 years expired in January this year. We have agricultural income from crops. There is no way I can continue higher education if the fees hike happens.” The story of Soumya is the story of several women on the campus. How can a university like JNU be called central if it cannot provide a space for the subsidized higher education of deprived and marginalized sections?
A deterrent for women aspiring for higher education
For a woman pursuing research or higher education, there are fights on several other fronts. These women are first-generation higher education seekers, who have reached till this point after breaking several barriers and challenging a lot of norms.
While in many cases, parental support is questionable when it comes to paying more for a girl’s education, other times stigmas associated with delayed marriage by the extended family are too immense for the parents to handle. “If the fees hike happens, I would have to look for a job outside the campus because I cannot ask for funds from my parents. That could mean giving a pause to my research because both job and research can’t go together. Already there is a lot of pressure and questioning on marriage,” Says Indu, an MPhil student from Jharkhand.
Many of these women are role models for their siblings and families who see their dreams fulfilled through them. Shares another PhD student Himani (name changed), “The outlook of parents towards the education of their girl changes if they have to fund it. Even today, if a family has to make a choice, they will cut on a woman’s education because the parents fail to see any advantage. As a woman, when you fund your education, it gives you a huge bargaining power with your parents to pursue your dreams. It changes the entire perception towards letting a girl move on with education.”
While the fee hike has been a recent development, few other regressive changes in the policies towards women students also need a mention –
Removal of Deprivation Points for women in higher education and research
JNU in its character has been a research and PG university providing deprivation points to the poorest of poor and women candidates. However, from the current session 2019-20, the deprivation points were removed for the women wanting to pursue research in MPhil and PhD courses. A university where women students are coming not just from economically and socially oppressed backgrounds but are several times more oppressed due to patriarchal mindsets and stigmas, a step like this will put an end to a life-altering opportunity for them. Strangely, such research avenues for women which give JNU a unique identity across the world are now being taken away along with the right to subsidized hostel accommodation.
Replacing GSCASH with ICC
GSCASH (Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment) was a model institution that was constituted in JNU in 1999 after the landmark Visakha judgement of the Supreme Court in 1997. However, the same was dismantled and replaced with ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) in 2017.
Shares Apeksha, a PhD scholar at JNU from Cinema Studies “ICC has made it very difficult to complain. When a woman goes to complain, she is asked to resolve it on her own. GSCASH was an autonomous and quasi-legal body which used to make recommendations which had to be executed by the Executive council. GSCASH acted as a deterrent. We are still reeling from the impact of the dissolution of GSCASH. The situation is grim and adds to the worry of women students at the campus; the amount of catcalling has increased because there is complete impunity. In so many cases of sexual harassment across the country, students have demanded a model institution like GSCASH, but here the administration went ahead in replacing it with ICC”.
It isn’t easy for women coming from remote parts of the country to convince their families to allow them to study in Delhi. Thanks to the status capital city enjoys as not being a very safe city for women, provisions like this have added another complexity to the problem.
The protests continue as on date.
It is so unfortunate that all this unrest is happening at such a crucial time of the year when just in two weeks, there is UGC Net examination which is a key to a dignified and assured future for the majority of women students on the campus. However, what they are forced to do is to plan protests and walks.
A major challenge while working with girls from marginalized backgrounds which worries me several times is that many of them aren’t able to pursue a career beyond school or graduation. The urgency to get the girl child married or have her contribute to the family earning early on remain significant issues at the grassroots. The age-old narratives of patriarchy, illiteracy and poverty discourage girls to even dream of a life outside their limited boundaries. In such circumstances, central universities like JNU have been a hope for several young women. However, the debates questioning the use of taxpayers’ money and the need for subsidizing higher education have put a doubt on the intent of creating more avenues for marginalized sections of the society.
While the fees hike is an immediate challenge, the issues of diminishing women’s representation in higher education as well as ensuring their safety are also important. The unfortunate part though is that the future of several women students at JNU hangs in despair. For something which could have empowered them with a freedom of expression and thus enabled to write new narratives for future generations is in jeopardy today.
As a citizen of this country, the questions we need to ask ourselves – How will the women of this country especially from economically challenged backgrounds and victims of patriarchy be able to break out of these shackles if not given a fair chance through subsidized access to higher education? Is the character assassination of a university like JNU necessary?
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