Ellen Barry interviewed by John Micklethwait at the Asia Society.

Ellen Barry, the South Asia bureau chief for The New York Times, made a rare appearance in New York Tuesday to accept the Osborn Elliott Prize for her reporting in New Delhi. Barry spoke about her recent series of stories on Indian women and the role factory work has played in changing the patriarchal system there, during a lunchtime conversation at the Asia Society in New York with Bloomberg News editor in chief John Micklethwait.

“The big story about India is an economic story,” she said. “I’m sorry, this is not India versus China, but I just want to point out it will be the largest economy in the world in 2050.”

Barry spoke about the gradual growth of the economy in India and how it is slowly impacting the lives of women, who have largely been excluded from the workforce.

“India has the lowest percentage of women working in South Asia. The only place lower than India is the Middle East and North Africa, and it is dropping,” she said, explaining that women are largely “kept at home” after they are married off in their teens.

“The whole projection of Indian [economic] growth, is putting those people to work. That means you have to put women to work, too,” she said, noting that young men and women in remote villages are being recruited to work in the textile and apparel factories in cities. But many families decline to send the women to cities, as their value on the marriage market falls.

Barry’s reporting traces what happens when Indian women go off to work. She noted that tradition “breaks down” quickly there, and many women find husbands through love, not arrangement. Barry also spoke of the work, the mundane nature of sewing labels onto clothing for hours on end, in order to save up enough money to buy a cell phone that will allow the women to keep in touch with friends and family. And the empowerment women gain from earning money.

The darker side, however, is the gang rapes and violence that plague women in society there. Still, Barry underscored that Indians —and the women in particular — are “recklesslessly cheerful” and “optimistic” even though life there is difficult.

Micklethwait asked Barry, who reported in Russia and served as bureau chief in Moscow before, if journalists are covering India fairly.

“It’s very hard to cover India. India is not one thing. You have one India that’s like Australia, one India that’s like Mexico, and one India that’s like sub-Saharan Africa. They are completely disconnected from each other. They don’t even really know about the existence of each other,” she said. “So what’s covering India? It’s a weak state. Power is completely dispersed. In Russia, you always knew what to look at. Everything was inside a box. You looked at the box, but in India, there’s no box.”

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