Journey Through India

In honor of International Women’s Month, AW writer Shelley Seale examines the current status of Indian women and how they are changing the world.

Her name was Joyti. The Hindu name means “light,” and all who knew the 23-year-old living in Delhi, India, say the name accurately described her. On the night of Dec. 16, 2012, the medical-school graduate was viciously raped and beaten by six men for nearly two hours as she took a bus home with a friend after the two watched a movie together. Although Joyti held on for 13 days through various surgeries, including a nearly complete removal of her intestines, she lost her fight and died from her injuries Dec. 29.

Although rape and other violent crimes against women have been on the rise in India—there were nearly 25,000 cases reported in 2011 , and many more go unreported—the overwhelming brutality of Joyti’s case quickly garnered worldwide attention and outrage. It began in Delhi, where thousands took to the street in protest amidst tear gas and water cannons turned on them by police, and held candlelight vigils.

Soon people nationwide were taking up her cause and demanding action; the young woman came to be called “India’s Daughter.” Within days, the entire world had learned of the “Delhi Rape Case” as the outrage spread. In spite of the tragic end to Joyti’s promising life, she may, in the end, accomplish something few do: change a nation. Perhaps even the world. It is a world that desperately needs changing for women, especially in the worst countries for females: Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia.

India is a singular standout on that list because, unlike the other four countries, it has evolved in to one of the world’s economic superpowers. The Thomson Reuters Foundation, which compiled the list, ranked India the fourth-most hazardous nation in which to be born a girl, due to its extremely high levels of female infanticide and sex trafficking.

Santasree Choudhuri, a well-known activist from Kolkata, India, calls fear the constant companion of women in India. “Shine and shame have been India’s eternal companions,” she says. “Entrepreneurship, empowerment and education contradict honor killing, rapes, domestic violence, denial of property, the girl child ratio, child marriage and trafficking.”

Choudhuri says the large gap between educated and uneducated women creates an imbalance in the overall society, as does the gap between rural and urban women’s empowerment and opportunity. However, Choudhuri adds that educated, empowered and professional women in India are in no way immune from humiliation, and still fear for their safety.

“Men have yet to accept the empowerment or provide a safe space to w ork with dignity. Women need confidence from society to walk the path of empowerment,” she says. “They need support and strength from developed nations in respect of suggestions, cooperation and encouragement.”

Choudhuri’s list of needs for gender equality echoes the mission of Vasavya Mahili Mandali (VMM), a non-profit organization in Central India that aims to impact the lives of women and children through sustainable, community-driven initiatives.

“The mindset of men has not yet changed,” says Dr. Bollineni Keerthi, Ph.D., and technical support manager at VMM. “The attitude of men did not change to accept the forward march of females in areas of education, employment and government. Hence, the brutal violence on women has increased.”

Keerthi cites the phenomenon she calls “son bias” as one of the biggest obstacles facing women today in countries like India, Afghanistan and Somalia. It is so strong in India that sex-specific abortions—those of girls—have soared in recent years, leading to a refusal by many in the medical community to perform sonograms solely for the purpose of finding out the sex of a baby. Infanticide after birth is also common; India lost three million girls to the crime in the decade from 2001 to 2011, leading to a skewed child sex ratio. Keerthi lists son bias, the lack of equal participation of women in government roles and violence against females as the top most-pressing issues facing women today.

“Women’s development in India is like two sides of the coin: On one side, there is development in education, employment and in society, and on the other side is gender-based violence and not welcoming girl children in to this world. The attitude of patriarchy among men itself is a challenge for gender equality. It is a long way to go for women’s empowerment.”

VMM focuses on both women and children because the organization strongly recognizes the link: Where there is strong respect, education, equality and opportunities for women, their children and entire families fare better. This is something Austin nonprofit the Miracle Foundation (TMF) was built upon. TMF offers employment opportunities for women who come from troubled backgrounds, giving them a fair wage, training and opportunities for additional vocational instruction such as tailoring. These women act as housemothers in the orphanages that TMF supports, where hundreds of children live and thrive.

“Our empowerment of housemothers is fantastic,” says Caroline Boudreaux, founder of the organization. “And most of the orphans we care for are girls. These are the women and mothers of the future, and we’re providing them with great education, love that they can pass on to their children and skillsets they’ll use their whole life. This is not a children’s problem; this is a crisis. We’re investing in the future.”

Perhaps, sad as it is, the tragedy of Joyti has galvanized a nation and also awakened the world to women’s issues. Men have come out in droves to protest India’s “rape culture” as well, even outnumbering women in some demonstrations. In one instance, men in Bangalore wore skirts to a rally to show their solidarity with their female counterparts.

“Nothing shows more solidarity with women than breaking barriers and boundaries of ‘his and hers,’ ” stated the Facebook page for the event.

The Hindu newspaper wrote that never has the abuse of a woman captured the attention of so many men. Deepa Krishnan, a Delhi resident who runs the tour company Delhi Magic, asserts that her society has a very strong ability to change.

“My mother went to college and did a master’s degree, and she reached far ahead of where her mother was. I have stretched a little more than her and am far ahead of where my mother once was. I believe my daughter is far ahead of where I am,” she says. “We are a nation of strong and capable women who are slowly but surely finding their place under the sun. Change is definite. Change is the norm. It will happen. We only need the courage to keep pushing for change. Raise strong daughters. Change will come.”

How Writer Shelley Seale Turned her Passion for Travel in to a Job

Writing a story like this—about people and life and issues and cultures far from our own hometown—is very rewarding for me. I have an insatiable curiosity about the world, and whether I am covering a story that is sad, difficult, uplifting or funny, it always amazes me how much underneath it all and in the end, we are much the same. Everyone throughout the world, no matter their history or religion or language or clothing, wants to love and be loved, care for their families, make a living and hopefully create a better future for their children.

My interest in these stories combined with an intense travel bug that I got at a very early age from reading tales from throughout the world. Beginning as a child, that curiosity led me to transform my work in to a life that would allow me to do these things: to travel the world and write about the places and people I found there.

My previous career was in real estate, an occupation that was fortunate because, unlike a 9-to- 5 corporate job, it more easily allowed me to gradually go part time as I increased my writing portfolio. I moved to Austin in 2002 and went back to school for a journalism degree—no easy task for a single mother of an adolescent daughter. One of my very first paid pieces of writing was, in fact, for Austin Woman in 2004.

Slowly, I began writing more and more about topics I was already very knowledgeable about, such as real estate and small business, as well as expanding in to areas of interest such as travel, lifestyle and nonprofits. Eventually, after several years of building relationships and a writing business, I was able to move in to writing full time.