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Can We Close the Gap on Women's Inequality in India?

Posted: 08/03/2013 10:54

Last month prime minister David Cameron visited India with the biggest delegation of British business leaders ever taken overseas. I was in India at the same time and saw a different side of the country, where inequality - particularly for girls- is a daily part of everyday life.

"I always wanted to be a teacher", smiled Jyoti*, a bright and sociable sixteen-year-old girl whom I met in Madanpur Khadar, an urban slum resettlement colony to the south of Delhi. A fairly reasonable dream for a teenage girl, I thought, and an honourable career to aim for, in a country where many children miss out on school because of a lack of trained teaching professionals.

But Jyoti's smile faded and she looked sad. It started a year ago, she told me, when a group of older boys began following her to school. At first they rode after her on their bikes, then the teasing got worse and they started trying to touch and kiss her. She was afraid they might follow her home and assault her, the recent rape case in India highlighting that for many women in India their fears are often sadly justified.

Jyoti did the right thing and told her parents about the victimisation, but their reaction was not what she'd been expecting. She was bringing dishonour on the family, they said, and was obviously leading the boys on. Things got so bad for Jyoti that her brother actually hit her and it was decided that she would no longer be able to leave the house to go to school. So Jyoti had to say goodbye to her dreams and now faces a future of getting married off by her parents to someone she's never met.

I met Jyoti and her friends at a community group funded by Oxfam India, which helps teenage girls campaign for their rights. One of her friends Anita had a similar story. Because Anita has no toilet where she lives or at her school, every day she is forced to visit a public waste ground to go to the loo. On one such occasion a few months ago she was harassed by a much older man who'd been hanging around in the dark watching her. Anita was frightened and told her mother. She was worried her parents would want to keep her at home, like Jyoti's parents had done with her, but Anita's mum told her to be strong and stand up for her rights. The day I met Anita she stood in front of her entire community and local government officials to tell her story and demand action to make life better for girls in the area. A toilet for the girls to use at school was at the top of her list.

It seems like such a simple thing, but the fact that many schools across India don't have this basic facility, means girl after girl drops out of education. There are also huge problems with a lack of teachers - India currently faces a 1.2million shortfall - and other basics, like chairs and desks, well-maintained classrooms, up to date textbooks and clean water for the children to drink. India has the largest number of children out of school in the world and the highest rates of child labour.

The Indian government says it cannot afford to invest more in education. Despite the fact it committed to spending 6% of national income, it currently spends just over 3%. The image many Britons have of India as a vibrant and bustling economy is true for parts of the country and for the emerging middle classes. But despite the remarkable recent progress it is one that isn't yet shared by the vast majority of people in the country, especially the half a billion people living on less than 80 pence a day.

It's clear from David Cameron's recent visit that the UK government sees India as a valued trading partner and one that no longer needs our support in the form of overseas aid. But Jyoti and Anita's difficulties in finding somewhere private to go to the loo suggest otherwise. Whilst there are still more people living in poverty in India than the whole of sub Saharan Africa, whilst there are still children unable to go to school and get an education that will help them build a life free from poverty we shouldn't be withdrawing our support. Instead we should be working with the Indian government to help them develop in a way that doesn't exclude the poorest.

As the world marks International Women's Day today Oxfam India will be launching a new campaign to tackle inequality, particularly for women and girls. Oxfam believes it is an outrage that in the 21st century, women don't feel safe when they walk home at night and that women's representation in places of power is so insignificant. Currently only 5% of the Indian Police Force are women, an especially worrying statistic given the fact that many crimes against women go unreported because they don't feel safe reporting them to a man.

Whilst there is sadly little hope for Jyoti to reach her dream of being a teacher, if women in India had both the facilities they need to complete their education and a more equal place in society then stories like hers would become a thing of the past.

*Jyoti's name has been changed to protect her identity

 

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