Educating the Girl Child and Employing the Woman: Views on How to Enrich a Society

A guest post by Raakhee Suryaprakash, Founder, Sunshine Millennium.

Despite grandiose self-publicity and parochial pride India remains a developing nation. It is not really shining. Its tarnished not burnished! Millions live under the poverty line, farmer suicides abound, infrastructure, notwithstanding major projects, seems to be a snarl up of bottlenecks, while our economy with its inflation and slow GDP can be encapsulated in the pricing of onions! India is a land of contrasts where abundance coexists with scarcity. In India’s financial capital, Mumbai, millionaires and billionaires abound around what was once Asia’s largest slum but no visible change is observed in the life of Dharavi’s residents or in those of any other urban Indian slum. Urban migration and overcrowding of metros are affecting the quality of life and safety of women.

In the face of such contrasts the one theme that can be observed across the board is the poor plight of women. Rich or poor, educated or illiterate, in paternalistic ... almost misogynistic India the fairer sex remains the exploited and violated sex. The multitudes of criminally misogynistic incidents shock the national conscience but perhaps the sheer numbers and “ordinariness” of them stall progress in the plight of women. Women may graduate out of schools and colleges, lead companies, states and even the country but a vast majority of them face appalling abuse even as they go about their daily lives overcoming barriers. Breaking glass ceilings and cruising past milestones may be viewed with pride by some Indians but others go out, get drunk or get high and plot on how to keep the “weaker sex” in control. Horrifyingly the ones who plot the downfall of Indian women are not just the men who go out into society and harass, rape, beat, and murder women to keep them in check but it is also those men and women who condone their action and seek to find explanations in the actions of the female victim. It is engendered in each demand for dowry and every wish and blessing for a male child. Misogyny is woven into the fabric of Indian society irrespective of sex, caste, status, language, and religion. It is etched onto the national psyche with each unpunished act of female foeticide, female infanticide, dowry-related violence and death, rape, harassment down to the unchecked and seemingly harmless acts of cherishing and craving a male heir. The latter automatic practices contribute to the feminization of poverty because even in the educated households of millionaires mindset makes doormats out of women.

The rant behind me I will concentrate on the essence of the article. “How to Enrich a Society” or more specifically how to enrich Indian society? Extrapolating the saying “educate a girl child and you educate a family” I say you enrich and empower women and you’ll automatically bring prosperity and abundance into a community. Societies that value, cherish, and empower their women will fast track their progress because quite simply the mindset of women is to bring comfort and prosperity to her family. With each woman educated, employed, and enriched you will find families and communities raised out of poverty and illiteracy. Thus my answer to the quest for national abundance and a shining India is a prescription to alleviate feminization of poverty and then tackle the causes of poverty themselves.

My prescription to alleviate Feminization of Poverty is an intensive course of Vitamin “E”: Education, Enabling Health, Employment & Enterprise, Empowerment, and Electricity & E-connect. With the emergence of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes into the arena of development, social work, and community development I think we have been given the key to fast-tracking, replicating, proliferating, and corporatizing of the development of women and India.  In my opinion public-private partnerships (PPPs) in development starting with CSR programmes of various companies being tailored to suit specific target of developmental initiatives from the government are the way forward.

EDUCATION

Institutions and initiatives such as Barefoot College, Swaraj University, and Teach for India have made great strides in the effective education. Their successes must be replicated and automatically you will get “quality and the utility of our education, while ensuring equity and affordability.” Some government primary schools are willing to pay girls to attend school to incentivise improving their attendance for the family. Other incentives such as freebies like bicycles, grinders, stipends, laptops and tablets to female graduates and post graduates in truly disadvantaged and poor communities are also some short-term fixes that can encourage communities to educate their girls by sending them to school and college. A scholarship/bond programme for Bachelor of Education (B. Ed.) students as well as underprivileged first-generation college goers that takes care of college tuition in exchange for say a year’s service at a government school – rural or urban – could help deal with the dearth of government school teachers as well as providing students with motivated teachers who could double as role models. The teaching service could also be incentivised to any graduate by making it something the human resources department of major companies look for in applicants.   

ENABLE HEALTH

Anaemia indirectly kills and destroys the quality of life of more women than most of the dangerous communicable diseases, such as AIDS and TB, and lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disorders, do directly. A famous Chennai gynaecologist told me a ridiculously simple, cheap and effective way to ensure reduced maternal and infant mortality:
Ensuring that every girl child has daily access to proteins and Iron (One handful of “Sundal” – any boiled nut/pea/chickpea/gram and one Iron tablet) will automatically strengthen future mothers thus reducing Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) and Infant Mortality Rate (IMR).
IMR and MMR are internationally recognised indicators of a nation’s health. India despite being a destination for health tourism and producing some of the best doctors in the world routinely throws up poor MMR and IMR statistics. In addition to the handful of sundal being added to noon-meal schemes to add protein to a girl child’s diet I think CSR programmes of pharmaceutical companies are ideally situated to supply iron and vitamin supplements to underprivileged girls along with the noon meal. Access to even one nutritious meal added to timely vaccinations and healthcare for underprivileged children can be the difference between life and death and thus will curb IMR. Another major cause of infection and a causal factor of poor growth in Indians (Indians are one of the shortest races in the world but People of Indian Origin living away from the subcontinent grow as tall as native populations, according to one documentary this poor growth in children under five is linked to bacteria found in the human faeces) is the ubiquitous practise of open defecation and lack of access to hygienic toilets. A recent announcement that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and the Nirmal Bharat Abhigyan are coming together to construct clean toilets in rural India at government expense while providing rural employment is a step in the right direction. I hope the collaboration prospers and programmes are implemented as soon as possible regardless of a possible change in government. Sulabh International is also powering a silent revolution of access to clean and cheap toilets as an alternative to open defecation even as it generates employment and empowers women. Sulabh toilets and replicating the model will help inculcate the habit of hygiene.

The proposed Bachelor of Rural Medicine is also a positive development which must be implemented and improved. Availability of a trained midwife in all villages will also be a check to IMR and MMR. Incentives not compulsion must be provided to all medical graduates to spend three to twelve months in a rural setting. The mandatory rural service requirement to a medical degree should be made as attractive as possible. Its a win-win proposition as it will improve the young doctors’ knowledge and experience while gaining villagers access to the good healthcare. Just as newly-minted district collectors fresh off training seem to have more visible prestige (thanks to the government bungalow, chauffeured car and multitude of assistants) than the battle-worn pen-pushers of the North and South Block and other state capitals, I think rural practitioners fresh off their House Surgeoncy should be pampered in rural service with similar incentives paid for and built by CSR and MGNREGS programmes as well as PPPs monitored by local panchayats with the villagers and rural community as shareholders. In addition to employment and income generation in the short term the infrastructure of a proper rural health centre and quarters could enhance the attractions of rural practise.

The MGNREGS involvement in pond, tank and water-body reclamation as well as programmes to set up rain water harvesting in poorer communities will ensure access to clean water which in turn will have a positive effect on its health.

EMPLOYMENT & ENTERPRISE

Employment opportunities, enterprise development, and incubation cells with women at the heart of all such programmes will have a transformational effect on any society. Encouraging local handicrafts made by women and connecting them with national and international buyers will bring much needed revenue to women without them having to become farm and daily-wage labourers involved in back-breaking work. Marketing and providing innovations such as the water wheel to women will make daily chores such as collecting water easier. Matching innovations that will help in daily life to employment schemes such as the successful marketing programme of D.light solar lamps across rural communities in North India will not only generate income for the women trained in that aspect of business but will also incentivise companies helping communities that are readymade markets. By introducing “green” technologies such as composting, rain-water harvesting, solar energy devices, recycling, solid-waste management to enterprise development cells for women communities could benefit from both hitching their wagon to the “green” trend as well as having a source of income. Socially Useful and Productive Work (SUPW) and National Service Scheme (NSS) cells of colleges and management institutions as well as CSR departments of companies should tie-up with such women’s enterprise cell. Thus people/women from different backgrounds could interact and positively influence each other.

EMPOWERMENT

This aspect is more abstract than others. While education, health and wealth are concrete concepts empowerment as an achievement is difficult to quantify. It involves a degree of “unlearning” that societies are reluctant to do. Changing the patterns of behaviour, habits, automatic assumptions and prejudices takes time and effort but will have an exponential effect on development. It’s an oft-repeated cliché “Empowerment of women must come from within as well as without.” Something easier said than done! Gender sensitisation and re-educating the society to value the girl-child and cherish its women is essential to empower women. Political empowerment and creating a network of women to support and nourish the progress of underprivileged women are but limited solutions to an issue woven into the fabric of society. Support to breakthrough glass ceilings should come from parents, spouses, siblings, community and society to ensure that women in power are the norm rather than exceptions.

ELECTRICITY & E-CONNECT

At the heart of anything is energy. One needs energy to fuel change. To enrich a society or provide women with opportunities for success, whether urban or rural, you need some basic infrastructure. Uninterrupted electricity supply, internet connectivity, access to internet centres and peripherals such personal computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones can connect women and communities to a larger, “richer” community that can sustain and assist in their development. Setting up of internet centres equipped by peripherals sourced from people who have moved on to newer technology can make a virtue out of blatant consumerism. Solar panels, bio-gas, and other unconventional off-grid solutions should bring electricity and light to underprivileged sections of society be they rural villages or urban slums. Sourcing, trading, servicing and recycling such peripherals can become a lucrative enterprise in itself. We are the “facebook/smart phone generation” and our peers are constantly connected. There are advantages and disadvantages to this online lifestyle. The opportunities are endless and there is a great possibility that the “street smart” underprivileged could harness the internet to yield better benefits than we’ve ever dreamt off. The technology and innovations available are endless they just need to be directed to where there is a need and dearth. By taking a multipronged approach that focuses on providing access to education, health, employment, enterprise, empowerment, electricity, and e-connect the quality of the female life is enhanced and poverty alleviated. India’s tarnished glory can thus be restored. 

Raakhee Suryaprakash has a Master’s degree in International Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry but her passion remains writing and researching things that change the world for the better. Her work has been widely published both in print and online media. Raakhee Suryaprakash is in the process of launching a social enterprise SUNSHINE MILLENNIUM that aims to help India's off-grid rural areas achieve the Millennium Development Goals by setting up of solar-powered millennium development centres maintained by local stakeholders and funded by corporate social responsibility programmes and government schemes.
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