05 May 2022

A closer look at Higher Education’s state of affairs in Kerala .
Author: Sinu Sugathan.

As part of the project on Gender Equality in Higher Education I travelled to Kerala twice in December 2021 and March 2022. I am a native of Kerala my field work was also a personal experience for me on various level as I was travelling alone first time as a researcher as a mother which means I had to plan well in advance, this not only included everyday logistics management but also mental preparedness of grandparents, mother and daughter. Little did I know I would travel to Kerala for work meet students, know about their life and trajectories and get a glimpse of Higher Education’s state of affairs in Kerala. This article looks at the role of women in Higher Education, everyday struggles of women in the space of education and an overall paradoxical status of women in Kerala.

Kerala is the first state in India to achieve universal literacy with current literacy rate of 93.91% when the overall literacy rate of India is 74.04% (Census 2021). Kerala occupies the highest female literacy rate at 92.1%. The status of women in Kerala is considered at par in an otherwise patriarchal region of the world. With good HDI numbers, it is noted Kerala has high female literacy, life expectancy, and a favorable sex ratio but female labor force participation rates are among the lowest in India depicting the intricacies of education and women’s’ labour.


In Kerala there are 14 State universities of which four – Kerala University, Mahatma Gandhi University, Calicut University and Kannur University are general in nature and others offer more specialized courses in specified subject areas. The statistical data published about the state of higher education in Kerala notes that the total number of students enrolled in arts and science colleges in the four general universities in Kerala in 2019-20 is 3.32 lakh of this 2.25 lakh (67.7%) are women students. The number of students belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SC) in degree and post graduate courses in the State is 42,486 (12.79%) of all students in 2019-20. The number of students belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (ST) in degree and post graduate course in the State is 7,311 (2.2%) of all students in 2019-20 (Source: Kerala Development Report 2021). I have only taken figures of Arts and Science Colleges as this gives a larger picture of higher education in Kerala we hereby get an overall nature of SC & ST’s negligible presence in higher education so when speak of universal literacy and take pride in this achievement making sense of these figures depicts the flip side of the literacy rate. To add to this SC ST students, have reservations in claiming their identity they think they would be considered of being a certain kind and fellow students will not be as responsive to them. There are experiences when students have got admission in medical field but their parents did not allow to pursue the course further as they question their capacities into a non-ventured field of education. Thus we see preference for bank or government job in an AC rooms which is seen as safe and luxurious. These narrations help us understand low presence of SC & ST in higher education.

Girls in Higher Education:

At present the Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in Kerala’s higher education sector is 37% we see girls outnumbering boys in general and professional courses. We see women continue to be in higher education scene longer than men, boys enroll for professional or diploma courses which gives them an immediate source of income as men are still considered as the primary owners of the family. Women are largely involved in taking care of the 3Cs of households – Cooking, Cleaning and Caring. Though educational attainment is encouraged, the focus is on women’s role as a wife, mother, and primary caregiver. Women’s education is seen as a selling factor for marriage propensity and in fact it seems to be pastime to delay marriage. Literacy for women in Kerala comes with notions of social development and how this is used for the good of the family and society, and the state. The respondents I spoke to during the research are focused, they are job-oriented aspiring to move out of state and pursue further education marriage is an eventual plan. What is largely observed is society puts pressure on women to be an ideal mother, daughter, daughter in law rather than being employed or independent. Differential treatment for girls and boys in seen at home and in school. Brothers accompanying sister when they step out of home to meet their friends or parents picking and dropping girls to college indicates the restrictions imposed on mobility. There is a constant imposition and pressure on women to stick to these traditionally defined roles. As I was speaking to the participants, I could sense their active political participation at university level but women are limited to non-leadership positions, lack of decision-making power and there is continued subordination to men. The human capital investments made by the women of Kerala are traditionally geared toward general liberal arts education, in which women learn about education, health, and better child care.

What comes to the notice in the quantitative and qualitative data is impressive numbers do not guarantee improved status family, community or work space. If this that the case Kerala would show impressive numbers in Female Work Participation Rate (FWPR). As per the official labour force survey, FWPR have been lower in Kerala than at the all India level particularly in rural areas indicates the lack of accountability of women’s labour. This invisibilation of women’s labour reflects the larger patriarchal structure in Kerala. Preference for government jobs and lack of entrepreneurship culture when there is such abundance of talent questions the developmental process and policies

In this research project many nuances of higher education was revealed the stark lack of research scholars and the hardships of women research scholars in Covid times there was a sense of loss as being in the space of higher education in itself is struggle being at home loosing focus and engaging in household activities the absence of a physical space for education took a toll on the mental health of students so many women researchers discontinued their research course.

Kerala Paradox:

Women in Kerala are not denied access to education however, the paths to achieving endeavors of success is obstructed by multiple road blocks. A woman’s educational status does not give her an environment to digress from the cultural norms and the liberty associated with literacy. Their mobility is curtailed by cultural practices as women with financial leverage are perceived as threat to their male counterparts to their power and status as the primary earners for their households. Moreover, when women are treated as secondary citizens men are threatened by an employed woman’s success as financial independence makes women less dependent and more aware of her potential and ability to make decisions on her own. Most common concern raised was women’s access to public space young women want to experience the freedom of college life away from home surveillance. Simple joys of hanging out with friends or seeing stars in the night as innocent as it can get but there is curb on women’s mobility from within the family and by the community at large. It is a common pattern Male migration rate is high, they migrate to earn livelihood and women take up the domestic responsibility of the household. Women engage into care giving activities of children and elders of the house of which some are working women she is then character shamed for being away from house or working late. To avoid all this woman prefer sticking to the label of an ideal Malayalee woman which becomes hard to resist in the process of avoiding such sort of complexities. High HDI numbers then becomes a mere claim to development modernity with such strong presence of patriarchal forms in multiple levels - family, society, workplace despite claims to economic development. When young women claim their agency or choice the only way of pulling them down is by name calling. Word like “Feminichi” is used for women who claim themselves as feminist under the patriarchal scheme “Feminichi” is a negative connotation.

I am essentially arguing that despite the importance of development, under¬standing the constant persistence of gender inequality in higher education and in Kerala at large requires a seri¬ous reconsideration of cultural ideologies. In short, I would like to suggest that the concept of patriarchy in the social system which varies with time and across space is a starting point for under¬standing the paradox of gender and development in Kerala. In the beginning I had mentioned about logistics management at home and support within family it is a combined effort by everyone around women that would keep her going as our society is structured this way. What motivated me to write the experiences of these young women is the abundance of talent and the sheer zest and zeal I saw in them to achieve career goals, to travel and to just live an unburden some life,

05 June 2022

Article: While reading ‘Blue Eyed Girl’.
Author: Bhagyashree Jawale.

Shilpa Kamble wrote her first novel titled ‘Blue Eyes Girl’ in 2014, published by Goda publication, Aurangabad. This novel is appreciated by critiques and masses. Her play ‘Biryani’ is also famous. Which is socio-political drama around the lives of two women, Sakina and Kurmuri. I have seen many characters like this in my life and around me. I have come across characters similar to those described in the novel. Not everyone’s struggle is the same and the nature of the struggle keeps changing. In the face of changing struggles, circumstances change and so do the ways in which we address the issue. I liked the novel because it is written in the form of books, letters, personal anecdote, stories, and diary entries. The author looks at issues from different angles. Although she was impressed by Modak Maharaj, she was not entirely convinced about following him. She has struggles daily related to shelter and accessing education. I really admire the author’s unique style of writing which includes talking about the problems of public toilets in story format. 

The letter in the novel is also different because the letter written by Ulka's mother, Vaijayanata, to her mother presents their struggle for survival as well as their social context. Through Ulka’s letter to her friends, we can see Ulka’s social struggle. The correspondence letter between Ulka and Meera reflects Ulka’s transformation which occurred through her journey. Readers become aware of the new changes that take place as an organization or group is operating in the society. Not everyone in society has financial and cultural capital. There are difficulties in learning, especially in slums, and some concrete steps have to be taken to solve these difficulties. In the novel, the youth organization 'Akrosh' draws our attention to this. Organisations such as ‘Akrosh’ make a significant contribution in empowering the new generation

The excitement around Babasaheb Ambedkar's birthday at home was a source of inspiration for me since my childhood. While in school, I realized that Dr. Ambedkar had studied many different subjects and received many degrees. His identity was different from the one popularly known in the society, which is as the architect of the constitution. I gradually came to understand his place in education and his contribution in every field. I think that is why I developed a passion for education. 

During my academic journey, I received financial support from a private organization. Further, this organisation also provided guidance on higher education and various entrance exams. In this private organisation, I met students from different disciplines, some of whom were preparing for competitive exams and some of whom were doing research. Here, I came to realize that I want to do my PhD after M.A. The scope of higher education is so vast that it is not easy for us to understand the various aspects involved in it. I received information about higher education much later. Other people are more aware earlier on about different disciplines in higher education and the opportunities available therein. I worked while pursuing my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. This was a very challenging time for me, but I feel a sense of achievement in Higher education. While working, I always fell short of time to participate in college projects, complete reading, and supplement many studies. I always thought that I should study full time and add to my knowledge by sitting in one place and reading books. It was not possible for me to leave the job because of poor financial situation at home. When I was facing difficulties in life, I was fortunate to find mentors who guided me in the right direction, which helped me in moving towards my goal. One of the challenges of my academic and private life was always meeting a good mentor who turned my life around and my academic journey was getting in the right direction and the journey towards my goal began. I have now completed my M.Phil. research degree, and I am working as a research assistant. I consider turning to research to be a milestone in my life. Reflecting on own journey, I relate with Ulka's friend, who helps her financially in her educational journey, her language barrier, and her relationship with 'Akrosh', helps her build socio-cultural capital.

After reading the novel "Blue Eyed Girl," I began to think differently about my educational journey. Many of the characters in the story were similar to the ones that I had seen or heard around. The protagonist Ulka in the Novel taught me a lot of new things. It tells the story of a Buddhist girl from school to marriage and people involved in her journey. Ulka’s mother moves to Mumbai because Ulka’s father is addicted to alcohol and Ulka. The book 'Diary of Unfrank' given to Ulka by Dhagebai inspired her to maintain a dairy. She also calls her diary 'Subi,' and in the novel, we get a glimpse of her diary. In this novel, I felt that the discrimination made by the upper caste teachers while she was studying raises many questions somewhere in her mind. She and like her classmates have been discriminated against by teachers, and this seems to have hampered their education. I also remembered my experience in English medium while studying in college because my schooling is in Marathi medium. Since the whole education was through English, I did not understand what was taught in the classroom. At this point, I see a lot of people drop out of school or learn something else. 

Each of the characters in the novel deals with different social issues. In which caste system have struggle for daily routine problems like food and shelter. Although education is as important as basic needs for everyone, not everyone can complete it. Lack of knowledge about education among family members or financial situation often leaves most people with an incomplete education. This is what we see around us but do not take it seriously.

My schooling was completed in Marathi medium in government and private schools. For a while, I dropped out of education. After some time, I started my education anew, and now I am doing research in women's studies. I am the first person in my family to complete higher education and is currently doing research. I have completed my higher education and am still studying. Many people react differently when they hear that my education is still going on. Considering these questions, I realized that I did not have the financial backing nor did I know about the opportunities for higher education in the beginning.

As a researcher, I am currently working on a project on higher education and gender. My research so far has shown that caste, gender, and geographical location play an important role. There are different difficulties in getting higher education for everyone due to caste and economic conditions. Shilpa Kamble's caste, class, gender issues have been framed in her writings. In the novel "Blue Eyed Girl", it is seen that she has discussed many things from the journey.

Shilpa Kamble's own journey is very inspiring and understandably, it also draws the grim reality of poverty. She is currently working as a writer and income tax officer. Her name is important in Marathi literature. She has also written for a series on Babasaheb Ambedkar. Although all sorts of developments took place while living in Mumbai, her experiences of racial discrimination reflect in her writings. Higher education does not cover all sections of the society in the same way, and the proportion of students from the lower castes in higher education is considered to be low. What is higher education? What opportunities are available in higher education? They often do not have the answers to this question or have partial knowledge about it. There is a lack of financial capital as well as socio-cultural capital. Although many schemes and programs are being implemented at the government and private levels for higher education, information about these is not available to everyone in society. Information on different types of scholarships, fellowships, and other related schemes should be made available to all and measures should be taken for that.