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educating girls

Cruise control


Premlata Agarwal (pic, left) discovered her talent for mountaineering at the age of 35, quite by accident, when she met Bachendri Pal. Once her talent was discovered, she found support in her husband. Unfortunately, most husbands only put up 'stop' signs. 'Why do you need to work, 'is a question always hovering in the air for a woman.

We are educating girls, raising their aspirations, even giving them a taste of professional life, and then asking them to rein in their ambitions.

Mujhe lagta hai ki hamare andar itni shakti hai...jiska day to day life mein 10 per cent bhi use nahin hoti. " (I believe we have so much power hidden within ourselves. We don't use even 10 per cent of that power in day to day life. )

This is not a quote from a book by Paulo Coelho or Stephen Covey. These are the words of Premlata Agarwal, speaking to me at her modest home in Jamshedpur, as she poured me a cup of tea. Premlata Agarwal is a housewife, married into a Marwari business family. Premlata Agarwal is also a world-class mountaineer and the oldest Indian woman to scale Mount Everest, at the age of 48. She is an inspirational woman whose story I had the privilege to feature in my book Follow Every Rainbow.

To my mind, every Indian woman is a Premlata. Born with skills and talents, capable of extraordinary feats. But, the circumstances must allow a woman's talents to bloom and grow. This is as true today as it was 30 years ago, although there are some signs of change.

Premlata was married in 1981, at the age of 18, after completing class 12. She wanted to study further but elders said, "Aur padh-likh kar kya karogi? Tumhe naukri thode hi karni hai. (What's the point of studying further? You aren't going to take up a job. )"

Today's parents don't say that, whether poor, rich or middle-class. The importance of education for girls is well-established in our minds. Most of our young women will be able to complete graduation and even post-graduation. Many will take up jobs. But the idea of a career after marriage and more so, children, remains a grey area. Few of us had working mothers - we have no role models, no 'path' to follow.

A young woman shared her dilemma in an email to me and I think it sums up the whole dilemma : "I belong to a conservative family - although it's quite important for my parents to see their daughter as a well educated person and 'capable' of being independent, nonetheless, they don't really want to see me as a working woman.... But being educated, being aware of my talents, I need to put it in use for my own personal satisfaction".

Things are fine today, but what happens next? She goes on to say: "Today, I'm career oriented and that's all I have to think about, but after a few years, I'll have a family, a family to whom I owe all that my mother did for hers. She was there to wake me up in the morning... she was there when I came back early from school due to a stomach ache, she's still there when I need to take out my frustrations... and all this certainly calls for one's 24/7 presence for the family and enormous amount of patience... both of which are nearly impossible to keep up along with one's professional life. "

So here's the Big Question - we are educating our girls, raising their aspirations and even giving them a taste of professional life. But once they marry, they are expected to rein in their dreams, their ambitions. So what if you are an MBA, a doctor or an engineer - family comes first. Go to work, feel tired and guilty;stay at home, get tired and frustrated. Shall we conclude a woman then can never have it all?

Premlata Agarwal discovered her talent for mountaineering at the age of 35, quite by accident, when she met the legendary Bachendri Pal. Once her talent was discovered, she found support in her husband and in-laws. Never mind log kya kahenge (what will people say). You go climb that mountain, we believe you can do it. Premlata's husband said to me, "Mujhme yeh pratibha nahin hai (I don't have this ability). Unko rokne wala main kaun hota hoon (I have no right to stop her). " Unfortunately most husbands only put up 'Stop' signs - a disapproving word, a glance, or silent resentment. "Kaam karne ki zaroorat kya hai?"(Why do you need to work) is a question never asked of men and always hovering in the air for a woman. I take the wheel back full circle and say to young women out there: Dream Big. If you don't believe you deserve to have a career, along with a family, who else will? Women before you have done it and are still doing it. We are small in number, but growing. Choose the man you marry carefully and keep your fingers crossed. Find a profession you are passionate about and you will find it is easier. Choose which mountain to climb and don't hesitate to aim for Mount Everest.

Bansal is an IIM-A alumnus, entrepreneur and author.

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