Who are the women redefining womanhood in India?
Gita would be in her mid-50s, she is a mother to a married son and a married daughter and she is also a grandmother to her daughter’s sons. She has been working as a maid in our house for the last 14 years. From the village, where she lives, it takes her an hour-long train ride to reach the city of Kolkata, and then she walks for 20 minutes to reach our home. She usually wakes up at 5am, cooks, cleans, although now she is helped in her household chores by her daughter-in-law, who married and came to their home when she was not even 18.
Then Gita leaves home at 7am for the railway station, once again traversing the distance on foot because she prefers to save the Rs-10 she would have to pay as auto-rickshaw fare every day.
Her son, who is working as a photographer clicking photos at weddings and special occasions, earns enough to run their family of four – Gita and her husband, her son and his wife – and often insists that his mom should retire. But Gita doesn’t want to.
“What I earn gives me financial freedom. If I want to buy my own slippers or buy gifts for my daughter’s children I don’t have to ask money from my son. I would prefer to keep working till my health permits,” she said.
These are indeed wise words for someone who has never gone to school and cannot even write her own name. But Gita stands at the helm of a silent social revolution that has been slowly happening in India but often misses the media spotlight.
They are asserting themselves
From Indira Gandhi to Indra Nooyi to Kiran Bedi, Indian women have time and again proved their capabilities not only within the country but also in the international sphere.
Few Indian women still continue to hog the limelight for their unbelievable achievements. Sanjukta Parasher is one of them.
Assam’s most fearless IPS officer and Superintendent of Police in the Sonitpur district, Parashar is instilling fear among the Bodo militants and has become a role model for young India.
NL Beno Zephine, a 25-year old woman from Tamil Nadu, created history last week by becoming the country’s first 100 percent visually challenged Indian Foreign Services (IFS) officer. She will join the government after three months training.
While Sanjukta’s and Zephine’s feats need to be lauded and emulated, what I find more encouraging is that women with limited resources living in remote villages are trying their best to assert themselves. They are making decisions, changing their own lives and trying to make an impact.
A spate of rapes and abductions were reported recently while women went to defecate in open spaces. This led to international media highlighting this issue and Indian government is trying its level best to build toilets in as many homes as possible through the Swachh Bharat Mission.
But long before this issue started being discussed at public forums, Kalavati Devi, a 50-year-old mason, mobilized her entire village in Uttar Pradesh, collected funds and, with the help of a nongovernment organization (NGO), built toilets in every home in her village. She was a child bride and never got any education but she wanted to make a difference. She learnt masonry and still works for long hours at various projects.
In an interview to The Better India, she said: “It gives me immense satisfaction to build toilets because this way I have not only ensured a clean environment and good health but also saved women and girls from sexual predators.”
Reesa Maurya, another woman from a village in Uttar Pradesh, wanted a toilet in her own home and joined a training program with a NGO. She was so motivated by the program that she ended up building 25 toilets in her entire village.
Change in mindset
Bobby Chakraborty, a Kolkata-based actor who runs an anti-addiction campaign in schools, often travels to schools in rural India. On one such campaign, he met Sushmita Mondal, a grade 9 student. She is good at studies but at that point was under immense pressure from her parents to get married and leave her studies.
Bobby said: “I approached the teachers in the school who convinced her parents and she is pursuing her studies. What is commendable is she had the good sense to ask for help, earlier girls used to succumb to parental and social pressure.”
Lakshmi Sargara was married when she was a year old to a 3-year-old groom in a village in Rajasthan. When she turned 18, her in-laws came to take her to their home but she ran away to her brother’s place in Jodhpur. She and her brother approached a social activist, who in turn put them on to a lawyer who helped her obtain an annulment certificate for her marriage because child marriages are illegal in India.
Lakshmi’s feat was the first of its kind in India but the step she took gave hope to countless child brides who continue to suffer in marriages as they are often robbed off their childhood.
Sunil Jaglan, the head of Bibipur village in Haryana, who is a graduate in Mathematics and has dedicated his life to making his village a better place, has recently started ‘Selfie with daughter’ campaign to spread awareness that a girl is as beautiful and coveted to her parents as a boy is.
Parents have been asked to send in selfies from all over the state of Haryana, which has the most skewed sex ratio, and after judging the contest the first three winners will be given Rs 2,100 each as prize money.
While Jaglan’s WhatsApp is constantly pinging with happy selfies sent to him as entries, his initiative is a small step forward to reinforce the importance of the girl child in Indian society.
Long before tech-savvy Jaglan decided to put the selfie craze to good use and anyone had heard of the smart phone, Piplantari village in Rajasthan was making a huge difference in the life of a girl child. It practises eco-feminism by planting 111 trees every time a girl child is born. The villagers also collect money for her, deposit it for a fixed period of 20 years and make her parents sign a bond saying she would be sent to school and not married off before the legal age of 18.
Thoughtful initiatives and the will to make a difference are indeed making a difference in the way womanhood is perceived in India.
Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com
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