India can be a dangerous place to be a girl.
Rape, abuse, dowry customs, child labor and infanticide are part of a tragic legacy in this country that is also full of bright minds and rich cultural heritage.
The savage gang rape of a young woman unfortunate enough to ride the wrong bus in New Delhi 18 months ago took women’s rights to the streets where thousands marched on the presidential palace.
India’s important national elections being held over the next few weeks will tell us whether the outcry will lead to any significant change.
I hope so. But I have my doubts.
Yes, all of the main political parties announced big plans to make India safer for women, or at least outlaw the harshest forms of brutality against them. But what happens after the elections will tell the story.
Whichever party wins the election will be under pressure to improve a lagging economy and deal with government corruption. My fear is that all the rhetoric regarding women’s rights will fade away with little or no significant action.
Even if bold new laws are passed, it could be generations before the effects take root in the complicated caste systems, rural areas and impoverished communities.
At Unbound we don’t want to wait for that.
In 2008 we began working in Suryapet, a marginalized community outside of Hyderabad.
We found that many families in the community were selling their baby girls to adoption centers because they simply could not afford to raise them. When the government learned of this practice and began to crack down, families stopped selling their baby girls, but some also stopped feeding them. Several baby girls starved to death. The remedy was even worse than the original problem.
The approach our organization takes in India is to work with individual women and families, giving them the regular financial and social support they will need for what looks to be a long journey toward gender justice.
We challenge cultural norms by encouraging families to educate their girls, and we help mothers to become an organized force in the community so that they can become the primary agents of the changes they wish to see.
Once they had been organized into small groups, the mothers of Suryapet created solutions to safety issues and helped each other launch small businesses with microloans. Today the mothers in our program are not only keeping their daughters safe and healthy, but also sending them to school.
Husbands and fathers change their views when they begin to discover the economic potential of their wives and daughters. Their views change even more when they discover the political clout of women who have become an organized force in the community. The boys of Suryapet are now being raised in a community atmosphere that values the dignity of all people.
Unbound sponsors nearly 30,000 children in India today, creating this same type of impact on thousands of families and communities. By no means would we say we have this problem all figured out, but we’re encouraged by the impact of these courageous women.
A grassroots approach to gender justice will change the story for many girls in India regardless of the outcome of the current elections.