It began with a young woman named Bhanwari. In 1992, I was traveling in a remote part of the desert area of Rajasthan, India, near the Pakistan border, far from a main road, down a dirt track. I came into a village of a few hundred people. It was hot and dusty. In a one-room house with a dirt floor, a young woman was weaving a shawl with a small baby in her arms. She had five other children outside. The girls were thin. There was little food in her village and almost no water — she had to walk hours each day to get it. She looked worn out and prematurely aged, and it struck me how isolated and lonely she was. She was finishing the shawl. I told her I would buy it from her. But the moment I gave her the money, a man came and took it.
That image has remained vivid in my mind — this woman had managed to make something and sell it, and the moment she had done so, the money was taken from her. She had no means of defending herself. And I thought, this can’t be, this has got to change. The village lacked medical care and a proper school. I knew that this woman needed some means by which she could transform her life. We had to care about her.
But like any woman elsewhere, she can only change her circumstances when she feels healthy and strong. Only then can she fight for her rights. These rights, which are enshrined in constitutions and in United Nations resolutions, mean nothing if they don’t apply to a woman like Bhanwari.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said so eloquently: “Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small they cannot be seen on any map of the world. . . . Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.”
So how can we ensure that village women in Rajasthan, like so many others in many parts of the world, exercise those rights? Given their circumstances, the empowerment of these women seemed an overambitious and near impossible task.
I started the Veerni Project in 1993 with the aim of bringing reproductive health services to poor women in Rajasthani villages. Our entry point was child and mother health. Why? Because the villages were so closed, so hostile to outside influence, reaching the women was going to be difficult. By targeting the women through their children, the men were less threatened.
At first, we had no access to the women. In our early ventures into the villages, we were not exactly welcomed. On some occasions, the men stoned us away. But gradually, we gained the confidence of the villagers and proved to them that we were not just another project coming in for a short time and then disappearing. We were there for the long term.
By now a lot of changes have taken place. There have been extraordinary events over the years: 22 years have gone by since the Veerni Project began, but one event that stays with me occurred in 1996.
On March 8 that year, women put down their tools and told their husbands they were not going to work in their houses or in the fields because they were celebrating International Women’s Day, or Mahila Diwas. A cultural program was organized in which the women sang traditional songs. Girls as young as 10 and up to 16 years old gave song-and-dance performances. Four years before, the thought of this happening would have seemed impossible.
How did the women even know it was Women’s Day, given that they had so little contact with the outside world, with many of the women illiterate and having no access to electricity, TV or newspapers? This was a day of triumph for Veerni, which means “heroine, or woman of strength” in Hindi.
Today, in 2016, life has changed in the Veerni villages, not only for many women but also importantly for some of the adolescent girls. For the last 11 years, Veerni has concentrated its efforts on secondary education for girls, and the results have been rewarding. Some 90 percent of the girls who have graduated have pursued studies in higher education.
Secondary education should be a priority throughout the world.
Although the Sustainable Development Goals have a target saying that by 2030 all girls and boys must complete primary and secondary education, this means that a whole generation of girls will have lost the chance to experience those precious years of schooling by then. We know that a majority of children who are out of school in the world are girls. In the desert area of Rajasthan, boys are sent to school but not girls.
Rural India does not educate a majority of its girls because secondary schools are few and far between in many regions. The prevalence of rape makes it dangerous for girls to walk several miles in the desert to school, so the safety issue is the most problematic. For too many girls, education stops at age 12, the end of primary school, even though a girl is not fully educated by then. In many cases, village schools are mediocre, with teachers not turning up. After school stops, the girls will never pick up another book again and forget most of what they have learned.
Most important, for too many of them, the reason they must leave school is “that girls are for marriage not for education.”
Why not make sure that girls get the education they deserve in the near future? How can women take their rightful place in society, in the political life of their countries, play a role in the life of their communities, if they are illiterate?
In the Veerni Project, girls live in a boarding facility in Jodhpur, where they attend good private schools. They graduate and can pursue their studies in the arts, commerce and science, which opens many doors for them. The majority go on to higher education, including the child brides, who represent half the current student body of about 70 girls. Their parents are not forcing them to join their husbands — sometimes girls as young as 14 must marry if they are not in school — and they are being allowed to study further. In some cases, their marriages will be annulled.
One of the poorest villages that Veerni works in, an entirely Dalit community, where 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, all the girls are married. But the community announced in December that the custom was ended and that the girls’ marriages would be annulled. This is a momentous decision by a community of Dalits, who customarily marry their daughters as children.
Now they are seeing the value of educating their daughters, the chance for them to become economically productive and to marry better husbands. Because of the skewed sex ratio in these regions, a real concern, girls are in shorter supply. The population can be choosers instead of beggars for their daughters. An educated girl is now a valuable asset and her ability to better her life and make her own choices have turned into a reality.
As Hillary Clinton stated eloquently: “There cannot be true democracy unless women’s voices are heard. There cannot be true democracy unless women are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives. There cannot be true democracy unless all citizens are able to participate fully in the lives of their country.”
As women of the world, we have to work harder to ensure that all women and girls have what we take for granted in the West. We have to understand that the world will never be a better place if women are marginalized, treated as second-class citizens or worse — as a commodity for men to dispose of. As long as we talk about empowerment of women but don’t act on it, their destinies will not change.
What is empowerment, a much-used word, imply? The capacity for a woman to make her own choices. This opportunity is denied to too many women in the world. There is no social transformation in a country if women remain outside the power rooms where decisions are made concerning the life of their families, communities and country.
Let’s work together to make the changes that will ensure that women everywhere have the same advantages that we all have. The world will be a better place.