Women Rising in India: Searching for Solutions in the Land of My Birth

In college, my birth country of India was always the subject of politics and development classes, because it ranked low on nearly every development index — for education, health, women’s rights, corruption and on and on.  

Ten years later, I’m going to back to India. I’ve grown weary of articles from India on sexual violence, child marriages, human trafficking, crowded maternity wards and poor sanitation.  Women in India must be finding solutions, even if they have not yet been widely adopted.

I’m not sure it’s possible to summarize the state of women in a country with 22 languages, 150 dialects, and 1.2 billion people

For a country that has given rise to a powerful philosophy of peaceful civil disobedience, has had multiple female heads of state and has become a backbone of the tech revolution, India still struggles with the basics.

My goal is to find female entrepreneurs and women-led non-governmental organizations and government agencies that are making significant progress in the lives of women and girls.

Status of women

I recognize the challenges are still immense. The Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2012 named India the worst G20 country in the world to be a woman. Last year’s Gender Gap report from the the World Economic Forum ranked India 87th out of 144 countries in terms of the relative gaps between women and men in health, education, economy and politics. That puts India below neighboring Bangladesh, as well as countries like Brazil and Thailand.

That’s not to say there haven’t been improvements. In the past decade, India has climbed 11 spot from 98th place in the Gender Gap index, chiefly because of the country's strides in closing the gender gap in education enrollment. Literacy among women has reached 63 percent (compared to 81 percent men), a jump since 2006 when only 50 percent of women were classified as literate.

But healthcare is still dismal for most Indian women. India ranks 142 out of 144 on healthcare. in the past decade, India is regarded as being one of the least-improved country on matters of health for its 586 million women. The country has eradicated polio — a massive feat.  Why can’t the same tactics be applied to maternal health?

Beyond statistics

It’s hard to digest that India still has so much work ahead, when so much has been done already. I’ve spent months in the field with the World Health Organization, Rotary, UNICEF and other international organizations, observing the meticulous work of these agencies in regions where addresses are non-existent, people live on the most meager means, and water quality and sanitation is simply horrific.

This series of articles will capture solutions for India’s women. My aim is to crisscross economic,  geographic and cultural boundaries. I’ll meet farmers in Uttarakhand, tea pickers in Darjeeling, urbanites in Mumbai and Delhi, and villagers in Maharashtra. We all know that India has problems. I want to find those with solutions. What works and why? How have the lives of women changed?

I’m not sure it’s possible to summarize the state of women in a country with 22 languages, 150 dialects, and 1.2 billion people living in the snowcapped mountains of the Himalayas, the deserts of Rajasthan, the tea plantations of Darjeeling and the tropics of Kerala.

I’ll try to get to the stories behind the statistics. Is the formal workplace or the informal economy a better benchmark for measuring progress in financial empowerment? Only 28 percent of women participate in formal workplaces (versus 82 percent men). That’s barely half the global average of 54 percent of working age women who take part in the formal economy. I’m surprised. We’ve heard stories of women climbing the corporate ranks, new female movie directors and a growing group of female entrepreneurs. Are they just a sliver of India’s massive workforce?

But India is still 70 percent rural, with more than two-thirds of its population living beyond the glitzy metros of Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore. Women work in industries such as agriculture and handicrafts that are critical to the rural economy, but not included in formal workplace statistics. Women constitute more than one-third of the country’s agricultural workforce, but own just 13 percent of the land.

This series will shift the conversation from what’s wrong to what’s working. In agriculture, rural development, health, financial access and feminism in urban India, I’ll try to put faces to the statistics and trends. I’m going back to the country where I was born to see the progress Indian women have made.

Photo credit: Himanshu Singh Gurjar

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