Growing up in India, I tried to defy the gender bias that plagues the vast majority of girls in the country. I spent the early years of my childhood in the modern society of Mumbai before relocating with my mother to the smaller, ancient city of Varanasi. There I realized just how different my mother and I were compared to the traditional Indian family.

In Varanasi, boys were encouraged to pursue education and career opportunities, while girls prepared for their future by learning about household chores, knitting, cooking and anything else that would help make them better wives and daughters-in-law. Yet despite the societal pressure, my progressive mother gave me complete freedom to pursue my education.

But it turned out not everyone was so encouraging. My ambition to rise in life didn’t go over very well with many in my community. I did not conform to the norms of our culture, and I always felt the friction that caused with those around me.

Two decades later, it’s barely any different for a girl in India who has dreams and ambition. Even today, only a fraction of women find themselves respected as equals to their male counterparts. The rest suffer as objects of physical and financial oppression. If we want India’s massive population and economic growth to be balanced and healthy, we need to empower these women professionally.

The numbers are not good. While India has the world’s second-largest workforce, only 20 percent of it is made up of women. Men’s workforce participation rate has risen in recent years, yet women’s has remained frozen for the last decade. India is one of the worst countries in the world — 113rd out of 135 — when it comes to the gender gap.

Keeping women out of the workforce is keeping India as a whole down. And a major reason for this is that most Indians still think the highest aim for a woman is to start a family and be a homemaker. Our society sometimes overlooks the economic potential and leadership aspirations of women in its desire to maintain the country’s traditional “social equilibrium” — a rather skewed balance where women forego their own interests, and instead satisfy the desires of their community. The National Family Health Survey recently found that 47 percent of women in India were married before they were 18-years old. This means millions of women throughout the country sacrifice the most formative years of their lives to start a family, rather than build a career.

The situation is worse in smaller cities, villages and tribal areas of India, where the dreaded caste system takes a toll on the ambition and rights of women. Over the course of many years, this conditioning has made women shy away from pursuing opportunities and taking leadership over their own lives. The handful of girls who have the courage to question the established gender customs are regularly outcast from their communities. The result is that there are large areas of the country where women are pressured into submissive roles.

More than just professional respect is at stake here. The news is replete with incidents where Indian women have been sexually, physically and emotionally harmed, and there are even more incidents that go unreported. Tribal girls are regularly sent miles away by their family members to earn money. These girls, without the luxury of education, often don’t understand the language of the towns they arrive in and are raped, abused and tortured. Do you want a sense of how far this gender bias extends? The money earned by these girls is often used to fund the education and expenses of any boys in the family.

With no one listening and no support in their fight for survival, these girls become the victims of our society’s collective failure — its failure of administration, moral values and humanity. The majority of girls and women here don’t live to dream, they dream to live.

It’s hard to convince India’s roughly 600 million women to expect greater freedom and empowerment unless they see examples of it, which is why mentorship could be such a powerful tool to help address India’s gender disparity. It has the ability to ignite women’s thinking, provide practical solutions and break down barriers to economic growth.

Mentorship can play a huge role in opening Indian girls up to an alternative future. Tribal communities have limited access to media, which means they don’t have much exposure to career-focused female role models. Unable to continue watching these girls suffer after finding a way to build my own career, I was inspired to launch Aahan Tribal Development Foundation. Early on, we identified a small area called Chandwa in Latehar, within the Jharkhand state, for a yearlong mentorship program. Chandwa is unfortunately known for being the hotbed of Naxal insurgents and for providing housemaids to many big cities in India.

It’s been no easy task, for both personal and societal reasons. The travel to reach these far-flung communities is demanding, as is the persistence required to build trust with these people who have been neglected for long periods of times and who are often wary of the idea of mentoring.

In India’s cities, mentors for women can come from the corporate sector as more female executives move up the organizational hierarchy. But in the tribal regions, we’ve had to come up with other solutions. We constantly search for inspiring and empowered women within their own communities, so the girls can relate and communicate with role models nearby in addition to admiring women’s advances from afar.

It doesn’t help that India suffers from a missing middle problem. Most of our female professionals work at the very bottom of their organizations, and a select few have been able to successfully fight the system and run their own companies — yet nearly no women occupy the middle rungs of the career ladder. While globally 20 percent of senior-level executives are women, that number drops to 9 percent in India, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Businesses are growing rapidly across the country, but they won’t be able to do so in a healthy and sustainable way without the work capacity and the ingenuity that women can bring. Mentoring holds the key to that cultural transformation. If we can transform the biased thinking by showing young women an alternative, we can change the perception of the country, both inside and out.

Rashmi Tiwari is the executive director of CEO Clubs India, founder of Aahan Tribal Development Foundation and a participant in the Global Ambassadors Program, created jointly by Vital Voices and Bank of America.

Read also:

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.