Women's rights advocates say India's economy is dependent on impoverished women who work in rural areas with little or no recognition. And they say the tendency to ignore these women, who do far more to help the national economy than many officials will admit, is contributing to the spread of AIDS in India.
Shyama Venkateswar of the New York based Asia Society says women in rural India work under dismal conditions, receiving little or no health care, little or no pay, and are subject to male dominance, often resulting in physical abuse and violation of basic human rights. Yet, she says, these women make up the primary labor force of the country.
"They do stone breaking work, harvesting forest produce, collecting fuel, selling goods in the markets, and other backbreaking activities," Ms. Venkateswar said. "Much of this kind of work remains unnoticed, unpaid and unrecognized and the contributions are not even reflected in the nation's GDP"
Labor reporter and award winning human rights journalist, P. Sainath, has traveled all over India documenting poverty. He has written numerous stories for Indian newspapers about the vital role these women play in the Indian economy. Mr. Sainath says the type of work they do may not be reflected in a stock market or recognized by any conventional economists, but nonetheless, it is crucial.
"It's women's work. At any given moment across that subcontinent, some woman is bending down, scraping cow crap off the road," he said. "What does it mean for the Indian economy?"
Mr. Sainath says collecting cattle dung for use as organic fertilizer saves the country millions of dollars in import costs. He says India's import of petroleum and petroleum products is the country's largest foreign exchange bill with about $10.5 billion spent annually.
Mr. Sainath says many American medicines are made from ingredients taken from the forests of countries like India. He says women collect the herbs and other products that go to pharmaceutical companies that "make the killing," while some of these women "do the dying."
Adrienne Germain agrees the lives of most poor rural women in South Asia are often brutal and short. The president of the International Women's Health Coalition says gender discrimination, starting in childhood, still exists in rural India where 61 percent of boys are immunized, compared to only 50 percent of girls. Boys are twice as likely as girls to get health care, she says, and families spend two to three times as much on health care for boys as they do on girls.
Even with the HIV/AIDS crisis in India, Ms. Germain says women and girls are often neglected. She says the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India is poised to explode and could be one of the worst in the world if things go unchanged.
"We will see an unprecedented catastrophe in South Asia that will far, far outweigh the terrible catastrophe we are already seeing in sub-Saharan Africa," she said. "The lives of billions of girls and women, to say nothing of boys and men, are at stake across Asia."
Ms. Germain says women working in rural areas are at particular risk because of the lack of health care, sex education and control of their own bodies.
Journalist P. Sainath says AIDS in India is still hush-hush in many circles.
"What makes the problem in India more tragic is the amount of denial," he said. "There is this incredible reluctance to accept that there is a huge problem, with the result that we are doing an incredible danger, maybe putting ourselves in great danger, putting our own society in great risk."
Mr. Sainath says donations like the $100 million grant from the U.S. based Gates Foundation and other funds from relief agencies cannot help without the empowerment of the women. And he says the women can help themselves by organizing and calling attention to the difference they make to India's economy.
Mr. Sainath has taken photos that are currently on display at the Asia Society to show what these women do for India. The photo exhibit has been shown in India in villages, factories, at entrances to mines and quarries, and in other rural areas.