Ragini Yadav works quickly, her hands a whirl of fingers and thread and baby powder. She’s twisting a doubled-over string across her client’s brow to pluck out hairs by the roots, a process known as threading, and she’s doing it at blinding speed.
Her one-room beauty parlor is clean and sparse, furnished with only a few crude wooden stools, benches and a lone beauty station with a mirrored table at one end. Packets of hair dye and bows hang in bunches against the pink plaster walls. Yadav, 22, relies on natural light because electricity in the village of Para Khan in northern India is turned on for only a few hours each day. She serves five or more clients a day in this room on the ground floor of her family’s home, her relatives bustling and chattering around her.
Yadav’s father was uncomfortable at first with the idea of his daughter learning a trade, but when she and her sister started earning money, he warmed to the idea and gave them the room to use as a parlor. It was an unusual move in this village, where girls and women are routinely denied opportunities for education and employment.
Para Khan and its sister villages sit on the outskirts of Faizabad, a small city of half a million people tucked into a wide bend in the Ghaghara river, a tributary of the Ganges, about a hundred miles south of the Nepal border and the Himalaya mountains. The city spreads southward, dissolving into villages like Yadav’s, where infrastructure is minimal and development lags.
India has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and its population is set to eclipse China’s to become world’s most populous country within the next 16 years. Yet the country’s growth is perpetually stunted by its failure to build basic infrastructure, root out corruption and address discrimination against women and girls.
Education is significantly lower for girls than boys in India. Female literacy rates in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Faizabad is located, are 20 percentage points lower than among men (79 percent vs. 59 percent), according to the 2011 Indian Census, and the gap is even larger in rural areas.
India has one of the lowest levels of female employment among emerging economies with only 27 percent of women age 15 and older participating in the workforce in 2013, according to the World Bank. Some girls in rural India, including the culturally conservative Faizabad region, aren’t allowed to leave their homes, let alone their villages, including for education or work. This inequality may have cost the Indian economy up to 4 percent of annual growth over the past decade, wrote Dhruva Jaishankar, a Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund, for The Atlantic in 2013.
Gender inequality is also linked to extremism and instability, according to Valerie Hudson, co-author of “Sex and World Peace” and a professor at Texas A&M University.
“Those states that invest in their women — for example, ensuring that girls are educated to an equal level with boys — are more likely to be wealthy, to be stable, and to be democratic," she wrote in Foreign Policy.
A growing body of research is showing that empowering women is among the most effective ways to fight global poverty and extremism. As a result, more money and more programs are serving women and girls throughout the developing world — including in Faizabad.
Yadav is one of about 500 girls who have completed courses at the Krishna Kumar Charitable Foundation, a local family foundation with programs designed to increase employment opportunities for women and girls in a five-village area. The organization teaches skills such as sewing, henna tattooing and beautician skills girls can use to earn money from their homes and improve their positions in their families and villages.
KKCF offered other courses for boys, but they didn’t catch on, in part because boys have other opportunities and more freedom, said McArthur Krishna, volunteer director at KKCF. But girls in these villages responded positively, and the classes have enabled many of them to go from having little say over their life path to having economic power and more choices.
“We found when these women get these skills their lives significantly change. It opens up worlds to them that were not available before,” Krishna said.
Taking a village
Krishna, 41, an American transplant to India, is driving a left-hand-drive red Honda stick shift, swerving around a cow and narrowly missing a bicycle rickshaw. She is one of the prime movers behind KKCF’s programs for women, a former design and communications professional with short, curly hair, large brown eyes and a lifelong fascination with India. She moved to India three years ago from Washington, D.C., after marrying Ved Krishna, 40, a local entrepreneur she met at a Ted Talks conference in Mumbai.
Fiercely independent and adventurous, one of the first things Krishna did after relocating to India was get a driver’s license, something that's rare for women here. Now honking and weaving like a native, she barely blinks at a truck loaded with sugarcane coming the opposite direction in her lane as she explains the local economy.
The five villages in this area around Faizabad hold about 50,000 people, Krishna says, all with limited electricity, limited running water and no toilets. Most people are subsistence farmers, but that livelihood is becoming less viable as small farms are subdivided generation after generation. The cornerstone of the local economy is Yash Paper, Ltd., a factory that manufactures magazine-quality paper from sugarcane waste, started by her husband’s father and operated by her husband today. It supports roughly 10,000 people, or one-fifth of the local population, in an area struggling to transition to a modern economy.
Krishna drives past fields of scrubby mustard plants, yellow blooms hovering over tangled green stems, and rows of mud cakes waiting to be fired into bricks. Decaying plastic cans and bags litter the roadside, and chickens and monkeys scatter as she pulls up to a well-kept two-story building that houses KKCF’s offices and classrooms on its upper floor.
Inside are three classrooms lit by natural light filtering in through windows and skylights. Eight or 10 girls, most in their early teens, bend over foot-pedal sewing machines in one of the classrooms, and another group of girls and women work with embroidery frames and needles on a sunny verandah. They sit on the floor among colorful bits of thread, chattering and giggling, wearing brightly colored saris, shawls and sweaters and passing sewing projects back and forth. Even as students, they're being paid for their work.
KKCF was founded seven years ago and named in memory of Ved Krishna’s father, Krishna Kumar, who died in 2005. Ved Krishna wanted to carry on his father’s tradition of giving “exuberantly and with amnesia” to people living in the area near the factory, but in a more sustainable way. He set up the foundation to work on sanitation, education and employment issues in the villages, and it has put in hundreds of toilets and is partnering with a nearby education innovator. But what has really taken off is the employment initiative — especially for girls.
Beautician and henna skills may sound frivolous, McArthur Krishna said, but their advantage is that they require few resources, can be done out of the home, and tap into a robust wedding business in the village scene. Girls can make 500 rupees for getting a bride ready, equivalent by some estimates to a week’s spending for a family of four.
Students also produce school uniforms and household items, such as placemats and pillow covers. Krishna is pushing the girls to make higher quality products that can sell in larger markets for more money so KKCF can create a sustainable business model that pays the girls a fair wage and also covers costs — making the organization part NGO, part social enterprise and allowing it to expand.
The women’s employment initiative faces significant obstacles in the form of deep-seated cultural attitudes about the role of women.
Many of these stem from traditional patterns of marriage still observed in the villages, in which girls leave their families upon marrying to move in with their in-laws, becoming part of their new husband’s family and sometimes never seeing their relatives again. Because sons support their parents in their old age while daughters support their in-laws, sons are viewed as more valuable.
When a baby girl is born in India, Krishna said, people often offer condolences. Women are pressured to abort female fetuses or abandon female babies, leading to a population imbalance that has been growing in recent decades. Today, there are 914 girls for every 1,000 boys, according to the latest Indian Census — down from 976 per 1,000 in 1961.
“These girls are coming from a culture that tells them, literally, they have no worth,” Krishna said.
Many village families are uncomfortable allowing their daughters to leave home, let alone attend KKCF classes in a neighboring village. Program director Shashank Gupta has made dozens of house calls to personally convince parents that KKCF is an upstanding organization and that their daughters will be safe there.
There are other negative incentives to educating girls, said Sharmistha Banerjee, professor of business management at the University of Calcutta and a Global Links Scholar. If girls stay home, they can do household chores and help care for siblings and elderly relatives. In addition, she said, “A higher educated girl will require a higher educated boy and a higher dowry” — a practice illegal but nearly universal in rural areas.
Patriarchal norms are stronger in this culturally conservative region of India than in other areas, Banerjee said. Ninety percent of marriages in the villages are arranged, and in-laws are often unwilling to allow their daughters-in-law to work outside the home, Krishna said, so having skills they can put to work at home or in the immediate village is crucial.
She contrasts this with her experience in the West.
“I could go to school, I could have a job, I could provide for myself," Krishna said. "I could make my own worth because I had a different option. These girls have one option. They are going to get married to someone, and what they bring to that marriage will determine how the rest of their life goes.”
Several girls say their position within the family has changed since they started bringing home rupees, Krishna said.
Shalu Maurya's father at first objected to her taking classes, but now she's winning regional competitions with her intricate designs for henna tattoos, the decorative temporary tattoos Indian women get for weddings and other festivals. Maurya, 19, brings home a regular salary as a KKCF instructor, and her father has made a room in their home available for her to teach classes.
The room is open on one side, facing an open courtyard of rough stone, and Maurya teaches about 20 students, each seated on the ground and bent over a small whiteboard on which the shape of two arms is outlined in black tape. They use small funnels made of metallic wrapping paper to squeeze a greenish henna paste onto the boards in elaborate swoops and curlicues.
Several other fathers have set up beautician parlors for their daughters, Krishna said.
Banerjee pointed out that the skills KKCF teaches are still “very gender-focused," ensuring that customers are also women and allowing subtle gender bias to persist.
Krishna acknowledges that KKCF is taking baby steps, but said giving women these skills normalizes the idea of women working for money, which can grow to acceptance of women working in other fields.
KKCF also faces an uphill climb because of the slow pace of development in parts of India. The villages around Faizabad still lack many basic services. Because electricity is turned on for only a few hours each day, KKCF relies on sewing machines powered by foot pedal and has devised a battery system for other activities.
Mithelesh Mayuriye is one of KKCF’s best students, Gupta says. Her family lives in a small brick house at the edge of Para Khan. Red chili peppers and yellow lentils lie drying on the rooftop patio near a temporary kitchen consisting of a makeshift clay stove used to burn dried patties of cow dung for fuel. Sometimes the family is able to afford canisters of gas, but often they simply use dung. Their water comes from a hand pump in the village.
Mayuriye, 34, came from another village when she was married and moved in with her in-laws. She has intense brown eyes and a furrowed brow punctuated by a red bindi. She speaks and walks softly, her perfectly manicured feet displaying an assortment of intricate toe rings, and smiles shyly as she shows off some of her embroidery projects.
Her husband works at the paper factory, but he hasn’t been well, so she is supporting the family, including her mother-in-law and two children, with her income from the projects she’s working on at KKCF. Mayuriye attends three hours of KKCF classes each morning, then spends another hour or two working on embroidery projects at home between cooking and cleaning for the family.
Mayuriye’s living situation is typical among KKCF students, and it highlights other practical challenges. For one, items the girls make can’t be sold in the villages where they live.
“People in the village are not spending their disposable income on handicrafts. They're spending it on their child's medication. So you have to get the products to a cosmopolitan area or abroad in order to have it be a sustainable business,” Krishna said.
And what sells abroad — things like table runners, placemats, pillow cushions and wall hangings — doesn’t always make sense to the villagers.
“(The students) have never seen a table runner or placemat," Krishna said. They don't eat at tables, (so we have to) back up and explain, ‘This is what this is, how it's made, here's an example of what one looks like, and yes, people are willing to pay for them.’”
Making change last
Krishna estimates KKCF has served roughly 100 girls a year for the last five years.
“For these girls for this area, that's a chunk of people,” she said. Nearly all are now earning money.
Krishna doesn’t know what KKCF will look like in another five or 10 years.
“How big will it go depends on who you talk to. Ved thinks we can have a store in every major city in the country producing these beautiful handicrafts,” she said. “I am happy if we are providing consistent, steady, reliable sources of employment for these girls and for the next generation."
KKCF recently invested in new sewing machines so students can mass produce school uniforms, putting it on the path to becoming a sustainable business. The organization is also branding its product lines with new names that "don’t sound like a dental operation,” Krishna said.
She is also quietly mentoring leaders and teachers who can take KKCF into the future after she eventually steps away.
One of them, Aarti Kumar, is part of a husband-wife teaching team. She translates for her husband Vinod, an accomplished tailor who is also deaf and mute. He’s in his 30s; she’s approaching 20. The couple has two young children.
Vinod and Aarti met for the first time at their wedding, explains Aarti, whose marriage was arranged by her relatives after her parents died when she was young. It was at the wedding that Aarti learned Vinod was deaf and mute. He can read and write, but she cannot, so they developed a unique form of sign language. Even though Aarti isn’t educated, Krishna said, she is passionate about making KKCF a “temple of learning."
“Aarti is very bright,” Krishna says, knowing Aarti is listening. “She’s very brave and smart and sassy.”
Krishna does the same thing with the other teachers, explaining each of their strengths and making sure they overhear her praise.
Krishna is also exposing the teachers to the world beyond Faizabad. She took Kusum Pandey, who teaches beautician and stitching classes, to Delhi to shop for fabric and see what was selling in Delhi stores.
“I made Kusum go to all these swanky shops, I mean, ridiculously expensive shops,” Krishna said. It blew Pandey’s mind to learn that people in the city would pay $20 for a simple, hand-stitched table runner made of natural material with few embellishments.
Pandey, 32, had never taken a train by herself, let alone visited a city like Delhi. Once she arrived, “her brain was just popping with the enthusiasm of seeing new designs and different ways of doing things,” Krishna said.
Krishna hopes these teachers will instill an ethic of creativity and ambition into KKCF’s students when they are young, giving a new generation of girls a different way to see themselves and their potential.
According to the World Bank, patterns of gender inequality are passed from generation to generation, and parental biases take root in children by the age of 15. Adolescence is crucial because it is the stage when lifelong aspirations are shaped, social norms take root for boys and girls, and “horizons for girls often shrink, especially for poor girls or girls in rural areas,” the 2012 report found.
Exposure during adolescence to strong female leaders can make a difference, the report said. One study in India found that increasing economic opportunities for girls can change not only their perceptions of gender roles, but those of their communities, as well.
That’s what Krishna is hoping for. But trying to chip away at the problems facing women in India can be overwhelming, she said.
“I used to come to India once a year because I had a strong spiritual pull that it was going to be an important place for me," she said. "I came on volunteer trips and business trips and anyone who would buy me a ticket I would come, for years. And the reason I came is that when I got here it would knock me wide open. You cannot be complacent when you see these things.
“It was great to come once a year for a couple weeks for a decade, but living here for three years, it just rubs you raw because it’s everywhere you look,” she continued. “I can’t think about the size of the problem. I will curl up into the fetal position and be done."
She finds inspiration in a story from the life of Mother Teresa.
“Someone said to her, ‘Look around, you're not doing a thing, there's hundreds more people on the street who are dying,’ and she’s like, ‘Right. You do what you can for who you can,’” Krishna said.
“I have to think about it matters it matters it matters. I don't know how that translates into organizational objectives, but I think the point is that you do what you can.”