New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of Half the Sky, have created a competition for organizations involved in fighting global poverty and empowering women. The ‘Half the Sky’ competition and Barakat’s submission can be found on Kristof’s blog entitled On the Ground.
To an outsider, the most striking thing about women in rural Uttar Pradesh, India, is how few of them there are. Men cram the narrow lanes, work the tarp-covered shops, and zoom around on motorcycles throughout Bhadohi– without a woman to be seen.
Until you enter a home, that is. There you will find women cooking, cleaning, and assiduously applying the ancient art of weaving to huge looms. Women wearing intricately embroidered saris wade knee-deep into rice paddies behind their homes. They seemingly do it all—except leave their homes.
I traveled to this north-central Indian province in July with my boyfriend Damon, who works for Barakat, Inc. Barakat funds two elementary schools here. I went along as an observer and volunteer, but I had the chance to interview some of these almost-invisible women.
Most of the women in Bhadohi have not been formally educated. To an outsider, they appear shunned from many parts of adult society. They are rarely seen in shops; they don’t work in restaurants; they almost always get around by walking only. Women’s irrelevance here is so ingrained that most shopkeepers utterly ignored my presence. When I pulled out the cash, they handed my boyfriend the change. Even the lone two shopkeepers who addressed me directly called me “sir.”
While these quotidian insults are not of life-destroying magnitude, they pile up to create an oppressive weight from under which Indian women cannot escape. Each individual woman is trapped in her own home, with a family she typically did not choose and circumstances she cannot alter. What makes this so outrageous is that not just an unlucky bunch of women meet this fate; nearly every rural woman in UP will live such a life.
We interviewed some of the parents who send their students to the free, public Barakat schools in Bhadohi. We asked them, Why do you think it’s important for girls to be educated? Both fathers and mothers gave the same answer: nowadays, it’s hard for an uneducated female to find a suitable husband. A good marriage brings both prestige and wealth– if it’s education men want, it’s education they get. And why, we asked, do men seek educated wives? The answer to this question, simple common knowledge to the villagers, nonetheless summed up years of research: educated women see to it that their children become educated, too. In other words, if a man wants his own children to be educated, he finds them an educated mom.
The rural people of Bhadohi are onto something: educating young girls earns them a desirable marriage in which they are valued participants; potential careers outside the home; and best of all, children who will be assured an education, too. Barakat’s two free schools in Bhadohi, which serve hundreds of children from impoverished carpet-weaving families, make special outreach efforts to enroll girls. This is not a band-aid solution. Systematically educating all the young women in Bhadohi will slowly but surely bring them out of the shadows—and protect future generations from that shadow, permanently.