Being Born A Girl
4th March, 2019
Coming from China, I was faced with direct confrontation from my parents when I made the announcement that I would move to India for a six-month fellowship program with IDEX. “Don’t go!” My mother was adamant that moving to India solo as a young woman amounts to putting oneself in a dangerous situation that’s not worth pursuing with any sense. Her concern about my safety is not unfounded: news on women becoming victim of gang rape violence and sexual abuse can be seen every day. The sensational nature of news today is closely interlinked with the higher viewership when light is cast on negative incidents, and in the process distorts our view of the world. Among all things, to my mother who has a one-sided view of things, India is not a safe country to travel. Unwisely putting my own safety at risk, which further causes unwanted anxiety throughout my whole family, is an act of disobeying the will of elders, one that’s central to the value system at home.
I chose to be here, albeit having to clear a lot of hurdles, some were gender specific, some were related to my age. On the positive side, as a woman born in China, I am fortunate to belong to a generation where more female than male students are enrolled in universities. I’m also enthused to see that China ranked among the top group in the world for its female labor force participation at a rate of 60%. As for myself, growing up, I was encouraged to pursue higher education degrees and take on a job that’s of real meaning to me, even if it meant it couldn’t allow me to stay closer to my parents. In my mid-20s, I left home and went on to live in Canada, France and Kenya. However, deep down, I know that the window of opportunity is closing fast for me. Age is a critical thing, especially as a woman approaches the age of 30. The stigma of being a “Leftover Woman”, “unmarried” woman above age 27, is real and has been propagated throughout all levels of society and family. In my case, an unmarried woman turning 30, leaving a well-paid job in Canada that provides financial security, and staying far away from family, is unheard of. “When are you ready to settle down, get married and live a normal life?”, my parents would ask me. I don't have an answer yet, but I know there is a tradeoff I need to make between being a dutiful daughter and fulfilling my own aspiration, a challenging issue, real and specific to my culture.
I have been wondering what’s it like being born as a girl in India. Do my sisters from the southern subcontinent of Asia fare differently? It hasn’t been that encouraging from the news I read about. Lots of girls are missing even before they are born. Sex-selective abortions have given India one of the world’s most skewed sex ratios. According to the most recent 2011 census, there were every 914 girls to every 1,000 boys for children up to the age of six. When girls reach school age, income inequality results in inequality of educational opportunities - girls from underprivileged families go to publicly funded schools, where they may not get the chance to learn proper English or enjoy the same quality education as her peers in private schools. When girls reach puberty, they are subject to the shame of menstruation, still a taboo subject due to a lack of awareness that’s carried forward across generations. In rural areas, lack of sanitary napkins and hygienic functional toilets are the major cause for girls dropping out of school at the sixth or seventh grade. They are also banned from religious places, such as temples, when they are going through their menstruation period. Dropped out girls are not encouraged to go back, because social norms typical of patriarchy society subject women to domesticity – they must stay home and take care of the young and elderly. When girls reach the marriage age, they are married off like a commodity, while having to pay large sum to the groom’s family in the form of dowry.
My heart saddened over my imaginary fate if I were born as a girl in India. While I was annoyed by the societal pressure for young professional women to get married in China, the battle I need to fight is much harder in India, starting from day one when I would be born. Living in Bangalore for the past two months, I had my first encounter living in a socially conservative and religiously inclined society which stipulates special rules for women. I am advised to wear modest clothes – shoulders and chest covered, loose pants or long skirts, not only in places of worship but wherever I go. Taking public transportation to work using metro or bus, I’m separated from man on the metro by staying in a woman only compartment. I board the first half of the bus where it’s reserved for only woman. From the early morning when I jump in an auto-rickshaw or Uber, to the time when I arrive at the office for work, I see men doing most of the service work, from driving to cleaning the office pantry. Weekend is no exception, shopping around at boutique women’ clothing stores on 100ft road at Indiranagar, I was greeted and helped by shop assistants that are all men. For the few times that I do see women working, they are dressed in beautiful sarees, or those carrying cement over their heads at the road side construction site.
I’m puzzled at the mismatch between the types of jobs that Indian women are doing vs what’s typical of women’s work in other countries. Statistics show that Women’s labor participation rate in India has been declining over the past 10 years, from 35% in 2005 to 26% today. For the 26% of women that do work, a significant number of them are doing low-skilled labor work. If we were to look at where India women work, the top three fields that employ women are farming (68%), tobacco and clothes manufacturing (10%), and construction (5%). There is also correlation between the family income level and women’s participation at work - illiterate women who come from the poorest communities have no choice but to work. As the family income rises, women are encouraged to attend higher level school, however, not because they will be more competent for jobs, but because they will be more competent for the marriage market.
To advance and empower women, is there something we can look forward to on that front? Recently I was invited to attend AccelHERate conference in Bangalore, where corporate leaders from companies such as Maersk, Capgemini, Philips, and GE are discussing diversity and inclusion solutions to accelerate women throughout recruitment, retention, and promotion process. Most of the companies presented their returnee program, a policy that welcomes women to come back to work after years when they are away attending to family needs. The discussion topics are no different from the ones I would hear at a conference in North America - overcome unconscious biases, upskilling, and reverse mentorship. What’s unique about India, as Ms. Vani Kota, the Managing Partner of Kalaari Capital points out in her keynote address, is that empowering women means different approaches for different women groups in the Indian society – uneducated women at the bottom of the society taking unskilled labor work, educated women who stay at home for unpaid care work, and highly educated working professional women who drop out of work as they face glass ceiling. All in all, to change the social norms associated with women and men’s work is fundamental for change to occur. This is a battle that women, regardless of our cultural root, need to fight for shoulder to shoulder.
At the end of the conference, I heard drum beats coming up behind me, and a group of Indian women dressed in beautiful sarees, marching up the stage, carrying hefty drums on their left shoulders, contrasting their slender figure. The beats are pounding loud, powerful, and are linked together to create one resounding rhythm. These women drummers are from west Bengal of India, and they are the first women drummers in India to play “Dhak”, a big drum traditionally played by men during religious festivals in Bengal. I sat in the audience, absorbed in the uplifting moment as I watched the women Dhaki band drumming up a movement, a movement to embrace their identify and break the barriers associated with gender, a movement that you and I should all be part of, to create a world that cares for all its citizens regardless of gender, race, and ethnicity.