Monday, March 09, 2015

Agenda for women

Just a few days ago, we organised convocation upon the successful completion of a vocational course for women in the villages of Haryana.
It was sheer joy hearing the beneficiaries of the course recount what they had done since they had become skilled. Each was self-confident and financially almost self-reliant; and in many cases, even supporting the family financially and running the home. Many had put their children in better schools, started small businesses, saved some money, and earned a great deal of confidence.

They recalled how it all started.
They shared with us how they dared to venture out of home, stealthily in most cases. They would switch off their mobile phones so that their husbands did not get to know they had come for training, as one of them narrated. She would tell her husband that the device had run out of battery and there was no way to recharge it, as the village had no electricity.
The same woman said that her husband would not allow her to even leave home, while he himself was posted outside the city, and after his death, the skill of stitching and tailoring that she had learnt now had come to her rescue. She now was the family’s lone breadwinner, sending her two children to school, and looking after her ailing mother-in-law.

Learning to step out

She now runs a small shop to sell designer garments, employs other women, and trains them free of cost. Before this convocation, the students had been asked to present whatever cultural programme they liked. They presented a small skit. They scripted it and acted it out. It showed a family where the daughter was not allowed to step out of the house but told to stick to cooking and cleaning. One day, an NGO worker visits the family and asks the girl how she spends her day.

The girl says she does nothing much. 

The social worker invites her to learn how to stitch, tailor, and design clothes. She says she cannot until her father allows her.

The social worker approaches her father, and sure enough, he declines to give her permission, saying his honour would be hurt if he allowed his daughter to step out of the house. When the social worker goes into the merits of the daughter’s being skilled and ensures her father that no way the family honour would be hurt, he relents. This was based on a true story, but not all stories end this way.
The play was written and enacted by the women of the village. It reveals what is still the general condition, with some emerging exceptions no doubt but few and far between.  It exposes the huge restrictions that girls and many women of today are living under. They are still being held back, even when an opportunity to learn is next door. Imagine how it must be when the opportunities are far.

The most harmless domestic animal

What do we do? How can India moves forward fast enough, if fathers, husbands and brothers continue to be so closed-minded, insecure, and selfish? It hurts me to see girls held back in 2015 only because of gender, place and lack of opportunities; opportunities that many of us got decades ago.
I am reminded of a story I read long ago. Titled “The Most Harmless Domestic Animal”, here’s how it goes in the words of a daughter: “When I breathed for the first time, you told my father: ‘Start saving, it’s a girl.’ At 5, you told me, learn to read and write, so that a boy will come for you. At 10, you told me: ‘Save yourself, you are a girl.’ At 15, you told me stay home, learn to cook, wash, and remain silent and obedient. At 20, you told me don’t come back to us. Years went on and I kept my promise, nobody ever had a complaint. I was the most harmless domestic animal man ever had in history.”

Collective effort required

Girls are products of home and school. Both nurture her. What if she is deprived of these, of if none lays the foundation for her growth?
We have a duty, each one of us here, to make individual and collective effort to give our new generation of girls easy, secure and assured access to opportunities for a robust India. We need to create measurable systems where the local administration with the help of people’s representatives takes on the challenge to address these social issues at every level starting from panchayat, to reach out through dialogue. Credible NGOs at the grassroots, working with women in rural areas, need to be co-opted. Only then will I say that our India is inclusive society, the India of our dreams