Striking Photos Of Indian Women Who Are Fighting For Change

Last month, philanthropist Melinda Gates traveled to India to meet some of the women activists there, who are fighting to make their country a better place. She sent us back this Instagram diary of her trip.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest philanthropic foundation in the country, and perhaps the world. With an endowment of around $40 billion, the foundation has been expanding its work in India, with projects around maternal and child health, vaccines, family planning, agricultural development, sanitation, and the control of infectious diseases. 

In the decade and a half since my husband, Bill, and I started our foundation, here is what I have learned: If you want to unlock the most progress for the most people, start by investing in women and girls.

Many of us tend to think that the important decisions about the world’s future are made in places like the White House or the halls of the United Nations. But, the truth is that a lot of the most important decisions about changing the world are made much more quietly. They’re the decisions made every day in households in the poorest places in the world — by women who are determined to improve life for themselves, their families, and their communities. 

Take India, for example. Throughout the country, more children are living past their fifth birthday because their mothers are demanding they receive vaccines and better nutrition. Infant and maternal mortality are falling because women are working together to make childbirth safer and infants’ first days less risky. India is turning the tide against diseases like polio because a team of frontline health workers — almost all of them women — are bringing health care to even the country’s poorest, most remote places. In ways big and small, women are an incredibly powerful force for change. 

Earlier this month, I traveled to India to meet some of these women and girls and learn about what their lives are like. I left this trip more confident than ever that women and girls are changing the world. Here some photos that help explain why.

I started in Bihar, a state that is home to many of India’s poorest people. There, I met a woman named Sister Sudha, a nun who has dedicated her life to lifting up women and girls from Mushahar, one of the country’s most marginalized communities (which falls at the very bottom of the caste hierarchy). We visited a village living in extreme poverty and then went together to tour a residential school she runs for adolescent girls.

Like many of the Catholics I grew up with in my own church, Sister Sudha is driven by a strong belief in social justice and chose to work with the Mushahar community precisely because she believes it is a place where social justice is absent. As the women and girls I met in Bihar can attest, Sister Sudha is living proof that the actions of one woman can create ripple effects throughout an entire community.      
Six-year-old twins Krisha and Radha live in a village called Kothwa outside Bihar’s capital of Patna. For all that they have in common — the same family, the same house, the same birthday — their prospects in life are very different in one glaring way. Because they live in a society where gender inequalities remain entrenched, Radha faces many more barriers to living a healthy life and reaching her full potential than her twin brother, simply because she was born a girl. 

In Kothwa, I sat on a mat under a shady tree and talked to a group of women and girls about their lives and families. Here is something that should shock you: Almost every single woman you see in this picture has lost a child to illness or disease. It’s one thing to read about child mortality in a U.N. report. But, it’s even more heartbreaking to see the faces of the families for whom losing a child is still an everyday reality and sadly, a tragedy they assume is to be expected.  

After I left Kothwa, Sister Sudha took me to Prerna, the residential school she runs for adolescent girls from some of India’s poorest communities. There is a long waiting list to attend Prerna because many families know that an education is the clearest pathway out of poverty for their daughters. The girls at Prerna are all very happy to be there and proud to be students. One girl explained that she and her classmates even love wearing their blue uniforms because it makes them feel like “girls who study.” 

Most of the students I met at Prerna told me that their friends back home in the village are already married — and many of these young girls already have children of their own. In this picture, you can see a drawing from a lesson about child marriage right under a diagram of the water cycle. The young bride in the drawing has tears streaming down her face. 

In addition to studying subjects like English and geography (and, my favorite, computers!), girls at Prerna also learn subjects like drumming and karate. Sister Sudha says that learning karate “adds another dimension to the girls’ lives.” It teaches students discipline and confidence — and also has the practical benefit of giving them the skills they need to defend themselves. 

In Jharkhand, one of India’s most underdeveloped states, I visited with women who are members of self-help groups: groups of 10 to 12 women who meet weekly to discuss savings, farming, and other ways they can improve life for themselves and their families. Joining a self-help group encourages women to see that a better future is possible — and that their actions can help create it.      

When she was a young woman, Neelam made the brave decision to marry for love instead of submitting to an arranged marriage. As a result, she was ostracized from her community, and, for many years, she could barely make a living. Joining a self-help group not only helped her learn about the tools and technologies to increase her farm’s output, thereby increasing her income, it also gave her a chance to nurture her natural leadership abilities. Today, she is a respected community leader who is using her voice to speak up for other women. (And, she’s especially proud that she has almost enough money saved to buy her son the motorbike he wants, to help him get to school.) 

Before Beronika Herenj joined a self-help group, the orchard you see behind us was a lot less green. She could only grow enough food to last about half the year and constantly worried about feeding her family. Today, with the support of her self-help group, Beronika is able to produce a surplus! And, she is using the proceeds from her watermelons and mangoes to help her daughter-in-law Kiran (the woman in the blue sari) finally achieve her dream of going to nursing school. 

Sabita Devi told me that before she joined her self-help group, she rarely left her house and no one knew her name. “Who is Sabita?” she asked herself. But today, her world is much bigger. Now, her whole village knows her name — and they also know her in the nearby villages and even at the bank (where she now has her own bank account)! 

One woman I met in Jharkhand asked me, “What do you see when you look at us?” I told them exactly what I was thinking: “I see what’s possible for the future.” 

Sister Sudha summed up the takeaway from my visit so perfectly when she said, “All this time, I never put one foot back because I knew all the women were behind me.” Everywhere I looked, I saw evidence that when empowered women come together and stand behind each other, they are an incredible force for keeping the world moving in the right direction.   

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