A Woman's Worth
On average, men in India urinate six times a day, whereas women in India urinate only twice. If both men and women are supposedly both born free and equal, barring a ‘Y’ factor, one would wonder what produced such a vast difference. It’s the same reason women traditionally have not been allowed to run, laugh out loud or answer back in public. It’s because women, from a young age have been told that their needs are not a priority and that their bodies should be hidden to control sexuality. Through generations of discrimination, persecution, and neglect, this has resulted in the size of a woman’s bladder actually increasing, to reduce the need to pass urine. Gender inequality has become so entrenched in Indian society that it has led to the physical devolution of women.
Right now, I am at the core of it. Through steadily building relationships I have been able to understand and develop love and passion for these women. As an insider, I live and breathe them, I am them. But then as an outsider I anxiously sit on their beautifully hand-crafted bamboo mats and observe how they run hastily around their houses, cooking, cleaning, washing, sweating, panicking- they work endlessly. And then the husband comes home. Tired from his hard day of labour, he expects to be waited and served. The women dutifully oblige. The husband eats, he leaves his dirty dishes behind and lays down to rest- the women continue. Just as Amartya Sen notably once claimed ‘100 million women are missing’, I begin to wonder what would happen if all these women disappeared. In both the visible and invisible economy, what is the opportunity cost of not placing value on a woman’s worth?
In meeting these women, I’ve got the introductions and initial interrogations down to a tee. “I am from London, parents from Kolkata, unmarried, come here for Seva, two sisters, I am the middle child; Yes, two sisters, do you want to hear about them…No, no brothers, really no brothers.” The women gasp with sorrow and fear, unable to fathom what will become of my poor father who will have to fend for his three helpless daughters. I assure them “Yes really, no brothers- but my father is happy”. Abolished in 1961, the dowry system is still very much alive and burdening the lives of rural families. The women tell me the going rate- minus one and half lakhs plus cars, motorbikes, gold, jewels- this is the community devalue of a woman. They eagerly explain the negative correlation between a woman’s education and the demand price. I subtly question their practice, their system, and their beliefs. The women don’t even think about it. They reply “Niaum” nonchalantly – and avert southward; “it’s just the culture we were born in to”- I begin to realise the challenge I have walked into.
Born second place into this world, they have succumbed to their socio-economic restrictions that as a woman- their aim in life is to earn their worth- to act as a submissive wife, an obedient daughter and a sacrificing mother. After analysing the obstacle carefully, my mind often falters. Microfinance and education as a means, but what’s the end? To continue this circle of entrapment? At what point does cultural sensitivity breach the benchmark of basic human entitlements? India’s home grown ‘self help group’ model remains at the heart of this. India boasts this to be the largest community based microfinance model in the world- but this in itself has caused many limitations. So long as its’ focus remains solely as a poor persons tool to access finance (whilst the rich bathe in interest rate proceeds) then women will continue to be treated as a commodity rather than as human beings. Through this fashion, generations of women are being used and abused as an instrument for economic gain, but will India ever question the social, cultural and political cost? In this patriarchal society- does anyone care? I am angry, hurt and upset. The issue seems mountainous beyond belief and I am beginning to question my own worth- six months into my project and I am panicked, I think about sustainability and I think about what true value I can add to this community. How can I supposedly lead via feministic empowerment without causing a raucous? How do I melange my frustrations with the delicacy that are these women’s livelihoods? My friend Subasree tells me a story:-
Fifteen years ago she came across a large audience in the heart of the city of Bhubaneswar. They were watching a man openly torture his sister in the street. He stripped her naked and made her dance in front of the two hundred male dominated crowd. He beat her, whipped her neck, her back, her stomach and shouted insults into her bleeding ears. Then he made her walk on her knees for two kilometres, through a pool of her own blood. The women died four days later. Subasree was only ten at the time. Fifteen years later, she still wonders why during that incident not a single person jumped in to help. As cowardly bystanders, they stood timidly most probably waiting for the next person, like a pathetic game of dominoes. That woman’s life became an addition to these 100 million missing women. That day, the community had no value for her life, her respect, her worth, her dignity. We shared a silent moment in her name; we shed a few tender tears. Subasree now dedicates her life to working to uplift the self efficacy of Indian women. The death of this woman has sparked the value chain of hope and life for many others born into the same world.
I suddenly feel revived. I remember why I am here, why Indicorps places so much emphasis on leadership, on community, on perseverance. Women’s empowerment lays open a world of possibilities and interpretations. But it is only through engaging directly with these women can I truly understand and assist their scope and plight to freedom and justice. No one has found that magical solution to changing a mindset of a society, but if I remain a bystander than this may one day lead to a new world crisis. Not the opportunity costs of the disparity between rich and poor, but rather between men and women. In a world plagued with gender genocide, I wonder what the current system would evolve into. What becomes of a society where a woman’s earning power is in parity to men but they still remain socially and culturally paralysed?
There is hope. The older women of these villages tell me how they were once married off at the tender age of seven. Through inter-generations the age bracket has increased two fold, where adolescent girls of today marry around twenty one. Through outside exposure, they have learnt to practice purdah through choice rather than force. Through self elected community federations, women are slowly coming together and chain linking their rights to access at national level. It’s a clear signal, that development is the product of understanding, space and time. It’s a clear signal that change can happen, but it’s a gradual awakening. With development, there is no ending- but as a social agent working in this society, I see it as my role to help carefully carve out it’s pathway to enlightenment.
Then there’s me. A young educated Indian women roaming through the village streets with confidence, independence and purpose. The women view me as a mysterious anomaly, but value my presence. It is in sensitizing my story that I hope to inspire them to consider their own and others around them. To build a community driven by women leaders, based on the values of courage and self worth. I strive to sow the seeds of hope that one day may lead to women running and laughing openly through these beautiful golden fields of Orissa, where they have the fearlessness to stand up and take action against oppression and torture in any capacity. Where women value having sisters as much as I do. Where women earn and access their own income, where they pursue their property rights. Where women can urinate without limit or boundary. When women are no longer a mere commodity. When even the consideration of a woman’s worth, becomes well and truly- worthless.
I don’t have a solution to address this power imbalance, not even a clear direction. Admittedly, gender inequality remains a world-wide problem, which requires world-wide attention. But I do have a vision and that combined with determination is enough to spark any dying engine. What I do from here onwards may or may not work, but I’ve realised that the success of it will always be defined by my own measures. And I will be proud that I tried. The Indicorps fellowship is about testing boundaries, strengthening beliefs, to play with fear and to overcome challenge. I’m walking into a realm of unknown, but I’m excited to be doing it.