Herald: Gender sensitivity .. isn’t it common sense
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Gender sensitivity .. isn’t it common sense

18 Feb 2018 06:35am IST

Report by
Deepa George

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18 Feb 2018 06:35am IST

Report by
Deepa George

Leave a comment

The recently concluded forum of Difficult Dialogues, held in Goa focused on gender equality and how the social construct of gender affects fundamental aspects of daily living as a woman in a patriarchal society. In a small state like Goa, one would assume that gender equality norms would fare better. Although, a lot is still lacking on that front, even in Goa, what is exceptional is that Goa University has a full fledged department offering a MA and PhD programme in Women Studies, headed by Dr. Shaila Desouza. Deepa George meets her to get a perspective on how the department functions and the importance of gender studies in understanding social dynamics.

Driving through the labyrinth of Goa University, making it to the Social Sciences block and walking through the rabbit hole, I finally come to the corner that houses the department of Women Studies. Heading the department is the very impressive and imposing, Dr. Shaila Desouza who is also the Vice-Chairperson of the State Monitoring Committee for Women and Child Development and in her second term as a member of the Goa State Commission for Women. Giving me an insight into the forming of this department, Prof. Desouza shares, “The Government of India set up a Committee on the Status of Women in India before 1975-The Year of the Woman. This report revealed just how awfully we fared on various parameters. A subsequent ‘Towards Equality Report’ co-authored by stalwarts in the field necessitated a pressing need to do something soon. This led the University of Grants Commission (UGC) to set up Women Centres across the country and Goa University was one of the pioneering institutes to start a Women’s centre in 1988.”  

Shaila Desouza joined the centre in 1992 and her own personal struggle is evidenced from the fact that it took her nearly 21 years to get her first promotion. With the Vice Chancellor’s support, she near single handedly set up the MA and PhD programmes in the now independent Department of Women Studies at Goa University. Adds Prof. Desouza, “Initially, we floated gender related courses through the board of Studies of Sociology and taught elective courses for students from other departments. In 2015, we started the Masters programme while the PhD programme was initiated in 2013. We did get an encouraging response and I had 5 PhD scholars registered in the department under my guidance but being the only permanent teacher, we could not take on more PhD students.” Despite having only temporary teachers supporting her now, she hopes in time, they will be made permanent. She adds, “I have been fortunate that the Department has attracted good teaching talent who have stayed committed. We have received a positive response from government agencies like the Department of Women and Child Development and NGOs who allow our students to intern with them. In fact, all eight of the first batch of MA students are now well placed in different agencies.” She surmises, “It is not unrealistic to aim to be the best Women’s Studies department in India, in the next 5 years.” 

Given Goa’s status of a progressive and safe state, can reality differ from perspective? Prof.Desouza opines, “We are a small state and ideally there should be no cases of sexual harassment and violence. In Goa, despite our high literacy rates, only 21% of our women are part of the paid workforce which means discrimination still exists. Goa being small, it does not have the anonymity of a big city. Often in Goa, fear of recognition and stigmatization deters them from reporting crimes.” She further adds, “Having served on the Goa State Commission for Women from 2006-2009, we came across approximately 2000 open cases and a lot of the perpetrators of violence were from elite, educated backgrounds. Increasing domestic violence is a concern in Goa and we must have full time Protection Officers in place for the proper implementation of the Domestic Violence Act. I strongly believe that gender sensitivity should be made a compulsory part of the Police Training curriculum which will help the Police Force be more discerning and sensitive in handling these cases. It isn’t difficult for us to implement it given that our force isn’t spread out as it is in the big cities.” 

Citing the importance of gender studies, Prof. Desouza says, “Feminism is about equality and women studies is an attempt to critique social practices that hinder the attainment of equality. Men can also be feminists. The most endearing thing about women’s studies is the interdisciplinary nature. We collaborate with scientists, economists, doctors, lawyers, sociologists, social workers, artists etc to enrich our teaching programme. We are engaged with research and have contributed to policy formation and have served on government and NGO advisory bodies. We encourage students to understand the intersectionality and complexities of how gender intersects with race, class and sexuality.  So then, is the course only for women? “Not at all,” she quips. “We would love to have more men join the course. In fact, with more men joining, this discourse will only have a beneficial impact to the overall cause. Our courses are not gender specific. We also have students from disciplines like Botany, Political Science, Philosophy and Mathematics choosing to do optional credit courses with Women Studies and have one male student who has done his MA in this discipline. 

Making a point, As’ad Shah, the only male student, emphatically states, “In my experience, Women Studies makes students sensitive and sensible. It has given me critical perspective and enhanced my understanding of issues from a gender perspective. As a male, I carry more responsibility in the way I lend value to the course. Gender should be a mainstream issue and as the next gen learners and academicians in the field, we need to change the pedagogy. More men should join this field.” It is heartening that he is currently working on holding gender sensitive workshops in schools, at the very foundation where stereotypical notions can be challenged and gender equality encouraged.

Making this a collective and inclusive exercise, it is clear that the students from the course are not just bound by dogma. Lending credence, Dr. Mamata Kumari, a past student and a current teacher in the faculty adds, “In this university, this is the only faculty that sends students to work on ground with NGOs, companies and government bodies immediately. A course titled:  Gender Sensitive Interventions for Change is the heart of our programme, as students apply their knowledge and create their own projects based on their interests. We give them exposure in attending workshops and conferences across India. Some of the MA students have have also visited Japan on a study programme by Goa University which is rare.” 

Prof. Shaila Desouza has come a long way in her journey that began as an artist with a BA in Fine Art and took wings with her Masters in Social.  Her easy demeanour and calm belies the struggles she had to face. Her passion for the cause and conviction is still strong. The one wish she harbours though is to see more state funding for the Department. She resignedly says, “We’ve got national and international recognition but lack the financial and institutional clout of the bigger disciplines. This department can benefit from state recognition and support. State funding will go a long way in helping with our extension work and research. It makes a difference to women’s lives and contributes to building a better society.”  We hope the men who hold the keys to power are listening.

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