Indian TV journalist Ritu Bhardwaj is visiting Bihar to continue her report on the 'Silk Ceiling,' the invisible barrier that holds back so many Asian women. She is documenting a local government initiative called Panchayati Raj that seeks to address gender inequality through economic and political empowerment.
Anand's a man. And so is Shrish. Once a year they make a discovery: what it's like to be a woman. Here in Bihar state, like the rest of India, it's Navratri. Nine days of celebration and fun. But one person's here to work -- national TV journalist Ritu Bhardwaj. She's got something more serious on her mind.
RITU BHARDWAJ [TV journalist]
Women sometimes face a lot of problems. When you perform as a woman, do you face any?
ANAND KUMAR [Performer]
When we perform as women and go on the stage, men start to talk strangely and harass us. Because we are dressed as women, they start talking to us in a vulgar way. They think just because we are in a woman's form they can treat us like women, even knowing we are men. Performing as a woman while being a man is tough, especially with the way the men behave with us. I can only imagine how bad the plight of women must be.
Ritu is making a film about gender inequality, the Silk Ceiling that hangs above so many women in India and its Asian neighbors.
Although women are sharing the workplace with their male counterparts and are enjoying financial freedom in cities like Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore, their basic human rights are under siege in the country. Are girls a commodity? What's the basic thinking of the males in the society?
Women who don't own land or a house may be seven times more likely to endure violent marriages (source: Agarwal and Panda -- Kerala)
So I just want to ask what's our society and our government doing in this direction.
Ritu's come to Raghai, a village where men and women seem locked in old ways. Few women in South Asia own any assets. A new UN report claims it's one of the main reasons they're disempowered. But in Bihar, some villages have transferred land and property to women in return for government help and cash. It's part of a unique Indian experiment in local government called Panchayati Raj.
SHRI BK SINHA [President, CENCORED]
In Bihar, the men migrate to work in different states, and because of this the women are the ones that actually do the farming. So we started a project where if the land and property holdings were transferred to a woman's name, then we would give the family access to various government schemes. A lot of men agreed to do this, even if some did not. The important thing is that the women felt confident they had ownership of the land they were tilling. It has been a great experiment.
To see how great an experiment, meet Kiran Devi, named by her dad after India's top woman cop. At first glance she is an ordinary housewife, serving tea for friends. But the Panchayati Raj experiment isn't just about land rights, it's about a whole system of devolving government down to villages and at least a third of the posts are reserved for women. Now Kiran's life has been transformed. She's been elected sarpanch, or village head. What's more, supposedly backward Bihar has also established Gram Kacheri or "village courts," and Kiran runs this one. The case Ritu's filming, a woman's three sons are insisting she leaves land to them, not to her daughter. The decision is Kiran's.
KIRAN DEVI [Village head]
We can only find out the reality on the ground once we investigate in your village.
Of the land that our family owned, we were only given a third. And her father has given her some land as well.
Listen, if her father has given her the land, it is her property. In more the half the cases women are able to file their own cases. The women are ahead on this.
Do the men Panchayati members support you?
Yes, the men do help us.
Over 200 cases successfully resolved. Kiran's helping the whole village, but it's often women who need justice most. Enforcing their rights in big city courts can take up to ten years. And even here, women had to fight -- sometimes literally.
After we women came to power, domestic violence increased a lot. The men didn't want the women to be on equal status with them, they didn't want them to stand in front of them, sit on a chair next to them, or talk to them. So this essentially sparked off a lot of domestic violence. But slowly, things started to improve. People started helping each other, especially seeing the women members across all Panchayats doing their work.
Rights enforced by law and persuasion. Back in Delhi, Ritu is checking out some more Indian footage for her report. There are also stories of women valued. Ten-year-old Kavita is already learning her Dad's trade. It'll mean spare cash to help her train as a doctor. Sumalatha collects coconut milk -- girls are supposed to fall off. Suhag Khemlani doesn't need as ladder to climb her way up; she's already close to the top of her family tree.
When I got out of college, when I graduated, dad had convinced me that I would give techno-cleaning a six month trial -- and that was it, I just never left. I think I can do a much better job than a lot of the men I know in this industry.
The role model Ritu's off to film today is Shanoo. Shanoo's a widow who supports three kids and her in-laws. She's broken into the male preserve of radio taxis.
So how do you feel now?
SHANOO BEGUM [Taxi driver]
It feels great. When a man is driving in front of me, he will point and say, "Wow! See, a woman is driving that car!" It feels great. I'm able to do great things without being a man. I've already decided, when my daughter turns 18, I will make her a driver as well.
Just 19 women, Ritu learns, are learning to break through this silk ceiling. But it's early days. And it's not just driving they learn, but self-defense and language skills -- empowerment through employment.
MEENU VADERA [Executive Director, Azad Foundation]
I actually believe that the girls who come to us have been through such adversity, they have struggled through so many difficult circumstances completely on their own.
Back in the office, Ritu's widening her report out -- time for the big picture. In India, the Panchayati Raj system has empowered hundreds of thousands of women. But Ritu reckons more needs to be done. She's off to see a woman who has broken through the silk ceiling and is helping to plan India's future.
DR. SAYEDA HAMEED [Planning Commission, Government of India]
See, the most important thing is the representation of women. Traditionally, we have had the Panchayati Raj, which has made over a million women become immediately enter the Panchayats. So politically, that has actually happened. But the next step is to get women into the state assemblies and the parliament, so you have women in the most important decision-making.
Women in India have lesser property rights, so what is the government doing to ensure and increase the property rights of women in India?
DR. SAYEDA HAMEED
The state is very conscious of the fact that real power will not devolve to women unless the woman becomes an owner of a property. And this is in every government scheme, if the woman has the patta, or the title is in the name of the woman, there are certain concessions.
And for a final word for her report, who better than Ritu herself? A small-town girl from a modest background who is breaking through the silk ceiling.
When men and women are considered equal, then the economy runs efficiently, and every individual can work for the development of the country. It is therefore important that India should work to improve the condition of women. The difference between men and women needs to be removed. The work that is being done in this area needs to be sped up, and there is greater need for intervention at a policy level. This is Ritu Bhardwaj reporting on India's "Silk Ceiling."