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Women and Youth Empowerment a must for sustainable development

India where I was born and currently live in - is not just a place where a diverse list of languages and dialects are spoken and several religions and traditions practiced, but the peninsula with a coastline of over 4000 miles has extremely diverse landscapes - from lofty mountain peaks, to lush green wilderness to tropical rainforests (quite like the ones here in Brazil) to plains, plateaus and deserts. Instead of making every effort to preserve all this beauty gifted to us by nature we humans the most intelligent creatures are cutting trees, polluting our soil, water and air relentlessly and all this is ruining the ecology.

I believe the very first step needed to stop this mindless destruction is to make our entire present and future working age population (mainly women) financially independent by imparting good quality skills and simultaneously educate our citizens to care for the environment. After all, If you were to go with little food and water for days on end, would your priority be to to find food for yourself and your near and dear ones or care for larger issues like protecting the environment?

The latest census done in India in the year 2011 has shown a lot of interesting facts - in this country with 1.21 B people, there are 623 M males and 586 M females. A person aged 7 years and up is counted as literate if s/he can read or write in any language. Although it was found that 273 M people are still illiterates in India, it was encouraging to learn that a lot more women have joined the group of literates than males in the last decade and as a result the gender gap in literacy has shrunk. It has been famously said "You educate a man, you educate a man. But if educate a woman you educate an entire generation". Sex ratio which is the number of females per 1000 males in a certain population is an important way to measure gender equity in the population. The sex ratio in India has always been unfavorable to
females because girls are considered a burden in the society. In a recent incident the nation was shocked to learn that a 3 month old infant girl was battered by her father "because he wanted a boy" - educating and empowering women will stop such incidents from happening. Kerala the state with the best female literacy rate (~92%) in the country has a sex ratio 1084 compared to the state of Haryana that has a female literacy rate of 66.77% and a sex ratio of 877.

According to the International Labor Organization, India will have the highest working age population in the decade 2010-20, as 212 million (compared to the US that will add 11 million people during this period). A recent nationwide study done by a non-governmental organization tells us that school enrollment is now over 95% but expressed serious concern about the reading and math skills of the children. In a country where 60% of our children attend public schools, it was discovered that in the state of Kerala (the state with the best literacy rate in the country) about 40% of the children enrolled in Grade 3 cannot read Grade 1 text books and more than half the 5th grade students in this state cannot do division.Though there is now a trend to enroll children in the age group of 6-14 in private schools especially in
the southern states, it is important to understand that 70% of our 1.21 B people still live in rural India where there is much greater poverty and fewer private schools. In spite of the doubling of the Indian economy from 1990-2005, 65 million hungry people were added during this period even though grain production has been very high - this is because of a poor procurement and distribution system. So, there is still a huge absolute number of parents from the bottom of the socioeconomic strata who send their children to state run schools where free mid-day meals are one of the biggest attractions. And hence it is imperative at this juncture, that we sow the seeds of caring not just for other human beings but also for the environment along with imparting skills to this set of resource that will help them find meaningful employment in the future.

I take this opportunity to tell you about a non profit organization One Billion Literates Foundation that I started almost two years when I moved back to India as a citizen of the United States to give back to a nation where I have my roots after living Boston, MA, USA for 12 long years. The mission is to adopt public schools in remote rural areas and bring resources (libraries, communication and soft skills) for the children and the community around them (unemployed youth, women). We train and hire women from the local communities, this has augmented the income of the women we've hired and sparked interest in several other women in the villages. For instance, after we hired Swapna a 30 year old widow determined to give her daughter a good education, several other women have shown interest and are being trained by Swapna and our volunteers. One of them is a young woman named Swarna a middle school dropout who is heavily pregnant and in spite of being very uncomfortable in the peak Indian summer comes to me every time I am in the village and asks me to read to her with childlike enthusiasm. Another young woman being trained by me is Suma who is barely 18 and is the daughter-in-law of a friend's maid. I have had to communicate with her using Google translate as we don't speak any common language. It is extremely empowering to see her read story books in English and use the translation tool to understand the words.

Investing in our youth and women will help bridge the economic disparity created after the reforms of the early nineties and as a result help in building a better nation tomorrow. This is the only way we can think of achieving sustainable development in a country with 1/7th of the world's population - because every drop in the ocean counts!!

Girl Power
South and Central Asia
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