The unfair and depressing elements of being a woman in rural India seemed to swallow me whole, spit me out, then penetrate me to the bone. Respect and equality dissolved and disappeared as immediately and effortlessly as they define my life in the US. I felt devoid of power, defeated, and exasperated that in two hours I would leave this world behind unchanged.
I was in Capra village conducting a meeting alongside Pallavi, Rheka, Vikrim, and Durga (ARTH staff) with a group of sixteen married women aged 15-22 to discuss gender norms and how they pertain to their lives. The meeting was part of one of the projects I am working on, which intends to empower women with the knowledge and negotiation skills to make decisions about their fertility. Before coming to India I was well aware of the country’s schizophrenic stance towards family planning, which has oscillated between very coercive measures of forced sterilization in the mid-70’s to the current national policy based on informed choice, as well as the pervasive gender inequity that often renders women servile and powerless. This knowledge, however, did not insulate me from being repeatedly shocked by how difficult it is for Indian women to decide one of the most fundamental essences of life – when to have a child.
We sat in a circle hoping to foster a sense of inclusiveness and promote participation among a group of women who rarely have the opportunity to interact. Like most villages, Chapra is comprised of many different hamlets, which are disbursed throughout the mountains and are accessible only by rocky footpaths. Most of the women had brought one or two children who lay horizontally in the cradle of their mother’s crossed-legs. The women wore traditional Rajasthani garb indicating marriage: vividly colored saris, thick silver anklets, toe rings, sequined bangles, gold or silver dangly earrings wrapping around the top of their ear, bindis, red dye on the scalp, a gold bauble resting at their hairline and large, hoop nose rings. During the meeting, two particular women stood out to me for several reasons. First, they demonstrate the immense societal constraints that undermine a woman’s autonomy and, by extension, reproductive health. Second, they exemplify the fortitude and resilience that I find so inspiring among many Indian women. Third, they confirm the existence of generational shifts in attitudes and expectations that will allow these women to become powerful agents of change within their communities as they age.
Mangi is an 18 year-old girl who had arrived in Chapra two months ago in nata, which is the socially sanctioned term for remarriage. She told us that when her parents learned that her first husband was going to die they immediately tried to arrange a subsequent marriage. Her parents’ settled for a man living in a distant village who was already married and had an eight year-old daughter; that wasn’t good enough, he wanted a second wife to bare him a son. Mangi’s parents tried to force her to leave her home before her first husband died, but she was able to get their approval for her to wait until two months after his death. Perhaps I’m being too cynical, but it is likely that her parents were rushing to secure her second marriage – and completely disregarding her mental state and opinion – so that she was no longer their financial responsibility. Generally, it is difficult to arrange a second marriage because there is a premium on virginity, and families are not inclined to care for children that are not their blood. Within this social context, Mangi was in an optimal position because she had not had any children with her first husband and was relatively young. We used Mangi’s story as an opportunity to talk to the entire group about agency and decision-making. We highlighted the fact that Mangi was not able to make her own decisions about her future, and that it was her parents who dictated what she did without her approval. When we asked the entire group what they thought about Mangi’s situation, the group concluded that it was wrong for her parents to have forced her to remarry against her will. They said that if they have daughters than they will do whatever they can to send them to school so that they have more control over their future. Their commitment to being advocates for their daughters was reassuring and buoyed my spirits.
Hurki is a soft spoken, tiny, 15 year old girl who was married to a man in Chapra when she was thirteen but was not yet in gauna (living at her husband’s family’s home). She was visiting her husband’s family’s home to help them with fieldwork during the harvest season. She shared that she was worried about getting pregnant and felt that she was too young to have a child. However, she was unsure whether her husband and mother-in-law would support her using contraception. When Pallavi asked the other girls if they thought she should have a child, they said that she was too young and that she would “become weak” if she didn’t wait. This was encouraging to hear since we were unsure how women in the villages felt about bearing children: do they think about it as a choice or do they internalize the pressure to give birth immediately and therefore assume that it is their responsibility? We told the women to use these meetings as a space to support each other in navigating challenging situations, and emphasized the importance of using each other as resource persons instead of relying on ARTH for information. When we asked Mangi and her two friends to share their knowledge about contraception with Hurki, their response demonstrated – again – the complex and persistent web of constraints that inhibit women’s reproductive rights: Mangi said that if Hurki’s husband learned that Mangi was the source of information, than he may go to her husband and blame her for being a bad influence on Hurki. Because domestic violence is common in the villages, it would not be surprising if Mangi would be beaten as punishment for her behavior. Obviously we did not want to put any of them in a threatening situation, so Rheka began to explain the different types of contraceptive options. Just as she pulled out a packet of oral pills, Hurki’s mother-in-law popped her head in the door! Fortunately, Rheka was able to conceal the packet before she saw what was going on. After she left, Hurki took the pills saying that she would talk to her husband and mother-in-law about them but would use regardless of whether they granted approval. We planned to follow-up with her in a couple days to hear the verdict of her conversation with her family, and, if requested, counsel her husband on the benefits of contraception.
At that point, I felt like I wanted to simultaneously laugh and cry at the number of factors threatening to derail attempts to give Hurki the information that she wanted and deserved, not to mention that would have huge positive implications on her own health and her future child’s health, and the denial of Mangi’s personhood. Sex and reproduction – typically intimate, personal, and joyous decisions for American women – are often perceived purely as a responsibility in this country. During the bus ride back to Udaipur, I could not shake the visceral feeling of being sucker punched from witnessing the debilitating effect of disempowerment, abuse, and complete lack of agency without being able to retaliate. I needed to center myself and find space from the mental exhaustion of the day, so I did my version of meditation and a bit of yoga on the rooftop of my apartment and then went out to dinner with a friend from work. Taking a pause to clear my head, intentional movement, good company, and satisfying food was a restorative combination – yet the guilt of being able to escape that reality, while no such choice existed for these women lingered unforgivingly.
After this experience, I wanted to read a religious or philosophical text that could give me insight into how Indians mentally approach these challenges. When in India, do as the Indians…. Because Hindus constitute over 80% of the population, I chose the Bagavad Gita, which provides a concise guide to Hindu theology in the form of poetic verse. I learned that one of the primary themes espoused by Lord Krishna was the value of disciplined action (karmayoga) coupled with detachment to results. On one hand, these words frustrate me because I feel like they condone indifference and would lead to in a numb and muted state of existence if I do not care about the effect of my actions. On the other, this idea resonates with me because it reorients me to the present, helping me to find value and purpose in my small feats while acknowledging the factors (generations of women’s disempowerment, caste structure, corruption and self-serving government and civil society, religious influence) that ultimately are beyond my control. For now, I know that I can help a handful of women think about fertility as a choice instead of a requirement, and access the resources for them to act on their choice by their own volition. With this in mind, my personal goal is to focus on acting with purpose and deliberation whenever I can, and learning to let go of the things that I cannot affect. This probably sounds like a platitude, but its has been an important realization for me as I try to reconcile my desire and capacity to make a difference in this complex, contradictory, and disparate environment.
As an aside, I know that it is the nature of blogs to present information and experiences that have left a strong impact – both negative and positive –, and can create the false impression that these fringe experiences are representative of the norm. But, I also hope that I can use this blog as a vehicle for sharing the joys of being in India! So, I’m including a couple videos of my experience at the camel mela in Pushkar this past weekend, which was an unbelievable and surreal experience. We arrived at the mela just as dawn broke and were greeted by a sea of brown-black hued camels undulating over the uneven terrain as far as the horizon. Groups of Rajasthani tradesmen smoked chillums and boiled chai in copper hour-glass shaped pots next to their makeshift tents. These men had distinct and dignified facial features: long noses, bushy, curly handlebar moustaches, dark brown eyes amidst wrinkly creases, and sinewy legs emerging from billows of their white lungis. Many carried ornately carved walking sticks which double as a crop to whack ornery camels. Some camels awkwardly hopped on three legs because their front leg was tied to prevent them from running away, while others sat on their haunches munching dried neme tree leaves from large, plastic sacks. The few women that were present were hard at work collecting camel dung and laying it out to dry to use as fodder for their nighttime fire… I found myself feeling like I was caught in the wake-sleep state, overtaken by a sensation of pure awe at what I can find in the world if I look for it. If you do nothing else, watch the video of the four baby camels bleat/moan (?) for their mother’s milk. It won’t disappoint: [vimeo clip_id=”16855439″] and another video showing more and more camels: [vimeo clip_id=”16855992″]