Category Archives: India

Global Summit Acknowledges Successes, but inequality is far from over

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Written by Lisa DeBenedictis

“Women at the Forefront of Change”, the 20th Annual Global Summit of Women, was held in Beijing, China, last week, on May 20 through May 22.

Many of the world’s top female government officials, government ministers, business leaders and CEO’s from six continents were present.

Among topics of discussion and goals of the summit were the advancement of women’s economic opportunities, making connections with and drawing inspiration from other female leaders, and learning about ways to enable women leaders regionally, nationally, and world-wide.

The summit is put on each year by Globe Women, an organization that works to promote women in business.

According to the summit’s website and online brochure, many women are increasingly holding positions in pivotal and influential jobs.

“The percentage of women in various trades requiring higher technical skills and intensified knowledge is also rising dramatically, as evidenced by the increasing number of women working in hi-tech industries, such as computer science, software, telecommunication and finance. [In China] in fields such as education, culture, arts, media, healthcare, and sports, women have become the majority,” read the summit’s 2010 brochure.

At Barakat, we support the growth and empowerment of female leadership, and believe that the ability for women to achieve success in their careers and in leadership positions begins with education.

Despite acknowledging how far they have come, many of the speakers expressed that there is still much inequality and underrepresentation of women, particularly in business leadership positions.

According to The New York Times article “Unlocking Access to the Boardrooms”, the number of female company directors is still severely lacking across the globe. With Norway as one of the major exceptions (taking the lead at 44 percent), the United States has 15.2 percent, Britain has 12.2 percent, and China with 7.2 percent.

Among some of the even lower scores was one of the countries Barakat works in, India (with 5.1 percent). For us at Barakat, statistics like these show us that it is vital for us to continue to advocate and support female education through our schools in countries such as India.

Read more about our India schools and learn how you can help bring education—and empowerment—to women and children in some of the countries that need it most.

Violence Toward Women Slowly Becoming Not OK in South Asia

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Passing laws against domestic violence may not guarantee safety for women in some parts of the world, but it is a start. Legislation has been proposed in Pakistan that would make domestic abuse illegal. It covers a broad spectrum of acts including emotional abuse, deprivation of financial means, and wrongful confinement. Currently, women can report their husbands for assault, but it is rarely punished and most often overlooked. This bill would go above and beyond covering atrocities such as acid burning, which is still extremely prevalent in Pakistan.

Another precedent was set in neighboring India last month, when the courts came down tough on the perpetrators of an honor killing. Five elders were sentenced to death or life sentences for killing a young man and woman of different sub-castes who eloped three years ago. Never before have the courts ruled so harshly on a practice that has, in the past, been considered a cultural practice. The five that were given the death sentence were the bride’s brother, cousins, and uncles. The local village administration leader was given a life sentence.

These actions are major steps toward insuring better protection of women in societies in which their intrinsic value may not be considered as great as men. However, these laws and legal precedents will only protect some, and often, those in rural areas will not benefit. Police officers tend to look the other way when horrific crimes are committed, especially in cultures like Pakistan, where ultra-conservative Islam prevails, and in India, where the caste system is still deeply engrained in societal values.

Many women in Pakistan continue to be victims of horrific abuse such as acid burnings. Their husbands and sometimes in-laws will throw acid on these women, horribly scaring them and sometimes causing blindness and permanent restrictions in movement. One woman recalled her crime for such a punishment: refusing to immediately wash the dishes after a meal.

Laws against domestic abuse will only go so far. One doctor suggested punishment for those who sell the acid as well. This is another positive step in the right direction, but even more must be done. The best way to improve the lives of these women is to improve their social standing. These areas are extremely poor and usually illiterate. Women who are victims of abuse often have no other choice but to stay with their husbands because of economic concerns. At Barakat we believe that women in Pakistan who are educated are much less likely to be victims of domestic abuse, or at the least, will not stick around in dangerous situations. If women understand their rights and their options, they hold the power to determine their futures.

The Acid Survivors Foundation, an organization based in Bangladesh, has helped some of these women restore their dignity. One woman has been learning to knit sweaters and can once again take care of her children despite damage to her eyes, which has left her completely blind. Another vows to open a beauty shop to prove to her husband and others that she is a survivor and the acid burning did not cause her to lose hope.

In India, Compulsory Education for All Children—An Identity for All People

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In the past couple of days, India has taken two major steps towards better equality for its citizens. Yesterday, a law was enacted which ensures the right to an education for all children between the ages of 6 and 14. Today, a census will begin that will hopefully document all of India’s citizens, rich and poor, and will begin the process of the issuing of national identity cards to every person.

The federal government pledged to provide sufficient financial means to implement the new compulsory education policy. It expects to spend about $35 billion over five years. It is estimated that around 8-10 million children in India, currently do not go to school. A large portion of this number comes from the poorest of India, who do not have access to schools, or the financial ability to let their children leave the home during the day. Too much of their income comes from child labor. The new law guarantees teacher trainer for one teacher every 30 children and a quarter of enrollment reserved for the most disadvantaged of India.

The government is also undertaking what India’s Federal Interior Minister called, “the biggest operation since humankind came into existence.” He was referring to the fact that no census has ever been conducted on this scale for over one billion people. The census hopes to identify housing conditions, access to sanitary water, use of technology, and the diversity of ethnicities and languages. Photos and fingerprints will also be taken for every person over the age of 15, even those with no home, living under bridges and on railway platforms. This will eventually result in the issuing of identity cards for every person.

These two initiatives represent tremendous effort of the Indian government to improve living conditions for its people. With such a large population to be concerned with, the government must understand their living conditions, let alone their sheer numbers. In order to provide any kind of infrastructure or public service, the government must know its starting point. Basic questions such as how many people live in each province, or each community are essential. How can the government know who needs better access to water, without knowing who does not currently have it? Identity cards will also help the poor to easily identify themselves in order to be eligible for certain benefits. As of right now, they often rely on ration cards, letters from local officials, and other non-official documentation. Many of these people do not even have a birth certificate.

This initiative can hopefully go hand-in-hand with the first, the right to education for all children in India. Once the government knows exactly how many children are in need of education and which schools are currently dysfunctional, they can provide new and better schools. At Barakat we are currently working on a new program in a community in Uttar Pradesh, which will bring education to the women and children there, who currently do not have access to schooling. There are countless communities just like this one in which its residents cannot get an education and who are not literate because there are simply no schools.

The follow-through of these initiatives must live up to the peoples’ expectations. If India can actually take on programs of such immensity, its people will benefit in innumerable ways.

The Important Role of Role Models

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Most people would say that they have one, entire organizations are centered on the idea of one, and now, in Liberia, women can draw strength from them. Role models can have major impacts on the people around them and can serve to strengthen communities in ways that other approaches cannot. It’s the classic school of thought, “if she can do it, then I can do it.”

In 2007 the UN tried a gender experiment by sending an all-female, Indian police force into Liberia to aid women. They chose Liberia because it has been an area of intense sexual violence against women. The UN recognized that women are often more traumatized then men in times of conflict, because they are victims of sexual abuse. They brought in the women peacekeeping forces to aid Liberian women in ways men cannot: to provide security and comfort, to teach them self-defense, and to assist them in seeking medical care.

The program seems to being showing signs of success, as troops were just replaced last week as part of a rotation. Although the stories have been heart-wrenching at times, troops provide not only essential services to women, but also serve as role models for the population. The idea of a strong woman doing the same job as a man, and doing it just as well, can be extremely inspiring. More numbers of Liberian women are joining the police force now, for example. Liberia also boasts the only female president, an extraordinary achievement for a country so plagued by sexual violence.

At Barakat, we understand the importance of role models. All of our teachers are locals; many of them women, and some even graduates of Barakat’s programs themselves. We make a special effort to train women in the area of human rights, so they can pass on their knowledge of their rights and their confidence in themselves.

The UN ought to take on more experiments like the one in Liberia. With strong role models that promote healthy values in women, societies can grow in unimaginable ways.

A Walk Through Jalapur

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Arti writes from India…

“Everything gets done on the paper, nobody really comes to see how we are doing,” I was told in response to my question about

a woman in Jalapur

whether the local education official had sent anyone to do the survey of adult illiterates (15-35 years) in Jalalpur basti. The truth behind the above statement was completely apparent and alarming because, according to the 2007-08 survey done by the district officials of Bhadohi, there are only 17 illiterates in this age group in Jalalpur. I believe I met about 15 of those in my one trip to Jalapur. The odds are that there are many more to be found in this basti of a few thousand people!

Jalalpur is a small, densely packed slum in the city of Bhadohi. Bhadohi district is one of the main centers of the carpet-weaving belt of India. It lies in the populous and utterly backward state of Uttar Pradesh, racked by government corruption and apathy.

Walking through Jalapur, I asked, “Why is all this garbage lying here?” I was informed that the Nagar Palika (the city municipal body) uses this particular area, packed with people and children, as the dumping ground for trash from everywhere in the city.

Because I was so unprepared for what I would see in Jalalpur, I took my one-year old son with me. The filth, the utter squalor of the slum and of many of the residents there took its toll on him. Children, dirty and in torn shreds, looking badly in need of better nutrition were all around. I saw a young girl, not even capable yet of taking care of herself, with a three-month old in her arms. Both were so malnourished that the three-month old could have been mistaken for a one-month old. My own son came down with a fever that very night!

I started inquiring of their mothers about whether the children go to school at all. These were some of the responses I received:

“She was not attending school regularly, and dropped out after one year.”

“My son failed one grade, and then left school.”

“He did not come home and do his homework, his grades were very bad – he left school.”

There is no doubt a general understanding, even in urban slums like Jalalpur, that schooling is the way to get out of the cycle of poverty; but there is also, no doubt, a real lack of understanding of the effort required in schooling on the part of parents and children. Partly because these parents are illiterate and they themselves don’t comprehend the schooling process.

One thing that became very clearly to me as I stood with two generations of women who had not been educated was how inseparably linked a woman’s wellbeing is with that of her child. This fact was staring me in the face the way it hadn’t thorugh all the research articles I’d read. If women are better educated, then they are better informed. This means that their children are better cared for.  If they are not educated, the health of their children is adversely affected. It sets them on the path they are to take in life, whether it is one of progress, or one of stagnation. It determines whether they are caught up in the cycle of poverty, or whether they are able to break free.

I came away from Jalalpur feeling their palpable sense of need, though no one made any demands of me or required that I, as a development professional or as someone better off than them, should provide them a service of any sort.

Every medium and large city in India has slums like Jalalpur, inhabited by the low-caste—those who perceive of themselves as powerless. There are thousands of Jalalpurs in India and millions of people living in them – men and women who are bringing up children to grow more cities such as their own. Where and how will this cycle end, and how can we best intervene in an effective fashion –is the challenge we face.

Disparities in Education Aid Between Children and Adults

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Arti writes from India…

Barakat Students Leaving School

“130 rupees is the per pupil expenditure on Adult Education and in comparison for primary education it is 730 rupees,” Dr. Shah informed me. He continued to appraise me further by adding, “The Adult Education facilitator who is responsible for running the adult literacy courses at the village level is supposed to work for free; while primary school teachers get paid Rs.7000/month.” I knew, of course, that the spending on adult education, by the government (and also by NGOs) was disproportionate as compared to the spending on primary education, but I did not know that it was so blatant .

I suppose that adds to the list of reasons I have for believing that adult literacy is an area of development that is begging for attention. I acknowledge, however, that as I travel from Delhi, the country’s capital, to Lucknow (a state capital) to Bhadohi (a district center in Uttar Pradesh), I am struck evermore that even in the two years that I have been away, India has become so much more chaotic and that challenges abound at every step. The distance between the haves and the have nots continues to burgeon – as cycles and small cars struggle for space on tiny roads; jarring sights of beggars, mentally disabled, physically handicapped crowd the roads at crosswalks and little children performing like monkeys vie for attention at red lights.

The infrastructure has obviously improved in Delhi and Lucknow, but remains as run-down as before in Bhadohi and I imagine, the villages are untouched too. India is not an easy place to survive and I felt somewhat overwhelmed on my way to Bhadohi in the train, thinking, “How am I ever going to make a difference here – it is too much – it is coming apart at the seams. How will I be able to do a project that really has an impact. What was I thinking?”

Now that I am here in Bhadohi and working in the field, I know that I can find my way around very well – instinctively – and I know precisely where to put one foot and then the next – so that should show us the way forward…even if I feel a sense of the immensity of the context that surrounds me.

The Problem With Private Schools in India

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Students in India

Parents in New York who are stressed about private schools accepting their children, ought to be glad they aren’t in New Delhi. Yesterday was the deadline for schools to post their final decisions on which children would be accepted for the upcoming year. Because there has been such chaos and arbitrary practices in accepting students, a court-appointed commission set new rules in standards for accepting students. The combination of India’s exploding middle-class, and the practical collapse of the public school system, has led private schools to go overboard with absurd filtering processes such as outlandish bribes.

However, the new standard seems to be skewed as well. It is based on a 100-point system that measures things such as parent’s occupations, siblings, and distance from the school. These guidelines, parents complain, are unfair for single children families and discriminate based on characteristics that are unimportant. Not to mention that this point system is only in effect for New Delhi. Other cities around the country are still operating on an extremely corrupt system. More importantly, however, is where that leaves the poor: stuck in the public school system that is non-functioning, with no hope of paying bribes or becoming accepted to private schools on their own.

Barakat aims to provide schooling for this portion of the population. The public school system has little resources and unmotivated staff. Barakat provides schooling in the Bhadohi district in the Northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a very poor area in which parents often have to choose whether to send their children to school, or send their children to work. Barakat’s free education system provides quality learning to curve the practice of abusive child labor.

With such an uproar among parents in New Delhi, officials may have to find a new system that values the right characteristics in students. Hopefully other cities around the country can adopt fair standards as well, and offer families an alternative to the unacceptable and failing public school system.