The exact halfway point of my fellowship was symbolically reached as I turned 25, my silver jubilee, a noteworthy temporal landmark and one that I had always envisioned would be accompanied by:
Celebration ✔ Biking around Fatesaghar lake Swimming on a rooftop pool at a Haveli once inhabited by Rajput royalty.
Friends and family ✔
My sister and dear friend were both with me
Delicious food ✔ Eating my favorite chaat AND ice for the first time in six months
A job grounded in purpose and meaning and bona fides to boot ✖/✔ Working on it…
This occasion gave me pause, an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve been doing and accomplished over the past six months.
The program which I am helping to develop and (trying) to implement is predicated on two assumptions: 1) decision-making is empowering and 2) expanding women’s knowledge and skills will enable them to be proactive about meeting their needs, particularly in terms of choosing when and how often to have children. This is not a novel idea. Similar projects have been implemented all over the world, particularly recently as it has become widely recognized that investing in girls’ empowerment generates far-reaching and powerful returns to family health and prosperity. However, in this area, it is absolutely groundbreaking for women to be encouraged to assert themselves even in the most basic ways.
For example, we recently met for the seventh time with the same group of women aged (15-24) from a village 25 kilometers outside of Udaipur. To start of the session, we played a simple energizer game called Jalebe to set a comfortable, casual, and playful tone. We explained the directions to the nine women sitting cross-legged in a circle: the first person says one, the second person says two, and the third person says Jalebe (a bright-orange, fried, funnel cake-like dessert). It took five rounds before everyone successfully said a word. Initially, many were too shy to say anything; when it became their turn came, they giggled and hid their face behind the thin veil of their sari. I certainly wasn’t the most vocal 20 year old, but the intensity of their timidity was sobering. If women are uncomfortable saying one word in a game played with women they know well, how are they going to be able to stand up to their husbands who refuse to use condoms because they can’t be bothered with the messiness, think they are dirty, or believe that using them means that their wives are cheating on them? In this context, the role of a wife is largely defined by the needs of her husband, so how can we facilitate them questioning those norms and no longer considering their needs as dispensable. These are our challenges.
There have been periods during these past six months that I have felt that these challenges are insurmountable. Fortunately, these have been fleeting moments. My hope has been restored through simple yet powerful demonstrations of women taking control. For example, at the end of this session, we asked a quiet woman, wrapped in a burgundy sari, whom we had never seen before why she had attended. Kamla explained that her sister-in-law had come to some of the initial meetings and told her mother that she learned useful information about her health. She explained that she had come to the meeting because she wanted to learn about what happened to your body when you had sex and how to take care of children. We learned from her that she was already seven months pregnant but didn’t want to have a child. She said that she didn’t understand what happened during sex (and therefore how to protect against pregnancy), so she didn’t think to tell anyone that she had missed her period for five consecutive months. At that point, it was too late for her to get an abortion. Kamla is fifteen.
Although I’m not sure I would have predicted that at 25 I would be in India spending my time thinking of ways to get women to say Jalebe and ask questions about how a Copper-T works, I’m not too surprised. I feel an unwavering sense of clarity that I would not want to be doing anything else, regardless of the moments of desperation, shock, and powerlessness. A wise friend of mine has given herself the manta, “trust the process” as guidance for 2011. I am adopting this approach for my 25th year of life, with this experience as my first and very worthy test. Women like Kamla demonstrate that the process of women learning to make decisions around fertility and health has begun, and I trust that it will continue.