Women’s struggle in education

2014-07-11 00:00

DESPITE the strides made by most African countries in creating inclusive educational institutions, male chauvinism, patriarchy and authoritarianism still keep women on the margins of higher education on the continent.

Data constructed from higher-education discourses on the plight of women suggest that while they are statistically represented, subtle forms of internal ­exclusion impede their upliftment and empowerment, deprive them of the tools to address societal problems and keep them from fulfilling their aspirations.

They are promised spaces in higher education but not always given the opportunity to share their knowledge through, for example, research outputs at conferences and in publications, as well as in contributions to policy changes.

The continuous exclusion of women undermines some of the central ideals of higher education and perpetuates gender inequality and social injustice. Women must be allowed greater participation in higher education, governance and decision making if we are to create the kind of democratic society that citizens desire. But how do we improve the status of women in higher education?

A recent study that explores the exclusion of women in African higher education and the reasons behind it, showed that an ethics of care has the potential to disrupt exclusionary practices in educational institutions and afford women their rightful place.

An ethics of care implies that people listen to each other’s experiences and act to alleviate exclusion. Secondly, the caring relation requires a responsibility that allows for conditions where people can exercise their equality. This can happen when dominant groups recognise the humanity of others by invoking their potential and showing remorse when they are being excluded. Thirdly, the caring relation calls for reasoning abilities that enable people to assert and announce their presence as equal citizens.

The type of caring envisaged here focuses on the relationship between the carer and the cared for. It is a caring that moves beyond sympathy towards empathy, one that recognises mutual respect for and the autonomy of the cared for. That is, one that views both carers and cared for as equals, with a presence and a voice that are vital for the celebration of equality and inclusion.

Making an ethics of care a reality within higher education will require policies and an environment that respect the voices of all students and staff, especially women, and afford them equal opportunities, irrespective of their differences. Universities ought to transcend the gender divide in their attempts to advance inclusion and equality.

Adopting an ethics of care could help higher education to move away from gender as a standard in regard to inclusion and equality.

An ethics of care could also be valuable in the creation of enabling conditions that make it possible for women to assert a disrupting voice as a way of emancipation. It also creates a deliberative and engaging higher-education environment in which dominant groups scrutinise their taken-for-granted narratives and ideas, and begin to think anew about issues such as patriarchy and female subordination. This process would contribute towards attaining substantive inclusion.

It has to be said though, that while an ethics of care could go a long way to improving the situation of women in higher education, many African universities first need to negotiate a position ­between international recognition and ­local needs for transformation.

At times, international demands can overpower the autonomy of higher education to focus on social justice. This deprives educational institutions of the freedom and space to care for women and often leads to inequality, poverty, ­polarisation and exclusion.

By taking their democratic responsibility of cultivating caring characters seriously, African universities can help ­alleviate the internal exclusion of women and other forms of injustice.

Apart from inculcating democratic values like inclusion, equality, respect and caring, universities should also produce citizens who can strive for a just ­society.

The time has arrived for African universities in the 21 century to become places where the pursuit of knowledge is indeed freely and equally available to all citizens, irrespective of age, religion, sex and race.

•Dr Rachel Shanyanana is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Education and Curriculum Studies at the University of Johannesburg. This article is based on her recent doctorate in education policy studies at Stellenbosch University.

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