Before I came to India, my perception was shaped by lurid news articles and conversations about the country’s gender inequality. From Eve Teasing to acid attacks, high rates of rape to workplace discrimination, there were few aspects of the issue I hadn’t seen explored. The truth is- as is always the case India- complex, multi-faceted and ambiguous. The India of those breathless news stories is very real, but so is a culture respectful of women, a vibrant feminist movement, and rapid progress in integrating the workforce.
We’ve had the opportunity to visit multiple not-for-profits and corporate social outreach programs throughout our stay in India. In each, there has been a focus on empowering women and girls. One such example is Internet Saathi, an initiative by Google and Tata Trusts that aims to reduce gender inequality by training women to use smartphones. Women have used this training to find disaster relief information, access social welfare programs, guide their agricultural practices and communicate with friends and family. Similarly, the Usha Sila Schools train carefully selected women to sew and manage sewing machines, then send them back to their villages to teach the craft to others. The program allows the seamstresses to provide for themselves and their families, but also acts to empower and elevate their social position. When a wife, mother or respected woman in a rural community can bring in an income, the perception that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and raising children is shifted.
While those traditional roles do still persist, especially in the more rural areas, and many fields of work are still male-dominated, there is rapid progress. Even heavy machinery manufacturing company JCB has stated their intent to bring on more women, with some of their factories being more than 35% female. A stroll down the streets of New Dehli reveals hundreds of women rushing from place to place in their office-wear. We visited a school for less privileged children, and the girls there were as bright and ambitious as anywhere in the world. They proudly pointed at their test scores and colorful illustrations. They wanted to be in the army, to be teachers, authors, painters and doctors. In five years, these girls will be joining the ranks of India’s millions of young graduates. They have their own idea of where they belong in the world, and it’s not necessarily in the home.
None of this is to say that there is no truth to the more negative stories. We went to Sheroes, the only cafe in the world run by survivors of acid attacks. The women there had been attacked by strangers, their mothers, families-in-law, husbands and brothers. What’s more, many had found both the state and their community support wanting in the aftermath of the attack. From short sentences for the perpetrators to significant social stigma, many of these women reported feeling helpless and alone. And yet, they had come together of their own accord and created a program that gave meaning and assistance. There is a sign on the wall saying “we are not victims, we are survivors”. In writing their own story, these “Sheroes” continue to fight for a safer and more empathetic world.
In my travels around India, there have most certainly been moments of passing discomfort or wariness. There is certainly awareness of being female, possibly to a greater extent than when I’m in Wellington. Caution is advisable. And yet, not only have I been safe every step of the way, the Indian people- male and female alike- have been welcoming and helpful. There is acknowledgement from almost everyone we spoke to that there is a need for more development still in reducing gender inequality. Still, its unfair to raise that point without noting the incredible pace at which that journey is being undertaken. If the future is female, and India is the future, then women in India will only continue to redefine their role in society.