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Reflections on a recent trip to India

Dehli and the Punjab, 17th - 23rd November 2008

The Government in India understands the critical importance of rooting out discrimination and prejudice against women for accelerating the country’s remarkable economic progress.

I had a ‘Life on Mars” moment when in India last week. Like Sam Tyler, I felt I had been catapulted back to the early seventies when I read that Indian men were complaining about women becoming too assertive and confident. Their demands for their own support groups and even their own Government department reminded me of similar complaints from men here when the women’s movement first began making progress.
All I can say is that, just as in the UK 35 years ago, the complaints from Indian men that they are getting an unfair deal are is something of an exaggeration. The recent report from the World Economic Forum found that India was 113 out of 130 countries in its success in closing the gender gap.
This remains a culture, as I heard first hand, where girls and women are too often seen as second best from birth to death. Women told me that while the birth of a boy is something to be celebrated, that is often not the case with a baby girl. Certainly in many rural areas, girls are seen as a burden on the family, something which the continuation of the dowry system only helps re-inforce.
I heard some absolutely harrowing stories of baby girls abandoned by families who wanted to concentrate their scarce resources on their sons. I also heard from bright and determined young women how they were expected to help with the chores for hours a day before and after school or work while their brothers were free to enjoy their leisure time. The good news was that I was left in no doubt when they had their own families, their sons couldn’t expect such an easy life.
For attitudes in India are changing among the young. The Government also understands the critical importance of rooting out discrimination and prejudice against women for accelerating the country’s remarkable economic progress. They are, for example, putting real effort into closing the worrying gender gap in education which is found in India and many other parts of the world. And there is nothing more important for the success of a country.
I know first hand, of course, of the power of education to transform lives. Like many of my generation and background, I was the first of my family to go to university. Although I didn’t always appreciate it at the time, I owe a great deal to my teachers and school in Liverpool. It was this their education and the confidence they gave me which gave me so many opportunities.
This is true, of course, for everyone but I think particularly for girls. But the tragedy is that, in many parts of the world, education rather than opening doors for girls shuts them. There is a persistent gender gap in education - particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and south and west Asia that is damaging not just the life chances of the girls themselves but the health and strength of their societies.
For there is very strong evidence that investing in the education in girls is just about the best investment any society can make. It improves everything from the health of children to agricultural production because educated girls are more open to new techniques. It brings even bigger rewards that educating boys because of the strong inter-generational impact of an educated woman.
A recent study by Goldman Sachs highlighted an extraordinary range of benefits for women, their families and a nation’s economy. Research has found women with secondary schooling are likely to have fewer children and more likely to seek medical care and get their children immunised, leading to falls in both maternal and child mortality. Female education leads to healthier diets for the family and protects against the dangers of malnutrition.
And this inter-generational impact continues through a child’s life. Mothers with education are more likely to educate their children and their children are likely to study more. At the same time, the more education a girl has, the more likely she is to enter the paid labour market which, in turn, has a major impact on productivity, growth and prosperity. As the Goldman Sachs report concluded: “As education supports economic growth, growth in turn supports further improvements in education and health, creating a virtuous circle that extends the gains to human capital and productivity”.
Not surprisingly, the Indian Government is taking efforts to addresss the reasons why there are 25% more boys in secondary education than girls. Theyt are providing financial support, for example, to families to continue sending girls to schools. More women teachers are being provided and a tough policy on sexual harassment brought in which is one of the reasons teenage girls leave education.
But often it can be something as basic as the lack of separate toilet facilities which explains the high drop out rate of teenage girls. I saw this myself not long ago when I visited a rebuilt school, a joint project between the Loomba Trust and the local community, in the Punjab. Along with the real sense of pride in their new school, you couldn’t help notice just how few girls were among the pupils - just 40 from a school roll of over 300. The lack of lavatories was a major factor in dissuading older girls from attending - something which has now been put right through a new toilet block thanks to the Loomba Trust.
So the men of India need not worry yet about the need for groups to protect their interests. But if the impressive young girls - and lads - I met last week are any indication of the future, India is on its way to becoming a much more equal society with education playing a major role. And that’s got to be good news. If we are to overcome the challenges facing our world, we need to make the most of everyone talents