Young women in ochre-coloured sarees is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous sights in Kathmandu. From early morning till late in the afternoon, the bustle of these uniformly clad women fills the streets of the capital. These are the 'PK girls', students of Padma Kanya Campus, the oldest all-women's college of Nepal. This year, the venerated institution is turning 50.
It has been a long haul for Padma Kanya since its inauguration by King Tribhuvan on 17 September 1951. The college had only 12 students and seven lecturers. The principal was Kamala Devi Sinha, an Indian professor invited personally by the then education minister, Dilli Raman Regmi. The college was housed in the building of Padma Kanya Vidyashram in Dilli Bazar. (It later shifted to a rented house near Bhrikuti Mandap, then to what is now Shankar Dev Campus, before moving to its present location in Baghbazar in 1970.)
The college now has 8,000 students, 425 teachers and 106 administrative workers. It has its own buildings, libraries, laboratories, conference halls, cafeterias and hostel. The name of the college has changed from Padma Kanya College to Padma Kanya Campus to what it is presently known as officially, Padma Kanya Multi-Purpose Campus. It offers undergraduate-level courses in 23 subjects under the humanities, commerce and science streams. Students can also pursue post-graduate studies in Nepali literature, English literature and home science. Plans are on to introduce post-graduate courses in sociology and anthropology, economics, dance, music, culture and archaeology and population studies after the intermediate level is phased out from all colleges under Tribhuvan University.
Padma Kanya was established barely half a year after the end of the 104-year-long autocratic Rana rule. Despite the fact that the Ranas restricted academic activities in the country, the college is named after one of them, Padma Sumshere, for his role in initiating free education for girls in Nepal.
The college was established when Nepal's overall literacy rate was a mere 3 percent, and the number of educated women was even more negligible. In such a situation, the college marked the beginning of a new era in Nepal's social and political history and there is no doubt that it has contributed tremendously to the general development of Nepal. In the last fifty years, the campus has produced hundreds of politicians, efficient administrators, eminent academicians and outstanding professionals. It's list of alumnae could not be more impressive: Queen Aishwarya and her daughter, Princess Shruti; Nepal's first and so far only woman deputy prime minister, Shailaja Acharya; the only woman in the present cabinet, Kamala Pant; the first Nepali UN Fund for Women regional director, Chandani Joshi; and so on.
Even these days when 'private' colleges are making their mark felt, the college is still a highly sought-after educational institution. "The college has always felt this pressure for admission. Even back then, some influential people tried their political connections to secure admission for their girls," says Angur Baba Joshi, principal of the college for 12 years in the 1960s.
Says Sushmita Dahal, a BBA student at Padma Kanya, "Parents encourage their girls to join this campus, but students here face some disadvantages also. Since it's a prominent girls' college with an easily recognisable uniform, general people tend to be critical about the girls' behaviour in and out of the campus. They do not excuse a PK girl so easily."
The thousands who have passed through its gates can attest to that. Besides being easily identified as a PK girl and hence having to watch their steps, the constant refrain was the hassle of having to get ready for college; the amount of time spent in starching the cotton sarees and ironing them is something most would like to forget about their days at Padma Kanya.
But that does not prevent the more than thousand hopefuls who apply for admission every year, less than half of whom are lucky enought to get accepted. "Parents feel safer with their girls in a women's college. Besides, ours is among the very few in Nepal with all kinds of physical educational infrastructures," claims present Campus Chief Chirik Shova Tamrakar.
The campus administration has had an ambitious plan on the anvil for the last couple of years. It wants the campus be developed into Nepal's first women's university under the government's multi-university concept. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala had assured consideration of the proposal when it was made back in 1997, but nothing has come of it so far.