Last year, I sat with some young women in a programme the Aga Khan Foundation runs in Uttar Pradesh. They held hands or leaned on each other. Some had never been to school; others were withdrawn by their parents. A few were already married. They had struggled to get permission to join, but their parents were convinced by the vocational training offered alongside reading, counting, and ‘life skills’–self-esteem, confidence, financial literacy and adolescent health.
The girls said the most important thing was coming together and supporting each other. One girl’s reply stays with me: “Sir,” she said emotionally, “before, my father never had time for me. He didn’t look at me and was not interested in anything I did. But now he knows I can contribute money and he is proud.” Her comment points to the tremendous distance so many Indian women must travel for basic recognition, social acknowledgement and dignity; it points to the daily struggles they face and the courage they need to assert themselves.
Too many women in India lack the fundamental dignity and self-determination that modern societies seek for their citizens. Yet the arc of history is bending in India. The world’s largest democracy will be truly exemplary when its women are full participants in its society and politics. There are a number of very concrete things we can do to advance this path, improving the quality of life and laying the foundation for social inclusion, greater liberty and fundamental dignity.
AKF’s lessons are drawn from almost 40 years of experience in India, and over a century of presence by other Aga Khan institutions here. Our commitment to women’s empowerment runs deep: girls’ education was one of the first priorities of the Aga Khan School when it was established in 1905.
It is that feeling–what the Aga Khan calls “the spark of hope”–that our organization and so many others are working to ignite in millions of women, in thousands of communities, in every state. On International Women’s Day, join us in our commitment to women like Fatima: recent progress is real, but they can attain so much more together with dignity and hope.
Read and view more: Huffington Post India