Dreams and Questions

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 Samik Das
Thenmoli wants her daughter, Vijayalakshmi, to become a doctor. Photo: Samik Das

“I wanted to become a doctor,” Thenmoli said. Her whisper echoed in the room which instantly fell silent. “There was no way even to get started when I was little.” Thenmoli pointed at her daughter, “Vijayalakshmi wants to become a doctor. She is only three. I will make sure she finishes school and goes to college.”

I was visiting a women’s group in Annathur village in Kanchipuram District, Tamil Nadu. This group had in the past been supported by the Pudhu Vaazhvu Project that also provided skills training for young people. I discovered that the group had mostly goat keepers, small dairy farmers, and vegetable growers. All women had managed to improve their lives with the support of the project. Yet our conversation was not about the women’s livelihoods. We only talked about how they could fulfil the dreams of their children.

“They choose computer training Sir…some of them nursing.  All of them got a job after the training.” I was amazed, but then again Tamil Nadu is one of the fastest transforming states in India. “How about the boys?” I asked. “They chose driving, Sir, mostly light vehicles. The ambitious ones go for heavy trucks or forklifts.”

“So did any boy choose computer training?” I enquired. “No Sir, none of them did. But we did have one girl who chose driving. Girls are more ambitious!”

“So what do your daughters want to become?” I asked. Everybody started talking and many professions were offered, none of them the same as their mothers’. I could see all mothers’ eyes gleam at the thought of their daughters dreams. My question had clearly struck a chord. Everybody realized that their daughters dreamed big and we all felt the energy of those dreams.

I couldn’t get Thenmoli and her little daughter out of my mind. In Thenmoli’s generation—young women in India today—only about 30% of women participate in the labor force.  In urban areas, it is less than 20%. And being from a socially disadvantaged group, Thenmoli had very little chance of ever realizing her dream.

The questions for her daughter are: Will she get to school? Will she finish it? Will she have learnt enough? Will she go to college? Will her family allow her to work? When will she get married? Will her husband allow her to work? Will she find child care? Will she be safe?

There are 50 million women in India today between the ages of 15 and 24 who are neither in school, nor working. Each of them got stopped at one of these questions. All of their dreams have not been realized. Vijayalakshmi and more than 50 million like her are nurturing big dreams. They have the energy and optimism to believe these can be achieved. It is for India to help realize their dreams. Their ambitions will drive India forward.


Onno Ruhl

Country Director, World Bank India

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