Education key to breaking barriers and empowerment

Professor Jaya Dantas standing, facing camera and smiling, in front of grassed area and building.

Raquel de Brito, Curtin Commons

As India’s extreme gender disparities prevailed around her, a young Jaya Dantas buried herself in her studies and broke through what seemed like impossible barriers the only way she knew how, with education.

Today, she continues to use her education as a beacon of hope for others downtrodden by inequality in her role as Dean, International at Curtin University and more recently as Dean of Gender Equality, Inclusion and Diversity.

She knows better than anyone the limitations inequality can place on various social groups to succeed, having lived in a country of severe disparities between the rich and poor, men and women, and various tribal groups.

But as someone who escaped such limitations, she can attest that education is the most powerful weapon against them.

“When I finished my master’s education my first substantive job was in a woman’s university,” Jaya said.

“For me, if women are educated, empowered and have a job, it gives them that ability to progress,’’ she said.

“They often say when you educate a woman, you educate a nation. And if you educate a community this makes a huge difference to people and their families.”

As Professor of International Health Jaya also holds a teaching position in Curtin’s School of Population Health and has spent 20 years researching refugee and migrant populations and works relentlessly to bridge the gap.

“Globally what we’ve seen is the diversity and inclusion agenda is gaining more prominence and especially in terms of gender equality,” she said.

At the university level, Jaya wants to see more women of colour, women of diverse backgrounds, Aboriginal women and women with disabilities have senior roles.

She currently supports Curtin’s Humanitarian Scholarship for international students and the university’s Moorditj Yorga Scholarship, for mature-aged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

“We often find that there will be many women of colour and of different diverse backgrounds at the lower levels and the mid-levels. But when it comes to the higher levels, it, it is more of a challenge to achieve that,” she said.

Jaya’s humanitarian endeavours extend beyond a professional capacity, having transformed the lives of several children through her involvement in foster care over the past 17 years.

“I was doing research with refugee youth when I met the cultural diversity officer from the Department of Child Protection. She said they were really looking for foster carers of other backgrounds,” she said.

Without hesitation, and while completing her PhD and parenting two children of her own, she put her hand up, and fostered her first child – a 10-year-old boy who lived with her until he reached 18 and whom she continues to maintain a bond with.

Dealing with significant trauma of their own, that would have otherwise stunted their development, it was thanks to Jaya’s guidance and encouragement to pursue an education, they thrived.

One of her foster children became a nurse, one is studying to become a naturopath, and another is completing a double degree.

“Education is the key to breaking barriers for anyone – men and women. The more educated you are, the more empowered you are,” she said.

Her tireless efforts to empower the disadvantaged also saw Jaya launch the EMPOWER project, where she assisted refugee and migrant women in navigating their way through job hunting in WA.

“We had classes like preparing for an interview, writing a CV and answering a cover letter,’’ she said.

In 2019, Jaya headed another project for migrant women called SAMBA (South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Being Active), which looks at physical activity programs and how these can help women to feel part of the community and create a positive impact on physical and mental health.

“What we wanted to look at is when migrant women come to Australia, they look after their families, their husbands, their children, and they try and get a job if they can, but they often neglect their health and wellbeing,” she said.

“This physical activity program gives them an avenue to attend physical activity with other migrant women who are passionate about physical activity, dance and exercise.

“For 10 weeks, they can attend a free class and see if it makes a difference in their lives.”

It might seem like relentless work to some, but Jaya is fueled by an innate understanding that an empowered woman can achieve anything.

“Sometimes I feel they just need someone to talk to. Not only about the good things, but about the challenges,’’ she said.

“This not only gives me a great deal of satisfaction, it also gives the women an avenue to unpack or talk through these issues on a one-on-one basis.

“Women are very resilient and if they have this sense of direction, they can succeed,’’ she said.


This article was first published by Curtin Commons, Curtin University, and is republished with permission. Read the original article.


Image: Republished courtesy of Curtin Commons


Professor Jaya Dantas is a PHAA member and is the co-convenor of the PHAA International Health Special Interest Group. Learn more.

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