Highly Educated Women and Social and Gender Justice

Cin, Firdevs Melis; Walker, Melanie; Loots, Sonja; Okkolin, Marri-Anne; Unterhalter, Elaine (2014). 'Highly Educated Women and Social and Gender Justice' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The capabilities approach views education as both a fundamental capability in itself, as well as a means to create capabilities, that is as a capability multiplier.  The panel shows how education is significant for women in overcoming social and gender inequalities and how it can contribute to development in society and in women's lives. We present four paper in this panel to show the added value of education to women's lives and social/gender justice in society as well as highlighting the structures, institutions or processes of education constraining women's lives and reproducing the gender inequalities in their lives. Thus Martha Nussbaum argues that the availability of opportunities allows women to develop; each paper in this panel addresses this challenge of women's opportunities to function.

The paper by Melanie Walker and Sonja Loots (University of the Free State, South Africa) is taken from a five year study (2012-2016) on 'Gender, Empowerment and Agency in Higher Education' in South Africa. Data comprises life grids and in-depth life history interviews of 1st year, final year and postgraduate students (masters and doctoral), as well as quantitative survey data and participatory elements to bring about gender equity change. The research questions in the study consider how higher education contributes to what each woman is free to do and achieve as a fully dignified human being in pursuit of the goals she regards as important, and what the specific contribution is of higher education to her opportunities for functionings. The rich qualitative data presented in this panel comprises a sample of 12 women undergraduate students (both black and white).  The paper analyses the contribution a university education makes to their well-being and their agency, that is the valuable capabilities which emerge from the interviews that enable women to take control and ownership of their lives, what stands in the way, and how such obstacles are dealt with. Without exception these women value the opportunities higher education opens up for them but the picture is also complicated. The paper  employs an intersectional analysis to explore how social and cultural categories, such as race, gender and social class interweave, so that discrete forms of oppression shape, and are shaped by, one another so that what it means to be female interacts with other socially relevant characteristics such as race or class. 

The second paper by Mari-Anne Okkolin (University of the Free State and University of Jyvaskyla) is based on a Tanzanian case study. The paper draws from eight interviews with women who had completed masters degrees and examines their educational aspirations and the achievement of their educational well-being. It focuses on the relations and processes through which the women construct educational positions that they have reason to value and their freedoms to exercise agency as Tanzanian women.  It examines women's social relations and processes through which they locate themselves into social structures, which can be enabling and constraining, as well as socio-cultural meanings and institutions alike.  The paper further   investigates the processes through which the women position themselves, and make educational choices in relation to socio-cultural structures – reflecting the idea of Tanzanian woman – including the hegemonic idea of education and schooling of girls and women. The focus of analysis has been on the research participants' educational choices and decision-making processes concerning their de facto educational opportunities and alternatives, that is, women's notions of their agency freedoms and well-being freedoms respectively.

The third paper by Melis Cin (University of Nottingham, UK)draws from eight life history interviews with Turkish women, part of a larger life history study of three generation of women teachers. The paper examines how being educated, particularly through higher education, contributes to women's empowerment,  plays a critical role in expanding capabilities and opportunities of women to live meaningful lives, and advances gender equality and bargaining power in women's lives, which could have not been possible otherwise. Paper highlights that education's role goes beyond opening up employment opportunities and economic freedom in women's lives; it helps them to develop the capabilities they have valued but were deprived due to socio-cultural structures. In this respect, the study looks into the socio-cultural processes and gendered and cultural norms in social institutions and in education that constrains women's choices and capabilities and determines limits to what they can be and do in Turkish society, no matter how highly educated they are. Lastly, the women's narratives also imply that they, as highly educated women, develop effective power to contribute to greater justice in society and expand the capabilities of other women and girls through their teaching role.

The fourth paper by Elaine Unterhalter (University of London, UK) expands on and reflects critically on a conceptualisation regarding gender equity prepared for a rigorous literature review on gender commissioned by the UK Department for International Development, published in 2014. In the first part the discussion situates the Theory of Change associated with the review in relation to debates concerning gender equity, capabilities and education, commenting specifically on the links to higher education. In the second part it considers one finding of the review regarding the evidence on the importance of higher education opportunities for women, with regard to effects on girls' education. In the third section, it draws out some of the implications of the existing research conducted on this theme and the implications for further development of this field of enquiry.




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