Report from Washington, DC –
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her tenure at the department of State, made world economics, democracy and empowerment of women and girls a focus of her approach for achieving progress and prosperity in the world. Together, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, through his foreign policy agenda, and Secretary Clinton, through her emphatic speeches all across the globe, have made a difference in raising the status of women and girls worldwide.
The US has taken a leading role in protecting human rights here and abroad and more and more women who were marginalized previously in agrarian societies have come forward and taken on the responsibility of empowering themselves and their own societies. Empowerment is an all-inclusive term which signifies empowering women economically, socially, academically and politically.
The shooting by the Taliban in October, 2012 of Malala Yousafzai, a 15 year old Pakistani girl, in retaliation for her advocation of education for girls in Pakistan, led a Hollywood actress, Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the United Nations refugee population, to donate money for the creation of ‘Malala’s Fund’ for educating 40 girls in Pakistan. One act of activism led to another act of kindness, courage and empowerment. There are now street schools in Pakistan, India and many other countries where previously young girls and boys did not have access to education.
You may remember the movie Veer Zaara where Preity Zinta speaks to Amitabh Bachan, who is explaining to her that he opened a school for boys in his village so that they do not have to travel far to go to school. She remarks very politely, saying, “Bau ji, that is not fair, because if you have opportunities for girls as well, perhaps one day there will be a girl officer beside your own son Colonel Veer Pratap Singh.” That led to the creation of a school for girls in the movie.
In many impoverished countries where the families are large and literacy rates are low, women are not able to pursue education because parents want to get them married early so that the parents don’t have the responsibility of taking care of them. These young women, living in many remote villages, are then stuck with raising families or working in the fields to support them, which does not give them the opportunity to develop intellectually.
Last year’s speaker at a women’s empowerment seminar, George Mason University Science Professor Jagadish Shukla, narrated his motivation to empower girls of his own native village Mirdha, which is in the Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh, India, by opening a women’s college. The village had no electricity, roads, or transportation, yet education had still remained a dream for a very long time. He opened this college and for several years has been giving his own personal savings to run the administration of the school. He wants the girls and women of the village to get an education in the village and not have to travel far for schooling. This is a great example of empowerment.
In December, 2012, a young woman in New Delhi, India, who had been a victim of a gang rape and died of her injuries, expressed before dying a desire for better criminal law, stricter penalties for perpetrators and better police administration. She did not die in vain. There was an outpouring of support worldwide and she was honored posthumously by US Secretary of State John Kerry with the Women of Courage Award of ‘Nirbhaya’ (courage) in March, 2013, on the International Day of Women.
Bollywood movie stars Amir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan and Sharukh Khan have come forward and articulated the need for reform, a change in public attitude, the reporting of assault, and speedy court proceedings to punish the perpetrators. Amir Khan donated 5 crores of rupees (Approx. one million dollars) to open a women’s shelter in Ahmednagar so that abused women could stay and avail the resources.
Vice President Joe Biden honored New Delhi brothers Ravi, Rishi and Nishi Kant at the Kennedy Center in April of this year, awarding them the “Solidarity Award of Vital Voices.” The award was created by Hillary Clinton in 1997. Biden said that through their establishment of the non-profit Shakti Vahini, the brothers have fought hard for a decade to have India acknowledge the plight of women who have been abused, neglected, trafficked and enslaved.
A new organization named MARD (Men against Rape and Discrimination) was launched in March, 2013 by Bollywood actor and director, Farhan Akhtar. Akhtar conceived MARD after an incident in August 2012, where Pallavi Purkayastha, a Mumbai lawyer, was sexually assaulted and then killed by her home watchman.
The many incidences of violence against women in India has led to fears of women working at night and traveling in public transportation in urban areas. Many women fear that the police may not be of any help to them due to rampant corruption, less stringent criminal laws and limited resources.
The American news media has carried stories of violence against women, leading western media to question whether India is a safe location for tourists to visit.
There are still grave problems regarding violence against women, child marriage, choosing male over female infants, prostitution, and sex trafficking. In the red light areas in Mumbai and Kolkata, large numbers of girls enter prostitution every day against their will.
Nonprofit organizations have come forward to work with less fortunate women and children and empower them with educational and financial opportunities. We, living outside India, cannot look the other way and must speak for those who cannot and explore how societies can be helped.