Women’s empowerment, a term which is widely used in urbanised India, is still a word unknown to its rural counterparts. While we are fighting for equal rights, the women in rural India go through physical, mental and emotional stress each day.
It was my first day in a village of Champawat in the district Uttarakhand. I saw a group of men in the main market area, gathered around to play cards. I thought it was a thing that men did in the morning, a community activity of sorts. I spent the later part of the day visiting households to talk to the villagers and understand their lifestyle. Everywhere I went, I saw women busy in some task or the other. Either they would be performing a domestic chore, tending to their cattle or working in their fields. It was a rare sight to see women resting or sitting in their porch sipping tea. On the other hand, men seemed to be at leisure almost all day. While returning to the market in the evening, I saw the same group of men with a few additions, still playing cards. It was shocking to see able bodied men, wasting their time and not doing anything productive.
Slowly, as my interaction with the villagers increased, the women shared their woes. “Men here only plough the field and do labour work occasionally. Most of the times, the men have no work; they gather and play cards or carrom. They drink in the evening, and if we try to stop them, we face verbal or physical abuse”, said a 30-something woman who lived in one of the interior villages.
A demanding daily schedule
Most of the women in these villages have not travelled beyond their districts, a major reason being their responsibilities towards their family. They have a rather energy consuming schedule, they continuously work from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. They walk a minimum of 15 km a day with a load on their shoulders or heads. They are both physically and mentally at work, all their life.
When I asked a woman about her daily schedule, she explained her life in a few sentences. “We wake up at 5 a.m., walk for a kilometre or more downhill to fetch water, carry two to three buckets of water back home, milk our cows, prepare food, ensure our kids are ready for school, walk to the forest and carry fuel and fodder on our shoulder or head, cook lunch, give food to our cows, and do some washing of clothes or spreading of cow dung in the house, work in the fields, milk the cows in the evening, fetch water again and cook dinner.” She said all this in almost one breath, finally mentioning that the number of activities depends on seasons too.
The ample amount of work has often taken a toll on the health of the women here. Be it a 14-year-old or a 60-year-old, women are often seen carrying heaps of wood on their heads or carrying hundreds of litres of water, however taxing it is.
Improper nutrition, ill health
The families in the villages have reduced their farming activities due to water scarcity and climatic conditions. This has brought a severe change in their eating habits. Nutrition rich local food like mundhwa (millets) and dal have been replaced by wheat and rice. Because of low financial resources, women in these families tend to eat the least.
“I eat after the family does”, says Gita, mother of two, who has symptoms of anaemia, but is neglecting it. All she cooked for the day was rice and dal, whatever is leftover after the family of five has eaten, will be her food.
Because of government interventions, a few families have chickens and goats, which sometimes fulfil their protein requirements. The children in most of the villages get their afternoon meals in the schools, but women have no source of nutrition at all. As per a general survey conducted in the villages, one in ten women fall or meet with an accident while carrying fodder and fuel from the jungles. These falls result in serious injuries, sometimes they are even fatal.
Yes, there is a cooking gas subsidy, but women still cook on chullahs, causing respiratory problems. Even if there is gas connection in the house, it is not used regularly as the gas filling station is 20 km away. These practical problems cause an adverse impact on the health of women using the chullah twice a day.
My mother said that she was born in a house and not a hospital, but that was 50 years ago. Shockingly, the villages haven’t improved much in the last 50 years; here too, the women give birth in houses. There is no pre or post natal care, causing most of the children to be under weight and mothers to fall sick. Despite all these health problems, women in the villages continue living like everything is normal. It is only I, visiting from the city, who skips a beat when I see a pregnant woman carrying buckets of water uphill.
“Women can only do house work, these days they are getting influenced by the culture in the plains, but we won’t let our women wear jeans and work,” said a 40-something man in an awareness meeting we had held. I thought the jeans comment was a dig at us, but this statement showed how very little freedom is given to women in these villages.
Despite performing 80 percent of the tasks, women here believe that they are only good for carrying fuel and fodder. The amount of self-confidence they have is not even enough for them to stand for their basic rights. Women here are deprived of owning property, they only maintain the fields which are owned by their fathers or husbands.
Another reason for the low self-esteem is their lack of education. Though the newer generations are struggling to complete graduation, they are yet not able to take their decisions out of free will. “I used to make paper flowers and sell them to earn some money for myself when I lived with my parents. After marriage, it is difficult to convince my folks to let me go to the market alone. The men here often doubt their wives, there are brawls because they think their wife is interested in another man. No work does this to their minds. I feel like I am tied down”, added a woman. I could see her eyes filled with disappointment. Even after all these problems, women do not come together to fight for their freedom, they think independent thinking is not for them.
Menstruation, a taboo or a saviour?
Not entering the kitchen, not going near the water sources, and not touching anyone else in the family – these are a few practices followed when women are in their monthly cycles. They do use cloth pads and are aware of maintaining hygiene during those days, but they ardently follow the taboos which are attached to the regular monthly cycle of a woman.
“This is what gives us a rest for at least four days in a month”, said Deepa, who was sitting in a corner knitting a sweater for her two-year-old. She was resting; after a month, she had got a break for four days. At this point, I wondered if we should fight against these taboos. Were these rules set for women to give them a break from their otherwise arduous life?
A silver lining
“Things are changing”, Masri amma told me once. She said that she was married at the age of 12, but now villagers are aware that girls should be educated first. I met a woman named Priyanka, whose husband forced her to complete her education, learn to operate computers and ride a moped. All this is very rare in this part of the district. But such examples are a hope that through right education and awareness, the condition of women in Chamapawat would get better.