Women and the Environment

For the AIF Midpoint Thematic Conference, my co-fellows and I visited Jagori Grameen in Himachal Pradesh. Jagori is a feminist organization that works to build gender equality and support environmentally sustainable livelihoods. My co-fellow Priya Charry wrote an awesome blog with illustrations that take me back to our visit. Charting its history, Jagori writes the following:

The challenge was taking feminist consciousness to rural areas, making activism and theory come close to each other, and how to work creatively, reaching out to the main constituency, women, majority of whom were not educated. New communication tools were developed, such as feminist songs, which are still central to JAGORI’s work. (Jagori, n.d.)

On our first day, the staff started our morning session with a song that I recorded on my phone and replayed for a while after I got back to my host site.

Caption: Song sung by Jagori staff during our visit in January 2018, for your listening pleasure. Recording by AIF

I first downloaded the recorder app for focus groups conducted for a previous job. I remembered that I had it when I went to rural, northwest Cameroon with Engineers Without Borders in 2016. While there, I had asked our health facilitator to teach me a song that she had sung the night before with a drum accompaniment by a 9-year girl. The voice recorder came in handy again on this trip to Dharamshala. Somehow, I felt more comfortable recording what I heard in this 3-day visit than I did back at my host site, perhaps because I had my co-fellows with me to share the experience. Indeed, we sang ‘Lean on Me’ as our offering during our meeting with the swasti sakhis, or women health educators from Kangra district.

Caption: ‘Lean on Me,’ the tail-end, AIF fellows in Himachal Pradesh. Recording by AIF

The sakhis told us about their outreach with women, men and young people in the community and at health care centers on reproductive health. They traveled by bus where possible, but often they needed to get to villages on foot. They also started the session with a song. Listening to it now, the melody and the voice of one of the women reminds me of one of Bhasha’s Vasantshala teachers. The melody sounds complex enough to have an instrumental accompaniment.

Caption: Song sung by Jagori swasti sakhis, or health educators. Recording by AIF

With Aware Girl’s Action for Justice (AGAJ), we had the chance to meet ‘girls collective’ organizers, and girls in upper primary and secondary schools who were participating from Kangra district. We played a relay race where we passed a cup between our legs and competed in two lines. The game was meant to dispel a sense of shame about one’s body. The girls were competitive and I got wrapped up in the spirit of moving quickly, though I felt clumsy at first. My co-fellows and I asked questions like what they wanted to do after finishing school, and what they thought of marriage. Several wanted to work in the civil service or as police officers. It was taken as a given that they would finish school. One of the girls said that she was not interested in marriage, a feeling I could identify with in high school. After the Q&A, which the girls handled calmly and with confidence, given how personal our questions were, they sang Hindi songs and a Justin Bieber song. To conclude, one of their parents hooked up someone’s phone to speakers propped on a chair, and we had a small dance party.

During our visit with farmers participating in the Sustainable Agriculture, Forest and Land (SAFAL) program, the farmers talked with us about attending workshops to learn about new farming practices. They were trying out organic farming and diversifying their crops for both improved land use, and market share. I asked whether young people would be motivated to pursue farming as a career, since it’s hard work and subject to factors outside their control. One of the farmers, a man with gray hair and a lined face, said that one needs himmat (courage). This brought appreciative laughter and applause from the group.

Kangra district, SAFAL visit
Landscape in Kangra district, SAFAL visit

I wondered, is it courage, a liking for outdoor work and living, or not having a choice? Maybe more than one. The farmers said that they liked being able to produce their own food and sustain their families independently. I asked what the women farmers in the group would be doing if they weren’t farming. Several said that they would be darjee (tailors).

I was reminded of these interactions in June. In Gujarat, my coworkers and I took a trip to a mandir at the borders between Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, off the Narmada river (re-reouted by the Sardar Sarovar Dam). The crossings were narrow but dry since the monsoons hadn’t started yet. We then made our way to Mogra, a village about 10 km away. Two of Vasantshala’s students from the previous year lived in a house up a hill, and we were going to have dinner (and egg stew!) before going back to Tejgadh. I had visited Mogra before, and I loved the sloping hills that became blue in the distance. After greeting the two boys and their parents, we wandered outside. One of the boys led his English teachers to a tall hill that could be seen from the backyard. After some time, a girl I had seen helping the boys’ mother came outside, and she showed us the outline of three very tiny figures who had made it the top of the tallest hill. She had a long braid and resembled the boys, though she was shorter. I asked her what her name was and whether she was the boys’ sister. She smiled and said her name was Manisha, and yes, she was their sister. She could sense what I was thinking, and she asked me whether I wanted to go to that hill. I said yes excitedly.

She let her mother know and pulled on her sandals. We scaled down the hill of their house and made it to the road. She stopped me from slipping a few times. We eventually turned right until we reached a pathway that passed a few lower hills, turned steeply up one hill and then another. At this point, I was either crawling or holding her hand with a sweaty palm. I couldn’t understand how she was able to make her way so quickly and without a single stumble. It was like she was made from air.

Eventually, we made it to the top. I communicated using my limited Hindi and broken Gujarati. We peered out to her house, which I could barely see from here. She asked me how I liked the view from the top, and all I could manage was ‘khub saras che!’ (it’s so great!). I could tell she was proud of this hill, the other hills, and the land that made up her town. While we were up there, she pointed out which hills were part of Mogra, and the neighboring villages. She asked whether I wanted to take a picture and shook her head when I said, sheepishly, that I’d forgotten my phone. The air was cool and the wind was strong. It was an awesome respite from the intense heat of Tejgadh. On the way down, we took a zigzag path that was a little less steep, though I did eventually take off my chappals (sandals) as she suggested. I asked her how old she was, and whether she was in school. She was 17. She had taken the 10th grade exams two years in a row, but had failed. Something in the way she said it, I took to mean that she wasn’t going to try again. I wanted to know what she wanted to do next, but I wasn’t sure how to ask. She asked me how old I was and was surprised when I said 32. I confirmed that I was married, and didn’t have kids. Every time we reached a new sloped decline, she would ask if I thought I could walk it and I would say “I don’t know….” in English, without thinking. She wanted to know what this meant. She repeated after me, but had trouble with the ‘d’t’ sound in don’t. She taught me a phrase in Gujarati, but I don’t remember it now.

On the way back, she went to a neighbor’s house and pulled a sprig of bright pink flowers from a tree and gave them to me. We passed by a group of girls who looked about her age, stopped for water at their house, and made it back to her home. My coworkers were sitting on a cot outside and I joined them. I asked her to sit with us a few times, but she held back. We sat on the cot chatting for a while, and I saw her shooing away the goats, carrying baskets and buckets, and going in and out of the house to help prepare dinner. It was only then that I noticed that there were crops surrounding their home. She was probably going to work on those fields when her brothers went back to school (one would return to Vasantshala, the other had enrolled in school in Mogra). I could sense that she felt at home in this landscape. But what did her choices look like? Did she want to work on the land? Was she going to marry young? Would she want that? Or would she have more say with her family?

When we ate dinner, the only women who ate with the men were myself and one of the English teachers, a volunteer from a German organization. The other women Vasantshala teachers had helped prepare the meal, as did Manisha, and they were on serving duty. I felt bad for doing nothing to help, though it didn’t stop me from taking second rounds of the delicious egg stew and dhal, wondering in the back of my mind if the other women would get enough food. I hoped so. I later asked the teachers if they had eaten and gotten enough. As we prepared to leave, I went back to say goodbye to Manisha, not sure if she would feel the same sense of friendship as I had felt. Her brother Atul had taken my flowers, and their mother told him they were for me. He handed them back to me, and we laughed. I told Manisha I hoped I would see her again and that I really enjoyed going up the hill together, though I said it all in English. She said goodbye, and I could tell she enjoyed the trek too, which made me feel warmed. Her mother smiled at the both of us, in a scene that reminded me irresistibly of leaving her house after having taken her on a date. Though really, she had taken me. I would miss her.

Thinking back to Jagori’s work, I wondered what Manisha would have thought if she had been at our gathering with the girls from AGAJ. I thought she probably would have known (or liked?) many of the songs, but her command of English was not the same as theirs, even after having made it to 10th grade. And she had so many responsibilities at home. What will “feminist consciousness” look like in her life? I am hopeful that she will build on her almost other-worldly attachment with the hills in Mogra. But I wish I knew what else she dreamed for. And I wish I could help her on that path. Though, perhaps she will get there without too many stumbles anyway.

Works Cited:

Jagori. N.d. “Our History.” Retrieved July 13, 2018 at: http://www.jagori.org/our-history.

Lina is excited to join Bhasha in its efforts to advance the goals of tribal communities, including helping educate kids in a nurturing environment and prepare them for a bright future. She is looking forward to meeting children, parents, and everyone else in her community, and using her limited Bengali to begin learning other Indian languages. Prior to the fellowship, Lina assessed federal programs in international trade, security, and environmental restoration for the Government Accountability Office, and supported monitoring and evaluation of democracy assistance programs for the National Democratic Institute. She has also volunteered with kids education programs in Washington, DC and with a water pipeline project with Engineers Without Borders in Cameroon.

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