Nilima Choudhary, 20, would never have gone to college if not for the all-girls institute near her small town of Bapoli, Haryana.
“My parents weren’t comfortable with the idea of me sharing a classroom with boys,” she says.
Her uncle suggested a girl’s college — the Kalpana Chawla Institute for Women in Ambala — and the Choudhary’s quickly got on board. Nilima is now about to graduate in software engineering and is preparing for placements.
The number of girls-only colleges has more than doubled over the past 11 years— going from 1,977 to 4,506, according to a University Grants Commission (UGC) report for 2014-15. And this rising number has become both the cause and effect of more girls studying beyond school.
“This is an important change, because degree colleges give women a toehold to pursue a career of their choice even if they come from a conservative atmosphere,” says Shweta Prasad, a sociologist who lectures at Banaras Hindu University. “Overall, the increase in the number of women’s colleges indicates the growing demand for higher education for women among communities that lack access and among communities where women aren’t traditionally expected to pursue higher education.”
The impact of these growing numbers is interesting too — the most recent All India Survey on Higher Education report (2014-15) states that 46% of students in India are women.
“Education is one of the few spheres in India where there is such parity,” says Mary E John, senior research fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi. “And as this number rises, we can hope for similar parity in spheres such as workforce and politics.”
Early in 2011, the administration of Sevapuri village district in Uttar Pradesh announced that the government would begin admissions at a newly opened degree college called Pt Deen Dayal Upadhyay Rajkiya Balika Mahavidyalaya for Girls.
“It was September and all other colleges in the area had closed admissions,” recalls Baya Bhutia, 19. “Had it not been for this college, we wouldn’t have taken admission to graduate at all. Our parents wouldn’t let us study with boys.”
Bhutia graduated from the college, in commerce, this year.
“The demand for higher education for girls on the margins of society — in comparatively remote rural areas and in economically weaker regions — indicates that they are now looking for a social change,” says sociologist Prasad. “The colleges are therefore educating and providing a sense of empowerment.”
More women from certain communities — including Muslims, Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) — have been pursuing higher education in a greater proportion over the past decade, adds Indu Agnihotri, director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. “There is growing aspiration driving this increased representation in single-sex colleges.”
From scholarships, stress-management classes and leadership programmes to carefully devised exchange programmes with co-educational institutions, and of course, campus placements for internships and jobs, single-sex colleges are preparing women well for their next step, says A Nirmala, principal of the Ethiraj College for Women in Tamil Nadu. “The eventual aim is to create a network of opinion leaders, women who will encourage other women to study further too — and help promote the concept of higher education for women within their communities.”
Bhutia, for instance, is now working with an accountant in her village. “The family looks up to me and my father even asks me to help manage accounts at his kirana store,” she says. “This sense of independence wouldn’t have been possible if the college hadn’t opened that year.”