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Bill Clinton visits India to take on women’s rights

Bill Clinton speaks with schoolchildren during a visit to Sanganer, IndiaBill Clinton speaks with schoolchildren during a visit to Sanganer, India
Bill Clinton speaks with schoolchildren during a visit to Sanganer, IndiaSTRDEL AFP/Getty Images

India may now be the world’s third-largest economy, but the majority of its women still remain behind closed doors.

Earlier on Thursday, when former President Bill Clinton (No. 5 on Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders list) met with 100 women entrepreneurs in northern India, he opened up a dialogue about access and opportunity. He also put a human face on the Clinton Foundation’s women’s rights data collection and awareness initiative, No Ceilings, which will turn out a progress report early next year on the status of women around the world.

“I chose this venue because so many Indian women are working to empower themselves through entrepreneurship and education, information technology, and microcredit,” President Clinton told Fortune, via email, from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. “I want to hear from them about what we can do to provide more support for meeting their challenges and seizing their opportunities.”

The challenges are immense for this nation of 1.2 billion, where, according to the World Bank, women make up 29% of the workforce—the lowest portion of any of the BRICS nations. India’s record on women’s rights and safety is arguably even more dismal: the National Crime Records Bureau recently reported that, on average, 92 women were raped in India every day last year.

Thursday’s event was Clinton’s first official appearance in support of No Ceilings and the program’s first women’s rights dialogue in the developing world. He met women who are part of self-help groups that provide microfinance, education, and training. (These groups have teamed up with the Clinton Foundation on a massive, Ikea-sponsored health initiative that educates communities on the importance of using oral rehydration salts to treat diarrhea—a preventable disease that kills 200,000 Indian children every year.)

Some of these women say that they were once forced by their families to stay in their own homes. One, for years, was known only by her husband’s name. Now, after taking part in the group, she owns her own furniture business and her own cow, according to the Clinton Foundation. Her kids are going to school—sharing their English and computer knowledge with her—and are poised for a better life than she once expected.

It almost goes without saying how striking these women’s experiences differ from that of Hillary Clinton, whose current book tour continues to stoke will-she-or-won’t-she presidential speculation. The No Ceilings project is very much a Clinton family affair and was one of three projects that the former U.S. Secretary of State brought to the foundation last year, after the end of her term.

Barbara Kinney/The Clinton Foundation
Barbara Kinney/The Clinton Foundation
No Ceilings’ upcoming report, which will be published in partnership with the Gates Foundation and with support from Microsoft, will compile data from sources like the World Bank and the United Nations. “We hope it will show, in a powerful way, that women’s full participation is not just a nice thing to do but a right thing to do,” says Maura Pally, executive director of the office of Hillary Clinton. “Our hope is that [the data shows that] countries where full participation indicators are higher are ultimately more economically successful countries.”

Personal narratives like those shared on Thursday are crucial to the effort, says Pally. “Sometimes data on paper, or laws on the books, may reflect what is perceived as equality,” she says, “but barriers exist on the ground.”

Indeed, public harassment, inadequate policing, and a broken legal system are just some of the roadblocks to equality cited by Indian women’s rights activists, who are now lobbying newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make equal protection a top priority. Last week, when India’s new government released its first official budget, it included about 3 billion rupees for programs to guarantee women’s rights and safety; time will tell whether these programs translate into increased opportunity and access.

“No Ceilings is about first understanding the status of rights and opportunities for women and girls around the world and then focusing on closing what gaps exist,” says Chelsea Clinton, who has hosted No Ceilings conversations in New York, Ireland, and Denver. “In order to do both, everyone, including men and boys must be engaged in this effort. My father leading this conversation in India, underscores that gender equality isn’t just a women’s issue, but a global issue that has long term impact on health, peace and prosperity around the world.”