When a woman presses her way into the bazaar in the textile city of Ahmedabad, she alternately smiles and glowers. Redesigned used garments are piled on her head, and she smiles at prospective customers, advertising her inventory. But whenever a bazaar hoodlum crosses her path, symbolising the obstructions she has faced in the past as an unaided poor working woman, she glowers. The last decades have flung some slender, but serviceable bridges to women in India to begin the journey from a limited unfulfilled existence to a life of purpose and dignity. And this woman is on the bridge.
Women in India themselves have chiselled the tools that are now heaving them out of the inner spaces of society where they were confined. Their strength has found expression in the exploding grid of women’s organisations. The stirrings of strength have arisen from the deep country, from mud-walled huts, from exhausted fields, from steep hillsides, from cratered valleys. Women in India have responded to the combined pressures of depleting resources, modernisation, inflation and acted ‘spontaneously’ to seek stable income and some dignity. An infinitesimal percentage has succeeded, ruled as Prime Minister, climbed Everest. But the beginning is substantial.
Shift scene. A young tribal woman in Bihar’s central plateau. The Grand Trunk railway line has changed her life. Twice a week, she and other women in India board a second-class compartment, often ticketless, with an assortment of forest products – twigs for cleaning teeth, fuelwood, leaf plates. Eager customers on the train and platform purchase their wares. The train travels to major cities in the green Ganges basin, where the women buy salt, lentils, kerosene, soap, readymade garments, nylon ribbons and travel back on the homeward journey two nights after they had left the village. The trip means money, essential goods and freedom. As Women in India are more adept at sales, the men stay behind in the village. Women are on the move.
In distant Kerala, the southern State famous for its indices of high female literacy and low population growth, a woman farms her one-fifth hectare plot in the Periyar river catchment in the multi-cropping mode. Dadap trees fringe the plot, and around their trunks are twined black pepper vines. Coffee bushes thrive in the shade, and in turn provide a canopy to cardamom plants. A few rubber trees stand gashed for the daily collection of latex. Until a few years ago, the woman helped her husband with paddy cultivation on this plot. Then he left for the Gulf, and she turned to ecologically balanced plantation crops. Now her land has a mosaic of agricultural activities at any time of the year, and her cash income has trebled.
In nearby Andhra Pradesh, a woman’s throat dries in the hot winds that scoop fine soil from the family’s one-hectare field. Here, as in well over half of the cropped area in the country, dryland conditions impose a stark lifestyle on farming households such as hers. For three months in the year, the family scrapes the scalped land for a poor foodgrains crop, defenceless against drought years. During the other months, the men might migrate to construction sites or cities for work, and women stay behind to coax a living out of animals, poultry, petty trade. Yet a revolution is underfoot and dryland women farmers will be at its pulsating core. The Government’s research programmes of scientific rainfed farming promise to raise outputs manifold and to develop ‘dry’ high yielding varieties of seeds.
Marigold flowers crest the hair of a landless agricultural wage labourer in Maharashtra. Here is a genealogy of manual workers. The pursuit of wage labour comes naturally to her and the family. But work is available fitfully, and at below-subsistence wages. Now the Employment Guarantee Scheme provides a minimum fortification against want. She complains of the long hours, the contractor’s wiles, the lack of civic facilities at camp sites but proudly asserts that the EGS has given life a backbone. It has shown that work is her birthright.
For the landless and subsistence farmers, a country-wide subsidycum-loan scheme has been implemented. These households to acquire a productive asset to augment their income. Women in India too have taken loans, often for cattle and goats.
When the cow is sick, the vet instructs the husband on how to treat it. While the woman listens in an inner room. Almost all the work of tending animals is done by women. Her skill at animal husbandry in Karnataka is common to countless other women in India across the country. This provides the basis for a phenomenon described as the White Revolution, under which India has emerged as the world’s third largest milk producer. Income from milk has invested village homes with gleaming brass vessels, new clothes, nourishment, more education, but perhaps not enough status gain for the woman.
There are these sisters who graduated in architecture and hotel management, respectively. One works with a busy firm of architects in Chandigarh, the other is an executive in a Mumbai hotel. Life has a limitless promise — Life is not only marriage for them.
As a research associate in Astro Physics, a woman from Jammu and Kashmir observes galaxies. But her head is not in the clouds. She is equally interested in solar cookers and smokeless chulhas (mud ovens) which will reduce women’s involuntary inhalation of kitchen smoke, save time and provide higher calorific energy directly to the vessels.
A young married woman who works in a Mumbai bank dreams of new clothes, movies, festive occasions and leisure. After a ritzy, extravagant wedding, she moved into her husband’s joint family home. Today, her dreams are vulnerable to the reality of the ‘double day: work at the office and at home, all of which must be executed with a disarming smile. However, she has declined to hand over her salary to her mother-in-law, defying a fairly common convention.
Professional women in India are pursuing careers in a vast range of modern sectors. They include scientists, doctors, engineers, lawyers, administrative and police officials, diplomats, teachers, media experts and airline pilots.
But women’s work is a statistical paradox. Official statistics recognise only one-seventh of the country’s women as gainfully employed while the rest are presumably non-gainfully engaged. This raises the question of the valuation of women’s work. Consider this woman’s work-day. Before the chilly dawn in the Uttar Pradesh hills, she has swept the dwelling, chopped the fodder and fed the buffalo, collected the animal dung and started the fire for the children’s morning snack before they leave for school. The daylight hours are claimed by the terraced farm-holding, some walnut and apple trees, the mountain spring, inclined pastures, hearth and animals. Twilight and night are for the children and a husband who is on leave from a job in the plains, or has abandoned himself to a lethargic life.
Yet this woman would occur in the national accounting statistics as chronically underemployed. As in other parts of the world, the question of evaluation of women’s work engages attention but defies solution. Modernising society assesses workers via the index of cash earnings. Women work predominantly in the non-valorised, unorganised and household sectors, where transactions are not monetised. And women’s contribution to family life is without a price tag. A woman in Bangalore tends an ailing father-in-law; another visits her son’s school to talk to his teacher. Another woman in Orissa prays for her family’s prosperity while one in Manipur wipes a child’s tear. Women in India weave the tapestry of life with wisdom, resourcefulness and extremes of self-effacement.
And women in India everywhere reproduce beauty which nourishes the eye—on walls adorned with earth plaster, mirrors, seeds; in auspicious floor and wall drawings daubed with fresh colours of turmeric and banyan leaves; in vivid textures; in the rhythm of dance. Their music is creased into the life cycle, lilting, sonorous.
Women in India and Children
A woman is her children; without them she is nothing, observe many women in India in towns and villages. Women in India derive their status from their husbands and power from their sons. But alternative views are emerging.
Unfettered fertility is a by-product of the patriarchal social system, and equally of a habitual casualness to child production. The informal economy has a phenomenal capacity to assimilate, and the populace has banked on its elasticity. But now more and more women in India are making the link between boundless child-bearing and the quality of life. In less than ten years, tubectomies have increased five-fold; today tubectomies outnumber vasectomies by 6 to 1. The Government aids family planning by providing a high-density delivery service for contraception and sterilisation. The primary question is that of stimulating demand for these services and women have proved to be motivated clients.
Helath of Women in India
Primary health care has undergone a change in outlook. The health infrastructure, whose hardware reaches almost all large villages, has been complemented by village women in India trained in mother-child health, family planing, control of blindness, tuberculosis, leprosy, malaria eradication and sanitation. Reports from several parts of the country indicate that in three years, Community Health Guides have reduced infant mortality sharply, achieved 90 per cent family planning practice by eligible couples, introduced sanitary soak-pits in villages and secured bank loans for women’s supplementary income generation.
Meet a Community Health Guide who has initiated a movement of community health care and community afforestation in a village in Maharashtra. Window sill nurseries festoon the dwellings, the saplings awaiting transfer to eroded field boundaries. Women’s links with trees and plants have been celebrated in ancient texts. Exclaims a goddess: “I shall support the whole world with the life-giving vegetables which I shall grow out of my body.” To our forebears, trees were not only the abode of female deities but also contained their essence and divinity. Women in India represented the deified vegetation energies. And today, this Community Health Guide mingles health and forestry, spearheading a movement for ecological restoration at the village level.
Literacy and Women in India
A 12-year-old girl draws neat diagrams assigned to her as homework. She is unmindful of the crowded ambience of her Kolkata tenement home. There is love and literacy in her family. She tries to understand Tagore and Vivekananda. She hopes to go to medical college and if, there is money, she is confident her parents will encourage her. Her sister married by choice and she is sure that her parents will not insist on an arranged marriage for her.
In a village in Uttar Pradesh, primary school students gambol and roll in the mud outside the schoolroom. The teacher is not present. There is only one girl amongst the frolicking students. There are many girls on enrolment day, but then their parents withdraw them to look after the babies and to help with the housework. Mid-day meal programmes introduced in some States have increased school attendance, especially by girl students who sling their siblings on the hip and attend classes.
Girls are known to be industrious and diligent students. Today, in the age group 5-19 years, female literacy is significantly higher than 20 years ago. Education up to higher secondary level is free for girls. University education is heavily subsidised.
In contrast, however, the programme of adult women education in India has not succeeded and women lapse into illiteracy soon after the short-term courses are over. Yet, vocation-related literacy programmes have proved effective.
Political status of Women in India
Women in India understand that their vote is important. Candidates to village panchayats, multi-purpose co-operatives, the State Assembly and the national Parliament woo women at election time. But they do not vote regularly. Indian women have participated with unreserved enthusiasm in the electoral process on issues of national concern. Their participation during the national struggle for freedom moved Gandhiji to observe: “The awakening of our women has helped mightily to awaken India. We cannot achieve freedom without them.”
Historic changes have taken place in law as it relates to women in India. The judiciary has taken an enlightened stand and dismantled the legal framework for the exercise of some archaic practices. For instance, it is no longer possible to petition for the restitution of conjugal rights or to alienate women from coparcenary rights to dwellings.
In 1964, Nagamani filed a petition in the high court for the restoration of the custody of her children, aged 3 and 5 years who were forcibly separated from her when she left home on her husband’s unlawful second marriage. But the high court allowed her access to the children only on the ground that after the divorce, she had married again. Today, a mother is almost guaranteed the custody of her children as the courts have ruled that a mother has a more ‘onerous’ role in the upbringing and well-being of a child.
Deep concerns animate women’s lives. They do not have resources and skills for permanent, well-paid jobs. They are investing disproportionate time and energy into firewood collection and fetching of drinking water. Women in India do not yet determine their own fertility and tend to be poor in health. Their children lack opportunities for a life of joy and achievement. Society subjects women to acts of physical violence. Women in India are themselves thoughtless practitioners of infructuous social practices that have to be shunned. Women seek status in the family. They seek dignity in society.
Five thousand years ago, an artist sculpted the leitmotif of Indian women’s strength and authority. A girl, whose lean limbs show the grace of running through forest glades and climbing trees in the Harappan era, stands with an easy assurance, one hand on her waist. The body is proud in a stance of power and youthful promise.
Gradually, we begin to see the new woman arising out of past tradition and current imperatives. There is a transformation, but not, it seems, a complete rejection of social values. The women’s movement is assisting society to create space for the new Indian woman—a significant being who is poised to conduct India in the new millennium.
And nobody is asking if the accompanying social revolution is feminine or masculine because they know that it is human.