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Rural 'beti' as businesswoman? A tough battle

Last updated on: January 29, 2015 15:02 IST
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If doing business in India is a problem for even the richest, it is unlikely to be a breeze for the average rural Indian woman, points out Kanika Datta.

Image: Indian women in general and rural Indian women in particular can only progress as far as the social system permits them. Photograph: Ahmad Masood/Reuters

United States President Barack Obama's statement about enabling a young woman in rural India to start a business with a partner in America that will change both their lives attracted loud applause at the US-India Business Council.

It's the kind of statement that is emblematic of Mr Obama's soaring vision. But frankly, closer Indo-US business ties are unlikely to help achieve this reality anytime soon. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (save the girl child, educate the girl child) programme launched last week in Panipat, Haryana, a state with one of the country's worst gender ratios, was an honest reflection of a deep-seated social problem. 

Many women in urban India do business with the United States and elsewhere and are admired for beating many gender prejudices. But consider what the average woman in rural India is up against.

Image: A gender ratio of 943 females for every 1,000 males inIndia. Photograph: Reuters

That is assuming, of course, that she is born in the first place; a gender ratio of 943 females for every 1,000 males suggests that many women don't make it out of the womb (true, this is not an exclusively rural phenomenon - the banned sex determination test is used with impunity among rich urban Indians, too). 

Again, assuming she manages to conquer all the diseases that afflict babies and children in a country where open defecation is rife and lives past infancy (girls in India have 61 per cent higher mortality than boys at age one-four years), she is unlikely to learn to read or write.

Her parents, rich or poor, will give her brothers preference. Sometimes, assuming school services are easily accessible, she may get to attend school and learn the rudiments of reading and writing.

But she will be expected to do her heavy share of the housework alongside, responsibilities her brother will not be required to fulfil. 

Her education, however, is not aimed at empowering her but to enhance her value on the marriage market. So by the time she reaches her teens, she'll probably have dropped out of school.

Image: A schoolgirl prays before having her free mid-day meal. Photographs: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

Her life will forever be "cabined, cribbed and confined" by the deep conservatism of rural society and physical danger, not just from men outside the family but from male relatives, too. If she does happen to be molested by one of them, she is expected to not complain or go to the police, so that her reputation and that of her family is not besmirched.

If she lives in a state like Haryana, her fate could well be determined by a khap panchayat of older men with antediluvian views about women's honour. 

Well before her 18th birthday, her parents will begin the hard bargaining with a string of mercenary men and their families to take her off their hands. She rarely has a choice in the matter, a form of legalised rape that is rarely discussed.

Then again, the ability of her father to meet their demands often determines how safe his daughter will be in her in-laws' home. Depending on her husband and in-laws' level of satisfaction, she may or may not be beaten and/or burnt to death. 

She will, however, be expected to bear children, preferably sons and, assuming she doesn't die in childbirth for the lack of maternity care, many of them. The daughters … well, their fate will likely follow the same trajectory as hers.

Image: Finally, a progressive social reform for women. Photograph, Courtesy: BarefootCollege

The prospect of her or her daughters thinking up a business plan, raising capital, setting up a business with all the financial and marketing bandobast required, negotiating with suppliers and buyers, and travelling would fall in the realm of futuristic science fiction.

Plus, if doing business in India is a problem for even the richest, most educated scion of a business house, it is unlikely to be a breeze for the average rural Indian woman. 

Indian women in general and rural Indian women in particular can only progress as far as the social system permits them and, sure, plugging into global supply chains is a good way to start, as we saw with the ITeS (information technology-enabled services) boom.

Image: Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Sanjay Gandhi releasing  “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” logo. Photograph, Courtesy: PIB

"Beti bachao, beti padhao" is one of similar exhortations that political dispensations have declared over the decades.

Most of those campaigns have been organised by the ministry of women and child development and have been token in approach.

Mr Modi is the first prime minister to explicitly align himself with such a programme. With his earthy mass appeal he is a great ambassador for progressive social reform. 

His challenge will be to rein in the lunatic fringe within his political base that has been doing its best to oppress Indian women.

Campaigns like ghar wapsi and exhorting Hindu women to have more children - incidentally, a replica of a campaign in Nazi Germany where women were awarded a medal for producing more than six children - are hardly likely to empower women.

Or foster an environment where a woman in Nangtihari (300-odd km from Chandigarh), Haryana, can actually dream of doing business with someone in New Jersey.

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