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To improve the world, enlist girls, too

Like other girls in her south Indian village, Kousalya Radakrishnan was told to stay at home, marry young, and have lots of babies. If she and a number of her teenage friends had listened, her village would have worse sanitation, fewer library books, and no streetlights.

INDIAN SCHOOLGIRLS SIT IN A PARK ON A FOGGY MORNING IN NEW DELHI.
TSERING TOPGYAL/AP/FILE
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Kousalya Radakrishnan doesn’t need our help, really. What she most needs is for people to get out of her way.

Like other girls in her south Indian village, Kousalya was told to stay at home, marry young, and have lots of babies, staff writer Howard LaFranchi notes in this week’s cover story. If she and a number of her teenage friends had listened, her village would have worse sanitation, fewer library books, and no streetlights. Instead, they made a pact: They were going to make their village better, even if they had to do it alone. So they did.

Howard’s story is about women’s rights, but not in the way that issue is so often portrayed – as a power struggle. 

Yes, it is true that women’s rights crucially address a historical imbalance of power. But perhaps more important, they address an imbalance of opportunity. Expanding opportunity is the fuel for greater wealth, better health, and more happiness for all. But how often do we talk about women’s rights – or the rights of any group, for that matter – in those terms? With static or shrinking opportunity, societies stagnate. With growing opportunity, they thrum with energy.

Think about it. By what logic should a society present opportunity to only half its people? With mathematical certainty, that society will be half of what it could be. Without the efforts of a handful of teenage girls, Thennamadevi, India, would be less than it is now.

Surely, at some point, marriage and child-bearing will come for most of these girls. But when that, too, is an expression of opportunity, possibility, and free will, then those virtues will be sown more deeply into society, kindling in the virtuous cycles that undergird progress.

Both of my children were born in India when I was a Monitor correspondent there. When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, the physician never told us if she was a boy or a girl because Indian law prohibited it. In some areas, many female fetuses are aborted.

Yet when my wife became pregnant with our son, the attendant couldn’t help himself. It’s a boy! he blurted out. The impression was that he thought there was no chance of us harming a boy, so why not share the good news?

Female feticide in India can be a coldly economic calculation. Boys bring wealth. Girls are just mouths to feed and, in some communities, require a dowry (though India has officially banned that practice, too). Girls can be seen as economic ruin.

But what of Kousalya, who is studying physics and wants to be a college professor? In this case, it seems relatively easy to point an accusatory finger at India. But the fact is, opposition to women’s rights worldwide is simply the same mistaken premise in other insidious forms. As opportunity, possibility, and free will are truly shared by all, the world takes quantum leaps forward. As Kousalya says, “We’re making things better not just for girls, but for everybody in our village.”

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