Fighting Poverty in India Through Female Empowerment

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SPOKANE VALLEY, Washington — India is a rising country in the world both in population and economy. India has the second-largest population in the world with more than 1.35 billion people. It is the world’s fifth-largest economy and the fastest-growing trillion-dollar economy. However, the need to fight poverty in India still exists.

Manufacturing and service sectors have contributed to the majority of India’s economic success in urban centers, yet only 35% of its population lives in urban areas. Poverty is higher in rural areas with a 25% poverty rate compared to a 14% poverty rate in urban India. This also correlates with literacy levels as 45% of the impoverished are illiterate and only 15% attend secondary school. However, among non-impoverished individuals only 26% are illiterate and 37% attend secondary school.

The gap widens even more based on sex. In the majority of rural areas in India, women have much higher illiteracy rates than men. In some areas, there is a 5% difference in illiteracy rates between women and men. These areas also see a higher prevalence of child marriage, poor utilization of maternal health services and violence against women with a declining sex ratio at birth.

Fighting Poverty in India with Education

In an interview with The Borgen Project, Patricha Jeppe Ottsen provided insight into a home for girls in the rural Kherwara region of India that is fighting poverty through empowerment and education. The Danish Kherwara Mission is a non-governmental organization that runs the home. Ottsen serves as the Mission’s vice president and is in charge of the structural development of the organization. She does this by implementing innovative civil society projects.

“The mission has run the girls’ home for 70 years. It provides poor young women with clothing, food, medical care and education. After high school, the girls move out of the home, but the Mission continues to provide financial support and guidance for further education,” Ottsen says. “In recent years,” she continues, “we have adapted new approaches to accommodate women’s rights and opportunities.”

Educating girls has long been shown to have a positive effect on society. According to the World Bank, each year of secondary education may reduce the likelihood of child marriage by at least 5%. Girls that complete secondary education tend to be healthier, participate more in the formal labor market, earn higher incomes, marry later in life and have fewer children. When combining all of these factors, there can be a substantial decrease in poverty at both local and national levels.

The Taboo of Menstruation

Menstruation is a subject in many parts of the world that holds a lot of stigmas. In Hinduism, a woman is considered “unholy” or “dirty” during her period. This leads to various restrictions that differ depending on the region of India and the denomination of Hinduism. The restrictions can include being restricted from cooking or fetching water, entering any religious place or performing any religious rites or even merely touching others. According to Ottsen, one belief in India’s Kherwara region is that the crops growing in a field will die if a menstruating woman goes into that field.

These restrictions for girls and women affect their quality of life for up to 12 weeks each year. With the expectation that women should isolate themselves from the rest of society, many do not work or go to school during menstruation. This impacts their economic and social independence. More than 23% of girls drop out of school completely when they begin menstruating in India. With a lack of adequate washing facilities and hygiene products, especially in rural areas, more than 77% of women in India use old cloth, newspaper, dried leaves or husk sand to aid absorption. Such materials increase susceptibility to infection and odor, leading to further stigmatization.

The Menstrual Hygiene Project

One part of Ottsen’s role in the Dansk Kherwara Mission has been to incorporate theory and experience from African and Indian sub-continent studies on menstrual taboos into a project addressing some of the issues the girls face. The project includes specific education in hygiene and pain management, religious taboos, the girls’ bodies, puberty and their rights. In addition, the girls receive various menstrual management products such as pads, cloth pads, tampons and a menstrual cup.

“The idea was to give the girls informed choices,” Ottsen explains. The project has had a tremendous impact on their self-image and confidence as well as agency within their homes. The older girls have begun to talk more openly about their periods, bodies and puberty and to provide guidance to the younger girls.

Long-Lasting Impacts

The lives of the girls that attend the home continue with incredible stories long after they leave. One woman that attended became a teacher, married another teacher and can now afford to put both of their children in private school. Another woman became a teacher and now gives back to the community as a principal at a school for rural, vulnerable children. The Mission’s presence has impacted women other than the girls at the home. It provided illiterate women in the area with access to information about their options for free healthcare and birth control, giving them more opportunities to make choices for a healthy future. These impacts are a result of the Mission fighting poverty in India with education, empowerment and choices for women.

– Charlotte Severns
Photo: Dansk Kherwara Mission

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