Women’s Education for Future Prosperity in India
This is my first official post for Global Brief. I am excited by this opportunity to reach out to the knowledgeable and engaged readership of this publication.
I have just returned from a trip to India, where I spent most of my time in the northeastern portion, in and around the state of Punjab. I’ve traveled here many times. Beginning in the eighties when I was immigration minister, and the difficulty was in loosening up visa requirements. Then I was in here in the nineties trying to convince India on the merits of the landmine treaty.
This time, in my current role as President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, I was there on university business, visiting various post-secondary institutions and schools, giving a lecture at Nehru University on the “Responsibility to Protect”. Then I was presiding at the opening of a learning center for women in Bhanohar, a joint project of the Indo-Canadian community in Winnipeg, Ventura Homes and the University of Winnipeg.
Beyond the initial impressions upon arriving in such an immense place with such a rich and diverse culture, it is well recognized that India is going through a monumental change. There is a new class numbering in the hundred of millions who are building new businesses, schools and universities, innovative IT Programs that are driving export growth and generating large amounts of wealth. One night at dinner at the High Commissioner’s, the buzz was about contacts in New York and London, new universities blossoming forward in a short matter of years and a growing network of global connections. Yet many, especially the women, were only a short generation from tribal custom and facing the dilemma of living in two worlds.
One sight remained from previous trips, the very visible and widespread incidence of poverty. There were still the camps, people sleeping on the street and the other demonstrations of deep deprivation. Several told me that the new wealth was the reality of 20 per cent. For the majority, change is occurring at a much slower pace, and for some, life hadn’t changed, those called the Bharat.
But I was there as the representative of the University of Winnipeg, and we were there to affect change. Under a large tent next to a massive banyan tree, most of Bhanohar had gathered to inaugurate the learning center. It lasted close to four hours with many speeches from politicians, notables from the local community and many involved in promoting education and women’s rights (even though the audience was still divided with men and women on either side). All in all, a grand occasion.
But what made it special and inspiring were the presentations by the young women and girls of the village who, through their dance and music, gave a powerful message that the time had come for women to be full participants in the life of India. This is after all a country where only 29 per cent of girls are enrolled in secondary education, and which has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality. But this is also the world’s largest democracy and the message is getting through.
President Singh has promised to solve these inequities and clearly there is an emerging generation that is ready for a change. How it fulfills the promise of equality and participation will be the real test of India’s emerging world leadership, and not it’s economic growth or military might (as some traditionalists are apt to assume).
A closing vignette that sums it all: on the stage were a group of young girls around the ages of ten or twelve. At the closing of their song one of these bright-eyed girls stepped toward to deliver the closing line. To quote, “The time has gone for girls to be kept low”. I thought to myself, “Here is the future of India.”
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.