I recently visited a rural region of West Bengal. Whenever I head up country I am always impressed by the beautiful countryside. Lush green fields of rice reach into the distance, the horizon dotted with stoops of harvested jute. Beat-up 3-wheeled vehicles putter past loaded up with locals and their cargo, while buffalo wallow in pools of water awaiting their turn to pull the plow. Children riding over-sized bicycles excitedly chatter with their friends while women drape colourful saris from the roof of their home. Others wash their family’s clothes, thrashing the garments against smooth rocks in the local pond. It all creates the appearance of such an idyllic setting and yet it is a place struggling with immense poverty.
I met two thirteen year old girls on this visit and the contrast in their outlook on life was as different as it was illuminating.
Sitting cross-legged on the smoothed mud floor of a village hut beneath a thatched verandah, I’m grateful for the shade it affords from the blazing sun. Our host has generously piled the customary mountain of rice on the plate that sits in front of me. As we eat, I notice a girl standing shyly in the doorway observing the foreign guests. She is hesitant as I try to engage her in conversation with my rudimentary Bengali.
“What is your name?”
‘Paloma’, she replies.
“How old are you?”
“What class are you in?”
“What is your favourite subject?”
I try asking her a question in English at which point she timidly retreats behind the door frame. A little later when she again emerges from the shadows, I ask her what she wants to do when she finishes school. Before she has a chance to say anything, her mother answers for her. “She’s a village girl, want can she do?” The resigned despair of these words would bounce around in my head for the next few days. “What can she do?”
The next day I shared lunch with friends in a modest, middle-class home in a small city not that far from the village of the previous day. These friends have a thirteen year old daughter – Nuri. I decided to repeat the conversation of the previous day.
“What class are you in?”.
“What is your favourite subject?”.
This time we are having the conversation in English and she is quite fluent. I ask, “What do you want to do when you finish school?” This time Nuri answers for herself without skipping a beat, “I want to be a doctor”.
So I was left with this question, “What is so different about these two girls, close in age, who live so close to each other?”
The Indian education system, while being far from perfect has made significant progress with the education of girls in recent years. Just a casual (and unscientific) poll of women at Freeset and Sari Bari reveals that women aged thirty-plus are likely to have less education than girls in their late teens and early twenties. This is partly a reflection on the hiring policies of the two businesses, as women who have been in the sex trade often begin at a young age which deprives them of education, but the fact remains that generally girls are staying at school for longer in India and that’s a good thing right?
Of course the answer is “yes”, but it got me thinking about context. When I was young, I lived on a small farm in a rural part of New Zealand, but I always knew that my horizons were bigger than the farming community I grew up in. If I wanted to do other things, I saw no reason why they might not be possible. Why was that? I believe the answer is opportunity. I always knew that life beyond the farm was a perfectly realistic possibility.
But girls (and boys) in villages and cities all around India need more than just the education they are getting. They need to see there are realistic possibilities for them to find work, to earn an income and to put their education to good use.
As I reflected on the hopelessness of the village mother and her bleak outlook for her daughter, I came to the sad realization that her analysis was actually reasonable. In her world, there really were very few opportunities. They have little money. Employment is hard to come by and farm labouring jobs are highly seasonal, perhaps only providing 3-4 months of work each year. With a stubbornly persistent dowry system in a society that expects everyone to marry, families can find the marriage of a daugher financially crippling. The really scary part; her village is one from which we know many women have been trafficked and poverty is one of the biggest risk factors.
There’s another challenge too – helping impoverished children and their families see the value in education. I once heard a fifteen year old girl say she thought she was wasting her life being at school – she should be working and earning an income! Clearly for many, there is no connection between better economic outcomes and better education. There is a real sense of urgency, “I need the money now!” And who can blame them? They have so little to begin with.
So what can be done? Is there any hope for change? One thing is for sure – there are no easy answers, but I believe there is hope that together we can weave a better future.
I have the privilege of working with people whose lives are a testament to what these opportunities can do. One of the men who works at Freeset is the son of a woman who used to work with us, but who tragically succumbed to illness as a result of her time in the sex trade. His experience growing up was that if he mentioned where he lived, people’s attitude toward him changed – and not for the better. People expected nothing more for him than that he would turn out to be a lazy alcoholic with nothing to offer.
Businesses like Freeset and Sari Bari play an important part in the type of change we need to see. Providing economic opportunities for those whose lives have been trashed in Kolkata’s red light areas and also supporting them to see their children well educated is an important step forward. It means a new generation can step out from behind the despair and begin to live with the real hope that things can change for the better.
Freeset is now also looking to these poor rural communities that see their daughters trafficked into the sex trade. Why not establish businesses there to help stop these women being trafficked in the first place? A weaving business called Freeset Fabrics is already being developed to kick off this initiative in the villages. Look out for freedom scarves in 2015!
The exciting thing is that working together we can make a difference!
John Sinclair spent 10 years doing all manner of things in New Zealand’s TV industry before jumping ship to work with Freeset – a freedom business in Kolkata, India. He believes people-focused businesses can be used to help transform lives and make the world a better place. John Sinclair is the General Manager of Freeset Bags and Apparel.