Ritu Bhardwaj is a star to the neighborhood kids of New Delhi. Not only does she help with their homework, she's a glamorous TV reporter. Her next big report is a documentary about the "silk ceiling" that hangs over many Indian women, narrowing lives and frustrating talent.
In the apartment she shares with friends, 25-year-old Ritu Bhardwaj is expecting visitors. It's three in the afternoon, the kids are leaving school, but these kids are not going to play. One day Ritu wants to work for UNICEF. She's already helping underprivileged kids. Three days a week, she helps them with their homework. Ritu herself comes from a modest background in Haryana state, but here, she's already a star.
When I grow up I will be just like you.
I want to be like you when I grow up.
Why Ritu seems so glamorous? She's made it, and in a country that doesn't always favor ambitious girls, no matter how hard-working. This small town girl is now an up-and-coming journalist on national TV channel News X.
RITU BHARDWAJ [TV journalist]
This is Ritu Bhardwaj reporting on India's "Silk Ceiling."
In the smaller cities, like where I am from, the girls are basically facing, like, feticide, infanticide and discrimination, illiteracy. There are many problems they are facing. But in the metro cities like Delhi and Bombay, the basic things they are suffering are the right to survival or right to security.
We gave Ritu a sneak preview of a new UN report about women in Asia: "Power, Voice And Rights." It shows women have a worse deal than men in politics, the law, and jobs, even when economies are booming. We followed Ritu as she made a film about the report for News X. There's plenty more source material in the papers.
She starts by heading for Delhi's red light district. Ritu's chasing the story of "Rekha," as the press are calling her, a woman campaigning on HIV and child abuse who's been revealing the secrets of life in the sex industry, the sex trade where exploitation is most visible and shocking. At 25, Rekha's the same age as Ritu and has her own kids. She was rescued from a brothel in the red light area on GB Road. She became destitute in an earthquake in Latur, 1500 kilometers away. She was effectively held captive for seven years, and now battles with AIDS. Unlike many women here, Rekha has decided to tell her story.
Where are you from, and how did you get here?
REKHA [Former sex worker]
Well, I met this woman who told me that I would have to do what they wanted or else they would kill me. I insisted that they should let me go back home to Latur, and then they started to beat up my kids. When they started doing that, I was forced into this work. I was HIV positive, and at the same time I was also suffering from TB.
Do you think that women are still weak in India and have not got rights in comparison to the men?
It is really tough for uneducated women, and many times there is no support for them from their families, especially if there are three or four children to be fed at home.
Sad stories so far. But Ritu wants to show both victims and role models. So she's here to tell the story of Sunita. There are 40,000 auto rickshaw drivers in Delhi. Former child bride Sunita, who'd fled a violent marriage, was the first female auto rickshaw driver.
SUNITA [Auto-rickshaw driver]
My whole family is uneducated. I have been driving an auto rickshaw for five years and some of my family does not know this. Society asks many questions. They ask me, "Why do you wear this work dress? Why are you in a man's role?" And, "You should behave like a traditional Indian woman!" I don't care for what society says, I let them say what they want. I am not the old Sunita, who wouldn't dare to leave the four walls of her house.
Reverence for women -- in their right place -- goes back a long way in India. It's the festival of Navratri. For nine days men and women celebrate the incarnations of a female goddess. Warrior, mother of the universe. TV reporter Ritu's back in the office. She wants to widen her film out. Ritu's been talking to fellow filmmakers in Southeast Asia's most populous country: largely Muslim Indonesia. They've been sending her their own stories, the most high profile, a message from Ayu Utami. She's the leading novelist who shocked many Indonesians with the frankness of her language, by mixing political and gender issues and by making this personal declaration.
AYU UTAMI [Novelist]
I choose not to get married, and I declare outwardly that I will never get married unless the marriage law is revised according to gender equality.
Indonesia's taxation law assumes the husband is the primary income earner. Marriage law assumes women are housewives (source: IFC)
She's a very confident and very brave girl. Her thinking is really nice. In the society she's been a role model.
Ayu's political message: even when women do have a stake in the economy, lack of political clout means they're easily manipulated. And subject to all kinds of discrimination.
Without the political power, without even access to decision-making, the woman's strength in economic life becomes vulnerable to being manipulated by others.
Polls show that when women are selected as candidates, people will vote for them. But less than one in five of Indonesia's elected lawmakers are women. Perhaps that's less surprising when you consider one in seven adult Indonesian women still can't read or write. Back in Delhi, TV reporter Ritu knows the problems. Now she wants answers. And she's found some in Gujarat where some women are defying traditional roles. In Jambur village, women used to live -- well, much like women have done for centuries right across Asia.
What was it like earlier and what happened next?
NATHI BEN [Villager]
Our life was very tough. We had just one set of clothes; we'd go to wash it by the river. We'd first wash our clothes and after those dried we would wash our under-garments. After this we would head home and arrange for the firewood and then make the chappatis. Our husbands would come home and complain about the food not being ready.
Ritu's here to meet the woman they like to call 'Hirbai Ben Lobhi' -- "Diamond of the Forest." The Forest Diamond and her friends formed a cooperative. Their savings fund businesses -- their businesses. Opposition, yes, but diamonds don't fade away.
Did the people in the village try and help you or try and stop you?
HIRBAI BEN LOBHI
Yes, they did try to stop me, but I didn't stop. I asked myself, "What do women need the most?" If women need money, and they don't have any property, the land belongs to the men and the houses also belong to the men. I figured then I need to ensure that the women also own some property. That way they at least have some confidence in themselves.
Now, unusual in South Asia, 900 village women hold assets in their own names.
HIRBAI BEN LOBHI
Today, through our women's cooperative bank, the women have access to money and the men come and ask their wives if they can borrow some money -- say 1000-1500 rupees.
Jambur, Ritu finds, is a thriving village thanks partly to Heer and the cooperative. Money from the co-op even helps the village school. If more women went to school and got paid jobs, it's been estimated the Asia-Pacific region could be 90 billion US dollars a year better off.
Thank God I am a woman! If I were a man I would have done nothing. It's because I am a woman that I can accomplish so much. I am happy to be a woman; I don't want to be a man!