Empowering Women in India
by PDG Meena Patel, USA RFPD Coordinator - Zone 28
World population is growing by leaps and bounds. And it is no wonder that all of the population explosion is occurring in the so-called Third World, where a large segment of the society, especially women, has no access to education and no opportunities for a better life.
India is one of those countries. India is a country of ancient culture, where women were respected as intellectuals since ancient times; a country where women like Indira Gandhi enjoyed the highest position as Prime Minister of the largest democracy. But in the same country, today, the majority of women are illiterate, with little hope for the future.
The notion that India has of recent become prosperous from Information Technology is misleading. The majority of the population is still in the grips of illiteracy and poverty. India’s made up of villages and of tribal people, who live on less than $ 1 to $ 2 a day. Basic necessities like food, water and education are lacking. In the same poor family, the man of the house and the children are looked after better, while the women's needs are the last priority.
While growing up in India, and now as a physician, I have witnessed the perils of poverty. While on vacation, visiting grandparents and relatives in villages recently, I again witnessed the hardships of the villagers. We were used to the landscape with girls collecting cow-dung to make patties to use as fuel; women carrying large containers of water on their heads for several miles for their daily water needs; women and children cutting wood and carrying it home to supplement the cow-dung patties as fuel for cooking. My eyes were so accustomed to this daily routine of life that it did not make much impact on me until I came to the USA.
The contrast was an eyeopener. In last two months, my husband and I traveled extensively in India, visiting remote villages, talking to men and women of various tribes and witnessing their hardships. We saw in the eyes of young women, the longing to have the opportunity to educate themselves and to better their lives.
The fact that struck me the most was that the reasons women suffer vary in different parts of India. In Uttar Pradesh, the land is fertile, water is easily available, and there is lots of sunshine. While traveling through the state, the plush greenery pleases ones eyes.
However, the majority of the people are uneducated, and are therefore poor. Whatever little education is available benefits only boys. Girls in villages do not go to school. It is part of their culture and family tradition. The situation in the State of Jharkhand is totally different. There is hardly any annual rain. Possibly only one crop a year is grown if they are lucky enough to have two months of good monsoon. The land is dry and barren. Tremendous poverty has gripped the tribal population, forcing men to leave the state in search of jobs.
Women have a hard life, with no opportunity for education, or a better life. When the men return home just for a few days, some women succumb to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The plight of the tribal people in the State of Jammu & Kashmir is no better. The steep mountainous terrain, narrow valleys, and cold winters make farming very difficult. This, combined with border conflict, has made livelihood very difficult for the poor majority.
Women suffer the most. In the western State of Maharashtra, while all women have easy access to education, monitary support for economic independence or prosperity is still not good. The easy access to education that women have achieved over last century in this state was the result of men and women visionaries fighting side-by-side for the cause. Even if the opportunity for education is there, financial help is not readily available to women, as they do not have any collateral asset to secure the loans.
This problem could be solved by offering
women micro-credit and/or low interest loans. At present, loan sharks
are taking undue advantage of these hard working women, as they try
to climb the economic ladder. In the state of Maharashtra, where women
do have opportunity to graduate from schools, they need low interest
loans to start businesses on their own. If this need is met with,
reliance on loan sharks will be eliminated. In addition to lack of
education, early marriage, ignorance of reproductive health and cultural
taboos (making it difficult for women to express their feelings) have
compounded the problem resulting in poverty and population explosion.
(RFPD - Rotarian Action Group for Population & Development - operates in accordance with Rotary International policy but is not an agency of, or controlled by Rotary International.)