Changing gender norms in India can empower girls and boys for years to come

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

When we pulled up to the factory entrance, I smiled in pleasant surprise. This was no grimy, industrial behemoth; instead, the entrance to Shahi Exports, one of the largest manufacturers and exporters in India, was bursting with waxy-leafed tropical plants and vines looped elegantly between tall palms. At Shahi, we were meeting with women who worked the factory line and participated in an enrichment program called PACE (Personal Achievement and Career Enhancement), which provides resources and skills to women so that they can advance in their careers and their lives.

A garment worker in Shahi Exports
[/media-credit] A garment worker in Shahi Exports
Upon arrival, we were ushered into a large, sunny conference room and greeted warmly by no fewer than ten people. The administrator of Shahi Exports, Ravi*, introduced himself and the program, and then the PACE program participants introduced themselves. We were given cups of strong, spiced black tea that buzzed on my tongue. Then the women began to speak, providing us with background on their careers and the lives they lead outside of work.

“I was very shy before PACE,” said one woman, Ashna*, “And now I have the confidence to stand up for myself.” Her peers nodded, adding that PACE provides a forum to share feelings, which combats isolation and depression. Devika*, dressed in a luminous green sari the color of moss, said she has learned that violence can be emotional as well as physical. The women described learning how to communicate better with their supervisors at work and their husbands at home. When they shared that they had learned about saving their wages, I asked them what they were saving for. One by one, the women told me that they were saving for their daughters’ educations. Priya added that she hoped to buy land. Finally, Lakshmi* was the last to respond. As she gestured, the stacks of silver bangles on her arms clicked softly, gently punctuating her words.

Shahi Exports' factory floor
Shahi Exports’ factory floor

“I am saving for my daughter to go to school. But I am also saving for her dowry.” When asked why she was saving for a dowry after learning in PACE that girls can go to school instead of getting married, Lakshmi replied, “For me not to provide a dowry for my daughter, I would need to change all of society.” Lakshmi had touched upon the reality that while her beliefs may have changed, the rest of society still expects her to find a marriage for her daughter with the aid of a dowry. Her realization that the task of changing social norms is daunting – and beyond the scope of one person’s abilities – stayed with me as we toured the factory floor, a bright, high-ceilinged room filled with the chugging of sewing machines. We waved to other PACE program participants, passed a forest of headless dress models, and found ourselves out again in the balmy sunshine.

As our visit wore on, and we learned more about what it is like to be a woman in India, I heard Lakshmi’s words in my head. We learned that 47% of girls in India are married before the age of 18, and millions of sex-selective abortions – when pregnancies are ended because the fetus is female – take place every year, underscoring how little value is often placed of the life of a girl. These are complex and intractable problems, and I found myself wondering, again and again, how the social norms in a country like India, which have been entrenched for so many decades, can change.

School children in Mumbai
[/media-credit] School children in Mumbai
Next, we headed to Mumbai, where the air was soupy and fragrant. We arrived at a spacious school, and climbed our way to the top floor, dodging small children in uniforms who bounced precariously down the stairs. We were led to a packed classroom, with girls and boys squeezed three to a desk. The girls wore their long hair in looped braids tied with ribbons, and the boys wore small black ties with their striped collared shirts. They looked attentively at their teachers, who asked them to share their experience with the Gender Equity Movement in Schools, or GEMS, program, where girls and boys ages 12 to 14 discuss issues of gender inequality and violence in a group setting. I witnessed students eagerly raising their hands to tell us what they had learned from the program and, as a result, how their families have changed. One young man gleefully shared with us that he helps his mother sweep now, though when he first offered, she replied, “What, so you can be a slave to your wife?” And he responded, “If my wife can do it, so can I!” This gesture, while it may seem small to outsiders, showed how, thanks to the program, boys have begun to understand that they too have a role to play in taking care of the household, and that the burden of housekeeping shouldn’t simply fall to the girls and women of a family. Other boys and girls were quick to share with us that they help with chores too, and that they share what they learn in school with their families, passing on knowledge about gender equality even when they are out of school.

As student after student stood up to share what they learned, I saw a flash of India’s future. I saw sharp, happy kids entering into equitable relationships, where men and women stand on equal footing. I saw them teaching their children how to love and value women, and understanding masculinity with nuance and inclusivity.

Changing social norms can take generations, but here, in this school, we saw the start. I left India exhilarated, and hopeful that when Lakshmi’s daughter is old enough, she will find herself behind a desk with students like these.

*Names changed