What gives us hope and faith is what we see and read all around. Yes, Indian women still face strong biases and violence, but around these is emerging a far more positive narrative on how fast our country is changing.
Travelling through Rajasthan in early January, I was surprised to see, in a very small town market, a mother-and-daughter pair who were obviously of North Eastern origin. This will sound like stereotyping and at the risk of being accused of that, I will admit that what surprised me about their appearance was their clothes which were like that of any local in that small-town market a few hours out of Jaipur. They were blending in because of their clothes but again not blending in because of their facial features. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this was a town or city like Jaipur, Delhi or whatever, but out there in the middle of nowhere, they stood out in the crowd.
I naturally asked Rajesh Meena, the driver of my hired car for three days, about it. What he said loosely translates into something like this—the gender ratio among Jats is very bad and now they are realizing what that means. They have to import and buy brides from other parts of the country, mostly from Jharkhand and the North East. Many of the girls later run away as it is difficult for them to settle down and adjust to an alien culture.
I have touched upon the issue of bride buying in my book Half a Billion Rising: The Emergence of the Indian Woman (Rupa Publications, 2015). I had then written, “Demographers have studied the likely impact of such a ratio, which among other things, makes society more prone to violence. It also gives rise to increased trafficking and slavery of girls and women. According to one study, in 2011 alone, 15,000 women were bought and sold as brides in India in areas where female foeticide had led to a low number of women for every 100 males.”
The mother whom I saw was likely to be a victim of such trafficking, but maybe she is one of those who have adjusted to their lives.
While there is no dearth of such negative stories in India, my research for the book convinced me that things are changing for the better and young girls and women in India are rising and improving their lot. A key statistic for me was that in the Census 2011, for the first time, the addition to the number of literate females was more than the addition to the number of literate males. This one big gender gap will continue to narrow with every passing year and with it will bring unprecedented changes. Conversations with people like Rajesh convince me every time I question the thesis of rising empowerment of girls and women in India.
Rajesh was a regular boy but an irregular student. He was having fun and in Class XII his father decided to marry him off in the hope that marriage is the solution to a wayward son’s behavior. No one would have given a thought to the girl, not even her parents.
So a girl who had studied up to Class X got married to a boy who was studying in class XII. But somewhere along the line, Rajesh changed. In his words, “Main pitaji ke taane sunte sunte thak gaya tha (I got tired of listening to the taunts from my father).” With some help from relatives, Rajesh bought a car and started driving a taxi. And sometime after that, from the profits of one, he funded another car and now has a fleet of four taxis.
That is not why I am writing about Rajesh today. In a state known for its adverse gender ratio, Rajesh has two daughters—one is six and the other four years old. Both of them have been enrolled in a private school (“English medium”, he proudly told me) and his only aim is to make sure that they become financially independent. Rajesh’s story is not an isolated exception or at least I do not think so.
Haryana has the worst gender ratio among all states in India. However, the good news is that Haryana’s gender ratio seems to be improving and what, apart from the rising literacy levels that I alluded to before, can be a surer sign that some things are changing for the better? The gender ratio in December 2015 crossed the 900 mark for the first time in 10 years, with the gender ratio at birth being 903 girls for 1,000 boys. This is the same state which has the shameful record of gender ratio of 879 females per 1,000 males according to the 2011 census, the worst among all states.
There is undoubtedly a long way to go and in the interim, it is very likely that violence against girls and women will rise as a patriarchal and feudal caste-based society reacts to the changing power equations. To drive the change, a social movement is necessary. This is where the Modi government has done yeoman service by bringing the violence against women and India’s shameful gender ratio into the public and social discourse and out of the realms of conferences and NGO boardrooms.
During his 2014 Independence Day speech, Modi famously said, “Today from this platform, I want to ask those parents, I want to ask every parent that you have a daughter of 10 or 12 years age, you are always on the alert, every now and then you keep on asking where are you going, when would you come back, inform immediately after you reach…but has any parent ever dared to ask their son as to where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are. After all, a rapist is also somebody’s son. He also has parents. As parents, have we ever asked our son as to what he is doing and where he is going? If every parent decides to impose as many restrictions on the sons as have been imposed on our daughters, try to do this with your sons, try to ask such questions of them…the law will take its own course, strict action will be taken, but as a member of the society, as parents, we also have some responsibilities.”
Modi also launched a Government of India programme “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save the girl child, educate the girl child) to increase awareness and improve the efficiency of welfare services meant for women.
Symbolically, he launched this programme from Panipat in Haryana. Following up on the initiative, this year, during Republic Day, the Haryana government sent out invitations to families of two lakh girls to join the celebrations in their respective villages and the invitations went out in the names of the girls.
Moreover, the flag hoisting was done by the village’s most educated girl child, and the girl would then become a member of the school management committee for one year, according to news reports.
Now admittedly, many of these initiatives are symbolic in nature, but it is very important to drive socio-attitudinal changes and a big step has been taken in this regard. Sustainability of any such campaign is a must for long-term success, but a beginning has been made.
In December, I was at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indore, taking part in a panel discussion as part of a festival (Utkarsha 2015) organized by the students there. A discussion with the young lady student who was accompanying me brought to the fore the importance of role models.
This young girl’s father resigned from his state government job when her mother was transferred after the division of Uttar Pradesh (UP) into UP and Uttarakhand, as she was assigned to the Uttarakhand cadre. Her father decided to follow her mother because she had good career prospects and he knew he would be able to find another job. In their home, I was told that there is no discrimination between her and her brother, including in small gestures like only asking the daughter to fetch a glass of water, something that is quite common in most households.
These small gestures give signals that do away with lifetime habits and gender role stereotypes. And it takes role models like the father of this girl in IIM Indore to change things. Since this change has to happen household by household, from one kasba to another, it does take inordinate time and patience to drive change and here the role of grassroots NGOs and role models is very important.
But I digress. Let me tell you the story of one more young woman.
Last year, I met this Muslim girl with two young children who has built her own life after getting divorced from her husband. Her story breaks all stereotypes.
Her husband was an engineer, came from a well-off family and yet neither he nor his parents wanted a girl child. They wanted her to abort and she did not. The resultant friction finally ended in divorce and the girl has built up her own life since then. A life that would not have been possible if her parents had not educated her (this girl is also an engineer) and it is the education that gave her the courage to dream of economic independence. As it so happens, the desire for a male child by her in-laws had a lot to do with the family property that would potentially get divided and go to another household.
Madhya Pradesh is another state with very poor gender and low literacy ratios. While overall literacy at 70.6 per cent is below the national average of 74 per cent, there is a wide gap between male and female literacy at 80.5 per cent and 60 per cent respectively. And this gap is larger than the gap of the 17.5 percentage points at the national level.
Software professional-turned-social entrepreneur Pranjal Dubey has started an institute, Sant Singaji Institute of Science and Management (SSISM) in his village Sandalpur, Khategaon taluk of Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh, after leaving his job with a well-known multinational company in Bangalore.
Pranjal had witnessed in his village how educated youth did not have employment opportunities and girls often dropped out of school because they would not be allowed to travel to nearby towns and cities to continue their education. He wanted to start a college that, apart from offering the usual degrees, would also impart relevant vocational and workplace skills to make graduates employable. Without getting into the details of how Pranjal managed to set up this institute, the reason I mention SSISIM here is that in a brief span of just six years, 14 students from SSISM have obtained university ranks. And all of these 14 rank-holding students are girls.
This is the story I have heard again and again from metros to small towns to villages on how girls are working harder and getting ahead.
Do I hear and see only positive stories given my bias? What about the rapes, violence, murder etc against girls and women? Am I blind to these incidents? The positive and negative stories both are true and real. But I do believe that real change is taking place and the reasons or the factors that are driving the change I have discussed in detail in my book Half A Billion Rising. Then how do I reconcile the two truths and how do I postulate that half a billion girls and women in this country are rising and over the next decade, India will be a better country for women with far reaching socio-economic impact?
As one reviewer of my book asked, “A niggling, nagging doubt remains, as it always does with observations that rely too heavily on anecdotal evidence. If instead of bright-eyed girls egged on by their strong mothers to write their own destinies, Mr Dutta had chosen to meet rape victims, indigent widows, abused wives and child brides across the country, would he have still believed in the extent of the transformation?”
This thought or seed of doubt was particularly strong inside me when I began researching for my book in the aftermath of the brutal rape and killing of Nirbhaya in Delhi. What gives me hope and faith is what I see and read all around me. Yes, there are the negative stories, but around these is emerging a far more positive narrative on how fast India is changing.
Nirbhaya’s mother, Asha Devi, came out in public sometime back to announce, “My daughter’s name is Jyoti Singh and I am not ashamed to name her.” A report on NDTV says: “I am not ashamed of taking my daughter’s name. Whoever has suffered should not hide their name. It is the offenders who should be ashamed and hide their name. I want to tell everyone that my daughter’s name was Jyoti Singh. From today, everyone should know her as Jyoti Singh.”
Asha Devi is not a highly educated or empowered woman, but she has found her voice and courage. There are millions of Asha Devis in India today who are spurring their Jyotis on to get ahead in life, get educated, achieve their dreams and become strong and independent.
Recently, apparel company Viva N Diva launched a campaign whose face was Ms Laxmi Saa—nothing extraordinary about it till you realize that Ms Saa survived an acid attack which has left her face severely disfigured.
Also, recently, a café has opened opposite the Taj Mahal in Agra. The unique feature is that the café is run by survivors of acid attacks and is the initiative of NGO Chaanv collaborating with acid attack survivors. Even the victims and their mothers today are telling a different narrative, a narrative of transformation. Now Muslim and Hindu women groups have been demanding entry into dargahs and temples where they have been banned for centuries.
Is there still reason not to hope and dream that India is becoming a better country for girls and women and that half a billion will rise? And that one day acid attacks on young women will also stop?