Home / Opinion / Women fly higher when in charge of their money

The auditorium was packed. Girls were sitting on the floor in the aisles. I was visiting Banasthali University, 75 km south of Jaipur, to speak to the postgraduate management and journalism students. About 250 curious pairs of eyes were bright with anticipation and I was hoping that I don’t let them down. 

For those who don’t know, a quick update on this unique university. The journey of how this university came to be is quite a story. In 1927, the Jaipur state secretary in the home and foreign department, Pandit Hiralal Shastri, left his powerful job to relocate to a remote village (then) called Banthali to work on rural reconstruction. His friends said he’d gone half mad to do this. Who gives up power, prestige and money like this? But he moved himself and his family to the village. One day he found his 11-year-old daughter, Shanta, teaching the village kids under a tree. Sometime later she asked him for a room so that she could teach them without fear of storms or wild animals. He told her—you build the bricks and I will build the room. He forgot about the story thinking that the child will move on to other things. Three months later she showed him 300 handmade bricks she and the village kids had made. I saw one of the bricks that the institution has preserved. To touch the brick made by a determined young lady almost a 100 years ago was surreal. Shastri built that room and decided to give his daughter the best education he could manage. Music and martial art classes were organized. There is a painting of young Shanta in a sari, wielding a lathi and practising in one of the preserved rooms. When you remember that this was in rural Rajasthan in the 1920s when girls were married off as soon as they could be, the image of the lathi-wielding girls just adds to the amazement. 

But Shastri’s dream was shattered when the child died of a fever at age 12. He was devastated and the story goes that he did not come out of his room for days. His wife, with no formal education, then counselled him and asked him why he didn’t do something to educate other Shantas? He was moved by the idea and decided to start a girls’ residential school in the village. People then said he’d gone fully mad. Who would send their daughters to school and that too in this remote area? Well, 90 years later Banasthali Vidyapith is the world’s largest residential university for girls with over 16,000 students studying from elementary school to postgraduate courses. It was fantastic to see six small aircraft in a hangar in their fully licenced aviation school. The university boasts of a stable with 70 horses for the girls, a state-of-the-art robotics lab where the young women learn the internet of things, an incubation centre that hopes to produce women entrepreneurs and postgraduate programmes ranging from philosophy to pharmacy.

When I got the invitation from the University to speak to the girls, I chose to talk about money management for one key reason. These postgraduate girls were about to enter one of the toughest phases of their lives. The ages between 25 to 35 are particularly difficult for women who work outside the home. The career is still new and needs attention. Both marriage and kids usually come around this time for most Indian women. Trying to keep it all together is not easy and to hand over at least that one job to the man—of money management—seems like a no-brainer. But this decision can backfire in some cases, because handing over control of money is letting go of power within the household. The ability to manage money is a second-order problem, we need to first solve the first-order problem of the social superstructure in which most of India lives, with men firmly in control of the money and assets. More than the technique of managing money, women must first understand why they need to take charge. They must unlearn the subtle social messaging about managing money being a man’s job. If women can fly planes, they can surely manage their money.

A good way to build that understanding is to read books and a part of my reading list for them included two must-have books. The first, Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do by Aparna Jain must be required reading for women who will be a part of the corporate life soon. In fact, when I read out a passage from Aparna’s book about a woman who earns Rs35 lakh a year and hands over the money to the husband, needs his permission to buy a pair of chappals and needs to be back home by 8 pm to make hot chappatis for the family and therefore can’t stay back for work, the indignation and horror in the room was palpable. The second book is Who, Me Poor? How India’s Youth are Living in Urban Poverty to Make it Big by Gayatri Jayaraman, who documents the price of peer pressure in India’s big cities, specially on first-time migrants from smaller towns. Lack of a practical financial education holds back most young people from using the money judiciously when they start earning. For women, this lack of training and understanding can be devastating in situations of domestic disharmony, control within the marital home, in situations of a divorce or death. Being in control of your financial life is a central part of the push towards gender equality. I hope that the young women of Banasthali (and all other young women about to join the workforce) will fly high on this metric as well.

Monika Halan works in the area of consumer protection in finance. She is consulting editor Mint and on the board of FPSB India. She can be reached at monika.h@livemint.com.

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