What Are Women Worth? A Man's Reflection on the Suffering of Women in India

Traveling in the third world is a sobering experience.  Around every street corner in India I am confronted with a shocking new level of human suffering and injustice.  In my own country, the pursuit of justice is little more than the freedom to pursue our own selfish desires.  Here, justice is an unattainable reality from birth to death.

This sign, posted outside a Mission Hospital, illustrates the issues surrounding female children in India. Ultrasounds are regulated in India and it is illegal to find out the gender of the child before birth. The rationale for these laws is the high rate of female infanticide and gender biased abortions, particularly in rural areas.

The plight of women in India is among the worst in the world.  While we in America approach gender with a fickle curiosity, being male or female in India is a matter of life and death. In rural areas, female infanticide and gender biased abortions are so pervasive that the federal government banned revealing the gender of a fetus via ultrasound. 

Nevertheless, we learned that nurses still find ways around the law, communicating gender through coded speech. Legislation, it seems, cannot curb a cultural aversion to a child born without a penis.

I have seen more women in hard labor than I can begin to count. On a major interstate in Uttar Pradesh I witnessed two women old enough to be my grandmother patching pot holes by hand, the tar and gravel stuck to their hands and knees, cars swerving around the pylons intended to protect them. Like pack animals, women carry bricks, firewood, produce, and sacks of cement down every market road, invisible to the swaths of young men standing idly by. An Indian friend explained the situation in these terms: “If you were to kill a cow, even one sick or wounded, you would go to jail for six years. You will go to jail for only three if you rape a woman.” Women here rank a little lower than the animals.

This woman is a trained dentist, capable of cleaning, filling, and treating common dental issues in her village. Nevertheless, women like this are treated with disdain by men, viewed as unskilled and unable to learn.

Last week Scott Sherrod and I sat in a village meeting listening to some of the issues affecting Shajhanpur, a small village of around 500 families. When we recommended a free program that could train older women in the village to repair malfunctioning solar panels in the village, the council of nine men scoffed, offended at the suggestion.  “Women cannot work,” our translator relayed. “They cannot learn to do these things.” The irony is not lost on me that these women who cannot ‘work’ form a large sector of the work force, sweeping streets, picking up trash, and carrying cement for urban construction projects.  

The injustices confronting women are innumerable. Yet solutions also abound. In our three weeks in India we have met with a dozen NGOs, Christian missions, business advocates, and government initiatives. All recognize the incredible disparity between men and women. They strive to reduce the gap through literacy programs, skill development, and feminine health awareness. These programs are well-intentioned, responding to immediate needs with real solutions. Still, they are forced to concede to the harsh reality plaguing women. Vocational training programs equip women to perform the technical tasks men have abdicated. Education and awareness about women’s health end in programs that sterilize, viewing fewer children as the path to liberation. Christian business ventures succumb to conventional wisdom, generating a meager profit for women that need so much more than money.

A widow in the holy city of Vrindavan shares her story. She, like so many others, was abandoned by her children, her property and security stolen after her husband died. She is uneducated and alone, resigned to a life of monotonous piety and suffering.

The behemoth of women’s issues in India demands a response. As our team works to develop programs in maternal health, literacy and education, and even ethical job creation, I believe in the centrality of biblical education for successful empowerment. Earlier this week, India team member Rosemary Sherrod wrote an excellent reflection on her time with village women and their need to learn God’s Word.  This may seem like a curious proposition considering the long history of men using the Bible to suppress the feminine voice. The validity of this accusation should not discourage us from employing Scripture in development; it merely reveals the depths of our need to learn.

Female children are devalued in rural, Indian culture. While sons are favored and desired, girls receive little to no medical attention, due to the economic burden that comes with trying to marry young women. This woman cradles her granddaughter with pride, despite the stigma associated with being born female.

There is an incredible need for us to learn, men as much as women.  An education in God’s Word sensitizes men to the suffering of women, tearing down the idols of misogyny and patriarchy.  In Mark 14 Jesus establishes the preeminence of women in the biblical narrative.  As an unnamed woman anoints Jesus with expensive oil, the enraged room of men scold her for the waste.  Even in the presence of Jesus, the masculine ego assumes a position of superiority and disdain for women. Jesus, however, rebukes the attitude of the men present. He reorients their low view of the woman, claiming that, “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (14:9).  

I had the pleasure of meeting with a young Indian woman at the close of our trip. This Christian twenty-something shared her story of coming to know Jesus and the freedom she experiences in Christ. Still, she feels the pain of how her society views her. Even in circles of faith, women are somehow less, expected to sit in silence, forbidden from contributing. As we delved into scripture, I taught her the biblical value of women, which emphasizes the need for the feminine voice in all spheres of life. As I shared, I could see the weight lifted from her. She smiled, eager and hungry for more of God's Word.

Gospel proclamation communicates the story of the value and importance of women. A biblical education rejects the narrow mindset of masculinity, which sees Indian women from birth to old age as a burden to be aborted or abandoned. God’s Word emphasizes the infinite value of women, capable and deserving of every opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute to the world they inhabit. I, for one, will allow the stories of these women to transform my perspective as we all come into a fuller understanding of a biblical view of women.

Written by Grant Dailey
On the Field Correspondent, India