My second visit to India this year took me to 2 remote and rural districts of the state of Uttar Pradesh in the country’s north. As I travelled out to Mathura on a dry, hot and dusty day I found myself gazing out the window in search of intricacies associated with the local terrain. I was in short, attempting to idle my time away by people watching which is an activity that I very much enjoy partaking in, especially when I am travelling. The most striking detail of the surrounding scenery for me was the sheer lack of women that I saw. As each and every street and laneway went by I was being presented with men in many groups embarking on the daily aspects of their lives. I witnessed the haggling over products at local market places, the breakfast ritual of sipping on chai at roadside stands and the daily commute between home and religious meeting place; all undertaken strictly by men. The one question that remained on my mind was where are all the women?
I found the answer to this query not long after I posed it. As we began to enter into the interior part of the villages I spotted dots of colourful saris in the fields where wheat was being produced and cropped. I had to strain my eyes to see pockets of women bent in half conducting the back breaking labour of cultivating these crops. As we drove past I tried to catch the eyes of these women but found the endeavour almost impossible. The women within the fields had their entire faces covered by the material of their saris and were attempting to peer out of a small hole for one eye which they had allocated. I immediately wondered how they were able to see, let alone go about such laborious tasks with this obvious impediment in their way. When I enquired about the reasoning for this strategic placement of material I was met with the answer that, it is seen as culturally inappropriate for women to show their faces outside their household. How utterly impractical I thought…
As we arrived in the village I ventured past a shelter for the local communities animal husbandry activities which we had funded through our project and was led to thatched roof structure where around 50 members of the local community had all gathered. I came to understand that this was a meeting of the local Disabled Peoples Organisation, more commonly referred to as a DPO which was responsible for advocating for the rights of people with disabilities within this community. As commonplace in most remote villages, the men and women present were separated not only by proximity but also by different carpets and mats which were laid out on the floor for them. As is a tradition for me whenever I embark on these visits I attempted to speak with the women of the village and try to connect with their stories. On this occasion, the endeavour was complicated by not being able to see into their eyes and their refusal to speak in the presence of men who were not their family members. I knew I had to change this set up in some way and requested to meet solely with the women in an attempt to discuss the activities that entailed their daily lives. Lucky for me, this technique worked and my life was forever changed by the stories they told and the struggles I heard about.
I was completely taken aback at how young the women were who were sitting in front of me. Most had been married at the age of 14 or 15, had their first child at 16 and were permanently disabled at this time due to complexities of child birth and producing children at such a young age within a rural setting. I was interested to learn how many children these women had borne and what proportion of them were girls. The answers were as heartbreaking as they were shocking. It was at this time that the stories of female foeticide and infanticide began pouring out of these women’s mouths. One lady, in a beautiful woven maroon and gold sari spoke through tears of the 2 daughters she had lost as a result of the son preference ritual in this area. Another spoke of how family planning was not a possibility as her husband refused to allow her to stop producing until she had borne him a son. As I sat with these women and listened to their stories, I couldn’t imagine the struggles they went through in an attempt to have a say over their own bodies. Surely this is the most basic human right there is, and yet prior to even reaching adulthood these rights were stripped away from them.
After hours of hearing similar stories from each and every woman present, I wanted to know if our project’s activities had gone any way towards influencing attitudinal change with regards to the plight of women in the village. When I posed the question of what hope these women had for their daughters I didn’t expect the answers I would receive. The women reported that since the project had begun conducting awareness training on rights of the marginalised, the women had managed to stop the practice of child marriage in the community. They had also been successful in lobbying the men of the village to see the importance of educating girls in order to promote more income generating activities for families and households. The women told me of how they hoped that their daughters would become educated and pursue vocations outside of the traditional housewife and mother spectrum.
As I looked into these women’s faces I began to understand what true resilience encapsulates. I saw the determination in their eyes and knew that they would lead the fight for the rights of their daughters, nieces and younger siblings and I walked away with the belief in true sisterhood and what women are capable of achieving when assisted to take charge of their own lives.