'They don't want to go back'

Ritu Sharma of Annapolis, who illuminates the plight of women in the developing world, has great hope for the future

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March is Women's History Month, but the headlines give us little to celebrate.

Women who dare to attend protests in Egypt are routinely beaten and subjected to brutal "virginity tests." Girls in Afghanistan are beaten or disfigured for attending school. Infant girls are poisoned or abandoned to die in India and China because they are a burden to the family. Honor killings, the forced marriage of young girls to older men, the rape of virgins in Africa because they do not carry the AIDS virus — the list of horrors goes on and on.

Indeed, as much of the developing world is shaken awake by democratic movements or plain old capitalism, the lives of women, made so clear to those of us in the West because of the globalization of news, seem to be trapped in amber.

Ritu Sharma chooses this moment to be most optimistic.

An Annapolis resident and the founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, Ms. Sharma is a first-generation American whose parents left India to begin a new life.

She never forgot the struggles that she witnessed and her family endured in Punjab, and for more than 20 years she has expressed her gratitude by trying to elevate the lives of women where they are most oppressed economically, educationally and spiritually.

The reason for her optimism, even as the Arab Spring has not bloomed for women? Time. And education.

"It is slow-moving, but it is a wave — and it is building," Ms. Sharma said.

"Twenty years ago, we didn't have laws in these countries against domestic violence, against rape. We have that now. There are very few countries where rape is legal and domestic violence is legal. We have now created a legal structure in these countries that has made the abuse of women unacceptable."

The goal of the next 20 years, she said, will be to have those laws enforced.

"The fundamentalist backlash against women's rights, against human rights, is real," granted Ms. Sharma. "It is happening. These people are loud, but they are few. And there is a more open generation coming up and taking those positions of leadership."

Ms. Sharma has made it her purpose to understand the lives of women in Third World or Arab countries. She has lived on a dollar a day in the poorest countries and then written about her experiences.

She takes away from all of this the grass-roots needs of women and girls — you learn how important shoes are when you live barefoot among these women. Back in the United States, she and members of her coalition groups lobby Congress and the State Department to target a portion the millions of dollars in foreign aid and disaster relief specifically to those needs. Her job is to make sure women are not forgotten when the money starts flowing.

It isn't as simple as a micro-loan here there for beading or basket-making. Women already bend under the burden of holding their families and their societies together. The idea that they must also be the economic engine is not always welcome, especially if it means driving the men further into the weeds of irrelevance.

Education — even the littlest bit of it — will change the future, she says.

"I feel optimistic because it is about the next generation. The girls who were 10 or 12 when the Taliban was driven out in Afghanistan lived for a decade without them.

"They may have only had a primary education, but they can read and write, and they have had access to knowledge, and they don't want to go back. They are going to fight hard not to go back."

And their male classmates understand that freedom for girls and women also means freedom for them, that the women's movement can include them and open up a culture that binds them, too.

"More girls than boys are going to universities in Latin America," she said. "And that gives me hope. You can't help but internalize equality and justice when you are exposed to higher education."

This generation — men and women under the age of 30 or 35 — isn't in power now. They aren't participating in constitutional conventions, and they aren't yet serving in government.

"But they will be 20 years from now," she said. "And that's why I have hope."

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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