The snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas in the backdrop, winding roads bordered by tall fern trees with a narrow stream flowing alongside- seems like a picture straight out of a postcard, isn’t it? This was the first view of Dharamshala that I captured as I set out to the city from the Kangra Airport. However, the experiences that unraveled over the days to come made Dharamshala much more than a scenic city nestled amidst the breath-taking beauty of Himachal Pradesh. Covered in multiple layers of jackets, sipping numerous cups of teas; I learnt from Jagori Rural Charitable Trust that transforming ideologies and driving impact need not span across generations.
Situated at the bottom of the hills of Dharamshala, Jagori works towards improving livelihood of the locals and advocates for gender rights. While the urban areas of India are gradually acknowledging the rights of women, the rural hinterlands of the nation are still rift with patriarchy and gender discrimination. Domestic violence, female infanticide, dowry, marital rape, despite their inhuman nature, are still practiced across the country.
How can such deeply-ingrained ideologies be changed for the better? How can societies be transformed to question century-old practices? Do such changes take generations or can they be witnessed over decades or even years? These were some of the questions I had as I observed the work being done by Jagori. And the further I interacted with the community, the answers I found were far more surprising that I had anticipated.
Matching Men: Muscle to Muscle
Baking chapathis on a chulha, brooming the house, peeling vegetables, getting the kids ready for school- a woman in a rural household is known to be confined within the four walls of her house, juggling all these tasks to perfection. Not here! Rather here was a group of women with spades in their hand, digging away in the scorching sun! As we sat on plastic mats laid out on a ground that was now the dry bottom of a pond, a large group of woman from the area shared with us their motivation and what brought them to work everyday. Under the MNREGA (100-day wage) scheme, they were employed by the government for construction work and earned an hourly wage. From completing their household chores to taking care of their children to earning some extra cash, these women seemed to have more than 24 hours in their day! What struck me most was not the strength that these women were exhibiting, but also the sense of identity they seemed to possess. The extra cash they saved up from their work armed them with a feeling of independence. “We no longer have to rely on our husbands for our everyday needs”, one of them quipped. “Do you hand over your earnings to your husband?”, I inquisitively asked. “Of course not!”, pat came the reply and a round of giggles followed.
Talking periods: Taking the shame out of menstruation
“What were you taught about periods?” asked the Jagori official. The question drew a shy, lowered gaze from a group of adolescent girls that it was addressed to. The fact that the supervisor was a male further did not help in eliciting a reply from them. They looked down or sideways, trying to avoid eye contact lest they be picked to answer. A woman standing away from the group encouraged them, “C’mon! Tell them what you learnt!”. A couple of minutes of cajoling later, one of them mustered the strength to reply- “We should use pads when menstruating. Even if one uses cloth, they should make sure to dry it in the sun post washing the cloth to ensure that all the germs are killed”. Encouraged by the response, another girl chimed in, adding a couple of other health-related tips she had been taught in the last Jagori session on health and hygiene.
The atmosphere was now a lot more open and engaged. “Do you talk about your periods with your brothers?”, one of us asked. “No!”, came a shy reply from one of them. “Why?”, a co-fellow asked which was followed by an awkward exchange of glances.
What followed was a discussion on the stigma attached to broaching the topic of menstruation. Why were they embarrassed to discuss such a natural process? What led to the feeling of shame often associated with menstruation?
When asked about their ambitions in life, we received an impressive set of replies. While one wanted to become an IPS officer, another aspired to be a doctor. Recently having entered their teens, they were riding on the social media hype, being active users of the social networking platforms. Their awareness of the world around them and their lofty aspirations was evidence of the pivotal role that education can play in molding young minds to dream and explore beyond the limits imposed by society.
Going back to our roots: Moving towards greener and healthier agriculture
“What is the greatest problem you face as a farmer today?”, asked my friend to a group of farmers in the Kangra district. Erratic monsoons, fluctuating markets, rising debts, dominance of large farmers – I was sure the answer would be one of these. Instead, one of them replied, “Our children don’t wish to take care of our fields. All they want is to get educated and work in the cities. Pursuing agriculture as a profession is an option no one considers anymore! Who is going to take care of our lands after we die?!”
We were sitting with a group of fifteen farmers, listening to their journey of transitioning to organic agriculture after decades of following the ‘green revolution’ model. They spoke of how Jagori had helped them realize over the years that more of everything was not always the best option. And hence they had made a conscious choice of reducing their fertilizer usage, using natural seeds over their genetically modified variety and most importantly, choosing a smaller, healthier yield over a bountiful but less nutritious harvest. Such choices were not only difficult initially but also risky, knowing that their land had grown using chemical pesticides, and fertilizers and demanded them. But the perseverance seemed to have indeed payed off, evident as we toured hectares of lands boasting of a healthy yield of wheat, maize, potatoes, cauliflowers and broccoli.