An Educationist and a Feminist

An Educationist and a Feminist

Mrs. Parthasarthy, the present Chairwoman of the National Commission for Women, was born to Gujarati immigrant parents in Africa. Her parents were educationists and social workers and were deeply involved in radio journalism. She did her schooling in Tanzania and Kenya. She went to England for further studies and graduated from Cambridge, where she studied Geography. She later did her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Education at the London University and at the Boston Institute of Education respectively.

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Mrs. Parthasarathy has taught in three continents – India, UK and Africa and has emerged as an internationally renowned educationist. She headed the Sardar Patel Vidhyalaya for 24 years and has made lasting contribution to the cause of education, like initiating action research in the areas of ‘role of education in gender parity’. She has worked for redesigning the English Curriculum to suit India. Deeply involved in issues of democracy and development, she feels these cannot be separated from the situation of women.

Recently, I had an opportunity to have a conversation with her about herself, her work and the role of National Commission for Women, which is reproduced here.

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As an educationist you revolutionised English teaching in our country. Can you tell us what difference it has made?

I redesigned the contents of the English curriculum to suit Indian ethos and moorings. I helped in changing the content from English Literature to a much more multi-ethnic literature. When we studied English we only studied English Literature. We were only exposed to the colonial mindset. Now instead of ‘English Literature’ we have started exploring the ‘literature in English’ which includes the literature by the Black and Native Americans; the literature from Australia and New Zealand and other South Pacific countries, anti-colonial literature from Africa, which is sensitive to racism, and the literature from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other neighbouring countries. All this gives a very different flavour to the literature being studied now compared to what we studied in our days.

I understand that you were also a pioneer in redesigning the Science curriculum:

I have tried to redesign the science curriculum with emphasis on learning by doing. There is focus on thinking, honest observation, developing analytic skills and finding solutions in a creative way.

In your work, you are wedded to the concepts of education for democracy and development. Can you explain it a little more?

The key to democracy and development is the ability to think, to be creative and innovative without fear. This comes only if your attitude is really democratic. It will involve thinking fresh and on need basis and not to copy blindly what others do.

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How do you relate the perception of Democracy and Development with the women’s issues?

We have to deal with the whole issue of the development of women by running on two tracks simultaneously. One is the track of ‘here and now’, of fire-fighting and of the issues which assail us and need to be tackled immediately. On the second tract we have to focus on tomorrow and the long-term issues which will empower women to participate creatively in national activities. I find this perception very useful.

What are the new programmes the Commission is contemplating in this direction?

We are contemplating a programme for college girls, initially, but later we would also like to include the young men. We would offer a number of modules for the first year, second year and third year students. These modules will consist of different stuff. The legal, financial, human rights, sexual harassment, family life education and self-defense issues will be covered through these modules. We don’t expect a miracle. We have to give time to metabolise and internalise these concepts so women of the younger age group get equipped for life.

We want young women to start thinking and voice their thought because Indian women are not allowed to voice their thoughts and take charge of their own selves. The women who are on the threshold of life, who are about to start a family, who are thinking of careers very consciously and seriously are the ones we want to reach and strengthen.

How are you attempting to increase the participation of women in the decision-making process?

First of all, women should be able to take charge of their own lives, then of their families and the society. Decision-making is an art and ability to be cultivated. You need to know yourself and the field in which you are to be a player. If it is politics, you need to know the play field of politics.

We have started continuous lobbying through our newsletter, which is issued every week. We have sponsored studies on Panchayati Raj. During the last International Women’s Day we got a lot of women Surpanch to come and participate in the various activities. They spoke in their own languages at the Vigyan Bhavan auditorium, over the mike, on what they have been doing so far.

We are networking with them through NGOs, governments, state commissions and also directly. One major outcome of all this will be our own analysis of what is happening, which will be genuine and coming from the primary source. Women can also voice their success stories and concerns directly to us.

This time we got some very interesting stories from Madhya Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh is one of the States where the Panchayati Raj started early. There was political will. The women members have started impacting on ‘girl child’ through the schemes like DPEP. Yet we see cases of extreme violence over there. There is also tremendous hardship for women due to the displacement of families at the Narmada Dam site.

The displacement of the families and the women is a big issue before us. But what about those people who are living there for thousands of years, what about their human rights?

What are the other areas on which the Commission focuses on?

The Commission has got several full-time members, a member-secretary and a joint-secretary who are involved in the various activities collectively and individually. One of our members Purnima Advani is looking at amendments to the laws pertaining to women.

Sukeshi Oraon is working on neglected, marginalised, forgotten and voiceless tribal and Dalit women. Sayyada Hamid is at the core of our political empowerment work for women. Vijay Daksh is investigating rape and the child abuse. The Member-Secretary, Mrs. Sen, is working on mentally sick women and those who are in custodial care. Our joint secretary is re-organising the counselling centre and the complaint’s cell. She has computerised the data and now we are able to use it as an important part of the MIS (Management Information System).

What else would you think the Commission would like to add to its agenda?

We would like to work for displaced women. The women and the families are getting displaced all the time due to natural calamities, due to developmental programmes and due to armed conflicts. In all these displacements it is women who suffer the most.

Another area we would like to take up is of the ‘Woman as a single parent’. We would like to understand the impact of globalisation on women. We would like to go into the issue of their good rights and their poverty. Actually poverty and violence are the two legs on which women are supposed to be standing. That is why they are debilitated right from the world ‘go’. Yet the strength of women is amazing. Not only have they stood the test of times, but have also fought and survived. But do we want them to remain at the lowest level of survival? The time has come when women have to move from the survival level to a more dignified way of living.