Changing Minds in India: A Front Row Seat

Article Date

23 January 2015

Article Author

Karen Scofield Seal

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

In October, I traveled to India with ICRW to truly understand the barriers and challenges to women’s equality, as well as the programs that are paving the path forward for equality. From the moment my plane landed in New Delhi, I encountered one eye-opening moment after another.

Girls and boys in a Delhi school
Girls and boys in a Delhi school

I wanted to visit India with ICRW to really get to the heart of the issues facing women and girls. I wanted to know…What works? What’s not working? Why is something working in one place, while not working in another? I wanted to get to the root of the work of individuals and organizations that are literally transforming communities and unlocking the door to women and girls’ enormous potential.

And that’s what I got.

Soon after we landed, I was excited to get started on our first stop, visiting Shahi Exports, a garment factory just outside of Delhi, the nation’s capital, where Gap, Inc. is running a program called P.A.C.E. The P.A.C.E. program helps female garment workers gain life and professional skills, helping program participants learn everything from how to negotiate with their boss, to how to apply for managerial positions, and even how to set aside money to save for their family’s future.

Visiting the program was incredibly inspiring. To bear witness to the women’s stories, and be able to hear women discuss how the program had transformed their lives, was truly a privilege.  While some of the life skills may seem like common knowledge to some of us, the training the women participants received helps serve as a lifeline for women who have previously had few mentors and little knowledge about how to advance in their career or save for their future.

Each woman who came forward to tell their story was full of hope and pride in what they had learned and all they had accomplished. Participants told us that before the program, they weren’t able to look people in the eye, lacking the confidence necessary to express themselves. Yet during our visit, they stood before us, four strangers, giving us intimate details about their lives, their family, and their hopes and dreams. One woman in particular spoke about how people in community knew that she was a participant in the P.A.C.E. program, simply because of the way she carried herself with confidence. She said that people came to her with their problems, seeking advice, and saw her as a leader. Another woman said she learned how to budget and was saving money for daughters’ education. And yet another woman, whose baby had previously been consistently sick, learned the importance of filtering water to ensure her baby was no longer drinking contaminants.

I left the factory understanding how seemingly small changes in these women’s lives can and do have huge ripple effects throughout their community. Information on how to save and manage the family’s finances could result in daughters staying in school longer. Mentorship programs that provide women with the skills to interview for and receive promotions could translate into more significant savings for the family, and their children, in the long run. It’s these small changes that add up to major improvements for communities in India. And the changes would simply not have been possible without the P.A.C.E. program.

A few days later, we visited Parivartan, a program based in the Shivaji Nagar slum community of Mumbai, designed to empower adolescent girls and young women. We met with about a dozen mentors, between the ages of 18 and 24, who were responsible for enrolling an additional 15 girls each in a program that provides them with life skills, negotiation skills, and uses the Indian sport of kabaddi to show girls the power of teamwork. The girls were so excited to participate as well as to just be in the company of other girls their age.  With excellent acting skills, the mentors performed a skit, which helped show the myriad challenges girls faced in order to join the program, including seemingly insurmountable resistance from parents, many of whom thought that a daughter’s duty was to be at home, doing cooking, cleaning, minding siblings, not out with other girls. But, they were persistent and persuasive. Each and every girl was brave, confident, supportive, and passionate about sharing what they had learned with more girls and with the wider community. Watching them, I know they’re going to pass everything they’ve learned on to the next generation of young girls, giving their community, and perhaps one day their own children, hope for a more equitable world.

Every project visit, every voice, and every story was memorable. Yet the one thing that has stayed with me the most is just how precarious these programs are. If the funding to keep any given program running is not there, the program, which is essential to improving the lives of women and empowering girls for years to come, could fall through at any moment. Through my visits, I was reminded that progress takes time and in order to ensure that girls and women, from the slums of Mumbai to the factories outside of Delhi, are able to experience their full potential, we must invest in proven solutions that tackle some of the greatest forms of gender equality that women experience every day. And those investments don’t happen overnight. They happen over time, with support and dedication from staff working in slums, in schools, and in factories.

Girls in secondary school stand outside their school.
Girls in secondary school stand outside their school.

Together, with the resources, research, and programs that are challenging the status quo, we can ensure a better life for women and girls in India. And while many of the women and girls spoke to the challenges they face, so many expressed feelings of hope. And I felt it, too. Gender equality seemed to be buzzing in the air throughout my entire trip. Commercials designed to educate the public about the importance of the girl child came through my TV every day, billboards highlighting Vogue India’s 7th anniversary and celebrating women’s empowerment stood tall above the highways, and expressing support for women’s rights, from parliamentarians to Bollywood stars, seemed to be the rule, not the exception to the rule, as has been the case for far too long.

I would highly recommend to anyone interested in gender equality and empowering women and girls to read ICRW’s reports and blogs and, if you are able, to visit their projects, as well as to talk to their incredibly knowledgeable, hospitable and engaging team, and find out what you can do to contribute to the gender equality movement.

If you are in London on March 12, join me in sponsoring ICRW’s  Champions of Change Awards Dinner honoring Former Foreign Secretary William Hague, Girls Not Bride’s Mabel van Oranje, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Monique Villa,  I  would love to tell you more about my incredible visit to India with ICRW’s  impressive, knowledgeable and personable Sarah Degnan Kambou. For more information on the gala, contact Kasey LaFlam at [email protected].