Knowledge is women's power

WOMEN generally represent half a nation's potential. Depriving them of access to education, we are essentially depriving half of society of the means to contribute to national development, harming national economies and their growth.

By Pratibha Umashankar

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Published: Tue 29 Jan 2008, 8:47 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:12 AM

It is not only, therefore, the right of a woman to be educated, but it's also in the best interest of nations to educate her.” (Khaleej Times, September 28, 2007) This statement was made by Shaikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Women Establishment as part of the Dubai Cares initiative, created to reach out to a world deprived of education and support.

The statement resonated with my experiences at the International conference on Empowerment of Women Through Adult Education sponsored by The University Grants Commission, India. It brought together people from Malawi and Mauritius, Ireland and Amravati. It provided an opportunity for theoreticians working in the realm of ideas and field workers involved in adult education projects at grassroots level to meet and exchange notes. It made us realise that no matter where we are from, the problems we are up against in empowering women through adult education are very similar.

To cite an example, Chris Dzimadzi, UNDP Programme Manager, Sustainable Social Economic Empowerment programme for Poverty Reduction, Malawi, pointed out that education is the last thing on the minds of the rural population of his country reeling from abject poverty. After battling problems of survival each day, the women were too exhausted to think of learning the three 'R's. To overcome this hurdle, a workable model Dzimadzi and his team have devised is to address the basic issues that women have to negotiate on a day-to-day basis like shortage of drinking water and food.

According to Dzimadzi, "The model is unique because it tackles problems of illiteracy, environmental degradation and poverty reduction simultaneously. It also raises awareness of HIV and AIDS."

Rita Sandford, one of the delegates, is involved in continuing education for sex workers. Her programme focuses on boosting the women's self-esteem and making them aware of career opportunities by improving their communication and education skills. This was a tough call as not only society, but even the women see themselves as worthless and unfit for anything else. Evidently there is more to the terms 'women's empowerment' and 'adult education' than meets the eye.

Such discourses, apart from being thought-provoking, raise interesting questions and urge us not to seek simplistic solutions, but problematise the issue further. In doing so, I realised that we need to tread cautiously and sidestep the moral highground we often adopt with an 'us and them' attitude — 'us' the privileged and educated elite talking about (probably in a patronising manner) 'them', the less privileged, whom we seek to educate.

And this has made me give a serious thought to a very incisive point that emerged from the conference — in the throes of globalisation, aren't we, the educated and the so-called more privileged women, being exploited even more than before? Haven't our challenges, surreptitiously and subtly increased?

Globalisation is an unequal process where the weak get exploited the most. And I wonder whether we educated women are not the most vulnerable and therefore the most exploited — both at home and at work?

While we haven't found reprieve from our stereotypical roles as daughters, wives, mothers and daughters-in-law, and from the responsibilities of our hearth and home, the pressures of scaling the glass cliff or breaking the glass ceiling have increased. But our salaries and perks are not often on a par with that of our male co-workers.

On a tangential but relevant note, an aspect that is often overlooked in most discourses on women's education is, it is not only the right to acquisition of knowledge that women in many parts of the world are deprived of, but also the right to interpret knowledge and even more significantly, to create knowledge. It is a significant weapon of empowerment. And by a subtle sleight of hand, women are being shortchanged in this regard. This is, in some ways, even more invidious than outright denial of education because men are seen as the purveyors, preservers and creators of knowledge.

To cite an example closer home, both literally and metaphorically, not to mention ironically — when I wanted to take time off to attend the conference so that I could be part of a larger global community, I had to break the news gently to my husband. I felt I was about to indulge in something forbidden and furtive. I wonder when we women will stop feeling guilty about doing what is right and what is our right.

This has led me to think it is time we women stopped looking for our sense of self-worth from others and learnt to eke it out from within ourselves. It is also time we stopped thinking always about others — putting others before us — and for once put ourselves first. The notion sounds strange even to me. It almost seems a sacrilege. But we need to deconstruct centuries of conditioning. We have a lot to unlearn before we begin to learn. We, educated women, perhaps, need to remember this before we undertake the task of educating and empowering others.

I am not trying to valourise the term feminism here. (I cringe at the thought of being labelled a feminist.) I am wary of 'feminism' entering the discourse as it comes with a baggage of ramifications that cannot be addressed singly and simply.

Women's empowerment through education is important because knowledge is power. But it is also pleasure — it affords pleasures of the mind. We would be denying this pleasure to many women if we deny them education, and thereby knowledge.

The writer was on the Peer Review Board of the International Conference on Empowerment of Women Through Adult Education organised by The Women's Studies Centre and Gandhian Studies Centre of CHM College, Ulhasnagar, India

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