India's young women are probably its greatest resource for the future
The chair of the Oxford India Centre's Advisory Board and former Secretary of state of Health and Chair of the UK India Business Council explains why she thinks the new generation of Indian women will help their country and its people to fulfil their extraordinary potential. I was in Cambridge when I first fell in love with the idea of India. I'd arrived from Australia, at the age of 19, to study English Literature - and discovered that my tutor was an Indian woman, a wonderful scholar called Sita Narasimhan. She would sit on the floor of her study, in a freezing English winter, a thick woolen shawl over her sari, and as we studied medieval carols she would say “Now, in Sanskrit literature ...” That was the start of my lifelong love affair with India. I thought about Sita when I was asked to contribute to this special issue of India Global Business. And I thought of the thousands of other inspirational Indian women I've had the privilege to meet or hear about over the years. Women like Anu Aga, who nursed her husband through a serious stroke only to lose him to a fatal heart attack. Facing the collapse of the family company, Thermax, she took over as its Chair, leading its extraordinary turnaround and growth. But barely a year after her husband's death, both her son and then her mother-in-law died. Years later, she came with me to speak to an Asian women's group in Leicester and spoke of the spiritual and emotional strength she finds in her daily meditation and Vipassana practice. After handing over the chairmanship of Thermax to her daughter, Meher - another outstanding leader - Anu set about establishing Teach for India, recruiting and training talented graduates into the sorely-neglected government schools. Women like Geeta Dharmarajan, an outstanding social entrepreneur, the founder and chief executive of Katha. A natural story-teller (Katha is Hindi for story), Geeta wanted to write children's books - but what was the point, she said, “when millions of India's children can't read ” So, she recruited women from one of Delhi's largest slums, taught them her own story-based pedagogy, persuaded local officials to rent her an old brick building in the slum and set up the Katha school. Nearly thirty years later, the school is still there, but now it's the hub for a 'profit-for-all enterprise', publishing children's books (translated from a dozen or more of India's many languages), teaching teachers in both government schools and the rapidly growing low-cost private schools that are so popular with poor, aspirational parents and spreading the joy of reading and learning. Women like Councillor Manjula Sood MBE, who was elected to Leicester City Council after the tragic death of her husband, Paul, a long-standing councillor and community leader. Bringing up two boys on her own, Manjula rose to become Britain's first Asian woman Lord Mayor and a powerful voice for women from Leicester's many different communities. Twenty-two years after Paul's death, she continues to work tirelessly as a councillor and community activist.
As an MP in Leicester, one of Britain's most diverse cities, I saw at first hand the struggles many young women encountered between their Indian and their British cultures. In one family, the much-loved only daughter ran away to marry her Sikh boyfriend and was disowned by her Brahmin father (I saw them again recently, happily reunited). In the same community of small tightly-packed terraced houses, originally built for Leicester's textiles workers, another young woman whose boyfriend was from the 'wrong' caste was brutally murdered by her father and brother. Tragically, many women in India still face prejudice, discrimination and violence, whether they are leading traditional lives in remote villages or reaching out for an education and a career. But India's young women are probably its greatest resource for the future. As Chair of the UK India Business Council, I accompanied David Cameron on his first prime ministerial visit to India. In Bangalore, at the extraordinary Infosys campus, I was surprised by the number of young women employees in the audience. I started chatting to them and said that in Britain we find it very difficult to get women working in IT services. They laughed and said they were the majority at Infosys - almost all of them the first in their families to go to university. On another occasion, in Rajasthan, I heard a similar story from Vipin Sondhi, MD of JCB India, who explained that he made a point of recruiting and training young women and men from the surrounding villages. The women, he said, were amongst his most outstanding engineers - hungry to learn and to seize every opportunity to create lives for themselves that they'd never dreamed of as children. And now, as Chair of the Advisory Board for the Oxford India Centre, I have the privilege of meeting many more of these exceptional young women. Although Somerville College, where the Centre is based, opened its doors to men many years ago, the majority of the India Scholars are women, selected for postgraduate study not only on the basis of their outstanding academic ability but also their determination to return to India and contribute to its sustainable development. Whatever the challenges that India faces, and they are many, I have no doubt at all that this new generation of Indian women will help their country and its people to fulfil their extraordinary potential. Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt is Chair of the Advisory Board for the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development and immediate past chair of the UK India Business Council.