Girls Around the World: The Wisdom of Shilpi Somaya Gowda and Nicolas Kristof

Shilpi Somaya Gowda, Author of "Secret Daughter"

I had the pleasure of hearing two incredible speakers recently: Nicolas Kristof, the New York Times journalist and Shilpi Somaya Gowda, author of the book “Secret Daughter.” Although I heard them speak weeks apart, their words came together for me like a beautiful mosaic, and I must share their wisdom with Melibee readers.

While many of you know who Nicolas Kristof is, you may not yet know the wisdom of Shilpi Somaya Gowda.  I read her debut novel this past summer and found myself returning to the many layers of her story. Secret Daughter is the story of a couple in the US who adopt a baby girl (Asha) and the equally moving tale of her birth parents in India. Gowda says that she attempted to compare the world that the girl was born into with the world where she is able to live her life out. The baby, Asha, is given a name at birth, a silver bangle and a chance at life because she is secretly taken to an orphanage.

Gowda was born in Canada, although her Indian parents (from Mumbai) had also lived in the Middle East and Europe.  She became a foreign student when she came to the United States to pursue her BA and MBA degrees.  During her undergraduate studies, Gowda traveled to India for a summer in 1991 to volunteer at an orphanage.  She expected the orphanage to be a sad place, but instead, she found it joyful.  There were 100 children and they had formed a family. There was pleasure in the simplicity. They made up games with dirt and sticks.  She became very attached to several of the children and wondered about them for decades. She especially wondered about the girls.

Interestingly, Gowda entered the business world and says she didn’t write more than a power point presentation for years.  But she kept seeing the faces of the children from the orphanage and knew that a story was taking shape.  The story took years to develop and required research about orphanages in India and why so many girls end up there.  Her research indicated that there is a tremendous imbalance in the population of girls and boys in India and that girls are killed, aborted and neglected to death. According to the UNICEF, 40 to 50 million girls have gone “missing” in India since 1901.  And while there is less infanticide today, there is still an imbalance in the number of girls and boys in India, largely due to sex selective abortion.

Nicolas Kristof says that gender imbalance is the central moral challenge of the 21st century. In his book, “Half the Sky,” Kristof reminds us that 100 million women are missing because of gender discrimination.  And like Gowda, Kristof doesn’t find the challenges of the women he meets to be the depressing thing about his work – in fact, he stated: “What is depressing to me, is to return here (to the US) and have people think there is no greater humanity than having the hottest car or latest cell phone!”

Interestingly, Gowda is an economist at heart who also happens to have written a stirring book. As a result, she completely agrees that what can best be done about the missing girls in India is to 1) educate women and girls AND 2) give them more economic power and choices. Data indicates that birthrates fall when women are educated. She firmly believes that these issues are rooted in economics, as does Kristof.  He stated that when cultures invest in education, it chips away at societies’ ills.  Women learn, work and lift communities.  And when they don’t, the sons get feed first, taken to the doctor first and invested in first, and daughters die.

In our field, we often wonder how an international experience impacts a life and career.  When I asked Gowda about her experience abroad and how it shaped her, she said that it broadened her horizons because even though she thought she knew the culture as a daughter of immigrants, she was able to experience a completely different part of Indian culture by volunteering.  She didn’t expect it to be an eye opening experience, yet it was one that evolved into her magical book.  She said that her time at the orphanage ultimately made her think of herself as a world citizen, not a Canadian or Indian.

I think that these books would be a terrific pairing for a course on gender studies, human rights, sociology, and more.  Gowda’s fictional tale beautifully mirrors the reality of Kristof’s read.  I would encourage you to explore these books further – they are easily two ideal options for your toolkit.  And the best news is that Gowda is able to participate in book club discussions via skype from her home in California!  She would be willing to do this with university students also, so be sure to reach out to her if you’re interested in hearing her perspectives first hand.