India is the world’s largest democracy and has experienced considerable growth in recent decades. Since 1991, the size of its economy has more than quadrupled and GDP is now estimated at about $2.4 trillion, making it the world’s sixth largest economy. However, gender inequality remains a vexing problem, detrimental to the country’s growth.
For the past weeks, I have been working with Vishakha, an Indian non-profit that advances gender equality, particularly in high-risk, under-served rural areas of India. This partnership is part of the SAP Social Sabbatical program, an initiative that sends top performers to consult for non-profits and social startups across the globe on a pro-bono basis, and a testament of how purpose-driven strategies can truly make the world run better.
Governments and communities can — and should — adopt concrete measures to counter gender imbalance. Equality is not only a substantive, basic human right, it’s also an economic imperative that no emerging country can afford to overlook. Previous studies have pointed out that gender equality is one of the most important drivers of a nation’s economic growth and development. The United Nations goes as far as to say that empowering women may be the easiest way to end extreme poverty worldwide — an achievement that would be a first in human history. In India alone, ensuring women have access to more opportunities could translate to a four percent increase in the country’s economic growth, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Empowering women may be the easiest way to end extreme poverty worldwide
Vishakha has been empowering women and fighting against gender violence since 1991. After achieving impressive milestones battling workplace harassment, the organization is now focusing on issues related to sexuality and the reproductive rights of adolescent and young girls, including boosting awareness on menstrual hygiene management.
In many parts the world, deep-rooted myths and misinformation create the illusion that menstruation is inherently shameful and bad. Cultural norms and religious taboos associate what is a normal, biological process to evil spirits and impurity. Poor menstrual hygiene is one of the major reasons for the high prevalence of reproductive tract infections across the globe, and can lead to death if untreated.
As it turns out, the roots of gender harassment may be at the onset of puberty, which provides one of the strongest forms of control over a woman’s dignity. Young girls are so ashamed of what’s happening to their bodies that they start to believe they are lesser beings, inferior to boys. In India, they may face increasing restrictions and are often prohibited from taking part in activities including touching food, going to the temple, and sometimes even washing. In rural areas, the problem is even more acute. Girls must customarily drop out of school after their first period, and males take pervasive control over all aspects of their lives.
Vishakha believes in a world where we are all equal, one where every girl and woman has the right and ability to live in dignity — free of fear, coercion, violence, and discrimination. This vision and mission is close to my heart. Coming from an emerging country myself (and witnessing gender harassment across nations), I feel enormous empathy with these women. Denial of a woman’s rights to reproductive health has been holding nations back for too long. It’s time to end this cycle.