In 1968, then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, flew to Melbourne to formally open the library at the La Trobe University. It would be a visit that would mark a tradition of friendship and exchange between La Trobe and educational institutions of India. Cementing the ties another prominent educationist of India and principal of the renowned Lady Sri Ram College for women, Dr Meenakshi Gopinath, was at the University this October to receive an honorary doctorate. Catching up with GDay India in between a packed schedule of meeting students and university officials, Dr Gopinath spoke about her visit and her take on the status of women in India now.
Coming to La Trobe, said Dr Gopinath, always felt like home. “We are always looking for a place that feels like home and this is one place which offers another perspective on home. There is this diversity and a different experience but it feels so comfortable,” she said, adding, “Everybody has brought very personal warmth to the relationship.” Dr Gopinath was of the opinion that with more ‘managerealism’ coming into higher education, institutions can retain that personal touch. “The quality of human contact is important for the staff of the faculty.”
Of course, the friendship between Lady Sri Ram College and La Trobe has been a long standing one. Lin Stinzon, executive director, International, at La Trobe, said, “It is our most significant relationship with an institution in India, the longest one this university has had and also in terms of the depth with Dr Gopinath herself and through the movement of students back and forth. We are not just institutional partners in that sense.” The honorary doctorate this time was in recognition of her contribution in India but also in terms of the esteem with which the university holds her and Lady Sri Ram College.
For both Dr Gopinath and Stinzon, Delhi and Melbourne are sister cities now. The student exchange programmes sustains the bond as it offers students both academic and cultural experience. “For Australian students, the opportunity to live in India and learn about the country is important in terms of understanding India as a world player,” said Stinzon.
Both women were of the opinion that there has to be more representation of women in all spheres of life – politics, traditional and non-traditional occupations. While Australia has been through the struggles and secured equal opportunity, safety and security for women, India still needs a lot more change on the status of women, they agreed. But after December 2012, said Dr Gopinath, after the Verma Committee Report people are much more aware, “the fact that violence against women and men are unacceptable and the need to make our law enforcers responsible to deliver justice to our citizens”. She cited the participation of women in huge numbers during the Delhi gang-rape protests last year showing that women have become prominent in this movement. “It was a very important protest because a lot of things that were suppressed came to the surface. Now we have the sexual Harassment Act in the workplace 2013, which is a progressive legislation and universities and colleges have to be mandatorily responsible for setting up internal complaints committee. So, I think you will see a lot of changes and women are on the forefront. This is the century of women.”
Asked what about the 40 per cent of women who are still illiterate in India, Dr Gopinath said the disadvantaged groups are now accessing higher education. “Many of these things take time to show results but I feel optimistic. Things were bleak but I think the voices of young people and women are making legislation and social activism possible. Social activism is now dictating a lot of what the political parties will have to do not just because of the coming 2014 elections but because they realise this is the vote base.”
On the challenges of being one of the most prominent women colleges of India which has had alumnus such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Dr Gopinath said she looks more at the opportunities than challenges. “Watching these young women turn into potential leaders, to see their confidence grow in a college which is so heterogeneous with young girls from all over India is exciting.” She believes every single one of them is an artist and it depends on the institution to figure out what special trait each brings. The opportunity to work with women, she said, is empowering.
By Indira Laisram