There are many things that hinder women from getting something as basic as an education. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says that poverty, geographical isolation, minority status, early marriage and pregnancy, gender-based violence, and traditional attitudes about the status and role of women are among the many obstacles that prevent women from fully exercising their right to participate in, complete, and benefit from education. The result, the UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics reveals, is that there are 16 million girls in the world who will never set foot in a classroom.
Why men need to play a role in women’s education
Women also account for two-thirds of the 750 million adults without basic literacy, indicating that while boys in some regions of the world are equally disadvantaged, lack of access to education plagues girls more, clearly. What’s equally evident is that to bring about concrete global changes, and bridge this gender gap in education, engaging men and boys in gender transformative programs or initiatives is of vital importance. This is primarily because women’s empowerment is not a goal that can be achieved in a vacuum.
The everyday inequality and discrimination women face is directly associated with our relations with men, especially when it comes to accessing resources and decision-making. It’s therefore quite logical that eliminating these inequalities require equal, if not more, efforts by men and boys.
Now if you’re assuming this is a new-fangled idea, think again. History is testament to the fact that enlightened men—men who see women as equal partners with unlimited potential rather than subjects or objects to control—have played a huge role in helping women find their voice, make their stand and march towards liberation. Don’t believe us? Here’s a quick look at five famous men in history who helped Indian women actively, and throughout their lives, in getting an education. Do present-day men and boys need to look any further for inspiration? We think not!
Raja Ram Mohun Roy
You may know this 19th century social reformer as the leader credited for the abolition of the Sati pratha—where a widow is burned alive on the funeral pyre of her dead husband—but there’s a lot more that Raja Ram Mohun Roy accomplished during his life. When it comes to education reform, Roy was one of the leading Bengali intelligentsia who believed in teaching Indians Western science, literature, philosophy and medicine. Not only was he one of the founders of major educational institutions like Hindu College (later known as Presidency College), the City College, and numerous English Schools across colonial Calcutta, but also advocated the need for educating women.
Education Indian women was already a target set by Christian missionaries, but it was Roy who helped popularize the concept among the elite Hindus. His argument against those naysayers who believed educating women was against Hindu culture was to delve into the shastras and prove that women’s education formed a core of ancient Hindu traditions, and had led to near-mythical women scholars like Gargi and Maitreyi. The Brahmo Samaj, which was founded by Roy, worked tirelessly to remove these stereotypical, popular prejudices against women’s education. In fact, most of the girls’ schools that later emerged in Bengal were deeply influenced by Roy’s decades worth of campaigns for women’s education and other rights.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar
Quite like Roy, school textbooks celebrate Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar as the Indian reformer behind the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856. What many don’t know is that Vidyasagar was a social reformer who understood that a mere act of legislation cannot change the fate of women in the country, nor would it help women fight centuries of social oppression. Educating women was, therefore, the larger, lifelong goal he tireless worked towards. As one of the leading educators of the time, Vidyasagar held power to lobby for schools for the Indian girl child, and the fact that he exercised this power to the hilt is a fact that cannot be denied.
Vidyasagar organized a fund called the Nari Shiksha Bhandar, and led door-to-door campaigns asking families to allow their daughters to be enrolled in schools. He frequently campaigned for women’s education through contemporary English and Bengali publications like the Hindu Patriot, Tattwabodhini Patrika and Somprakash. He not only opened 35 girls schools across Bengal, enrolling 1,300 girls successfully, but also helped JE Drinkwater Bethune establish the first permanent girls’ school in India, the Bethune School, in 1849.
The fact that Jyotirao Phule, and his wife, Savitribai Phule, were the pioneers of women’s education in India is well known. Phule’s lifelong drive for women’s education stemmed from his own personal experiences as a Dalit man living in 19th century India. He realized that as long as the shudras, ati-shudras and women—all marginalized categories—were deprived of education, they would not be able to get a voice of their own, let alone develop as communities with self-respect and basic human rights. This idea was proved when Phule visited the Christian missionary school run by Cynthia Farrars in Ahmednagar (the institution where Savitribai also studied), and observed how much confidence the female students had gained.
So, in August 1848, Phule opened the first girls’ school in the house of Shri Bhide in Pune. It’s reported that on the very first day, nine girls from different social backgrounds enrolled at the school. Between 1848 and 1852, Phule and Savitribai opened 18 schools in and around Pune, all of them for girls as well as for children from Dalit families. What’s more, observing that many were unable to attend school because they worked during the day, Phule also opened many night schools by 1855.
Periyar EV Ramaswamy
“Only education, self-respect and rational qualities will uplift the down-trodden,” the Dravidian social reformer EV Ramaswamy, popularly known as Periyar or Thanthai Periyar, is known to have quipped once upon a time—and never have words been truer, especially for women. You may not know much about this social reformer, but the work he did to advocate for women’s rights, especially right to education, vocation and property, is unparalleled in Indian history. Not only did he argue that ideas like chastity should not be unfairly heaped on only women, but also believed that women should have unhindered access to education, especially vocational education.
A scholar of ancient Tamil literature, Periyar used instances from these texts to prove that education is a basic women’s right. Not only did he actively campaign for women’s education, but also wanted it to be holistic with an inclusion of physical activity so that women develop physical strength as well as mental acuity. Further, he advocated that women should also be provided job-oriented education, and helped establish institutions like nursing schools and engineering colleges for women in Trichy and Thanjavur.
Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is popularly celebrated as the chief architect of the Indian constitution, and also as an icon for the Dalit rights movements in the country. But Ambedkar believed that women have a key role to play in the emancipation of oppressed communities, and this could be done by ensuring their own rights to property and education. “I measure the progress of community by the degree of progress which women have achieved,” he said at the Second All-India Depressed Classes Women’s Conference held on 20 July, 1942. “I shall tell you a few things which I think you should bear in mind. Learn to be clean; keep free from all vices. Give education to your children. Instill ambition in them. Inculcate on their minds that they are destined to be great. Remove from them all inferiority complexes.”
To achieve these goals, Ambedkar advocated for women’s right to be educated along with men in the same schools and colleges, since it would ensure that both get the same quality of education. He believed that women’s education could help them achieve two purposes: their own empowerment, and the empowerment of others through them. However, Ambedkar argued against professional or vocational education as per the British education system, since it aims at creating a clerical nature of workers. His emphasis, instead, was on secular education for social emancipation and freedom so that depressed classes can enhance their social, economic and political status.