Tapping into new-age aspirations

Another group of women in Madhya Pradesh, these one attending a skills training programme in vegetable farming. In a rural, conservative corner of the country, most of the group had never met foreigners before and were shy and giggling much of the time. What was interesting about this training is that as this is the first time it is being adapted and rolled out to this new region, enthusiasm was mixed and first and getting the first batch to show the first day of the training was challenging for the staff. But then this second day, 10 extra women suddenly showed up also, eager to see what their friends and neighbours were excited about. That is one of the best indicators that the programme is meeting these families’ needs as anything.

India cannot change for the better if its women are not given opportunities to realise their potential. Let’s put young women at the front of our minds and in our policy-planning,. Because, when women thrive, India will too

Our cars wind through the dusty by-lanes of western Uttar Pradesh as we head towards a remote, rural village. We pass pucca houses, brightly-clad village women going about their everyday lives and the occasional two-wheeler sharing space with sundry animals sauntering on the narrow roads. We experience the real India.

As we arrive in front of a small school yard where women are sitting in a huddle, we hear excited chatter. This is a women’s self-help group, comprising married women and their mothers-in-law, a village-level informal collective of women who have come together to organise and support one another. It began as a micro-lending collective but soon became a space where women can share experiences, understand that they have rights and choices and that they can set aspirations for their future.

Many of the women have brought their daughters with them. This generation is more aware, curious and confident. They take videos, exchange Whatsapp texts and aren’t hesitant to talk to us. Many of them are in school or college and want to study more. They have big ambitions for their future: To become a doctor or open their own boutique. Getting married and having children are not their only life goals.

We meet Radha, who is 17 years of age. Radha has just started going to college and wants to become an entrepreneur. She talks of having her own tailoring shop; she wears a beautiful hand-stitched dress which sparkles with beads and shiny threads. She speaks of doing a fashion design course, teaching other girls to run their own dress shops and parlours one day. Her eyes sparkle as she talks, like the little stones on her dress.

Radha’s aspirations are very different from that of her mother, Mita, who was already married with her first child by the time she was Radha’s age. By the age of 30, Mita opted for sterilisation after giving birth to Radha’s three younger siblings, including her youngest brother, Jitin Mita comes from a generation where there were very different notions of family planning. Women, by and large, were expected to get married early, help with household chores and conceive children, preferably a male heir.

Now, however, thanks to self-help groups like the one we visited, young women like Radha are beginning to visualise a future for themselves where they can earn an income, have a voice in their community and raise healthy, thriving children when they are ready to have them. The self-help group, empowers women like Radha and Mita with the skills, knowledge and confidence to make healthy, informed decisions about their future and that of their family — reinforced by the support of their peers.

Times are changing in other ways, too. Female sterilization, a terminal method, was for decades the mainstay of the national family planning program. Now, however, women have a bigger basket of options to choose from and are more likely to find a method that best meets their own, unique needs. For example, if a woman wants to go to college, marry and earn an income before she has a child, longer acting methods might be most suitable for her. Alternatively, if a woman has just had a baby she may want a method that can help her to space her next pregnancy so that she can focus on giving her new baby the best start in life. Either way, women can now make choices about their health and future that are opening doors to new possibilities for them and that is set to benefit families and communities.

Today, more than half of India’s population is under the age of 25. By 2020, India’s average age will be just 29 years, compared to 37 in China and the United States, 45 in western Europe and 48 in Japan. This is a generation with huge potential and big aspirations. That is why we’re working with partners to help set India’s women and girls up for success, providing them with a wider range of contraceptives and supporting the work of women’s self-help groups to empower and enable women to thrive. The returns will be plenty.

A recent report from the Copenhagen Consensus Center found that every one dollar spent on family planning would return $120 worth of benefit. Family planning interventions have played a huge role in reducing maternal mortality, child mortality, stunting and other markers that determine the health and well-being of India’s women and children.

While we marked the World Contraception Day, let’s put young women like Radha at the front of our minds and do all we can to set them up for success. Because, when women thrive, India will too.

(This commentary originally appeared at the South Asia Monitor)