Final Words

Well, I’m finally back home after spending two months in India! I had a great six weeks volunteering in Delhi and spent the last two weeks with my family touring other parts of India. These are some other things that happened in my last couple of weeks of volunteering that I wanted to blog about earlier but didn’t get a chance to because things got quite hectic towards the end.

 

DELHI HIGH COURT

As part of my research on legal rights of women, I spent a day at the Delhi High Court and met a women’s rights advocate who told me a lot about the rights women have in India. The Indian constitution has evolved a great deal in the last 20 years in order to give equal rights to women, however, the mindset of people has been slower to change, which is the real problem. Although the laws are in place, there are barriers to implementing them and women are not able to utilise them for a variety of reasons.

The advocate, Suman Chowhan, told me about how the police often turn a blind eye to domestic abuse because they believe that it’s part and parcel of married life and that they shouldn’t meddle with other people’s home lives anyway. She also said that many girls who’ve been raped are often encouraged by their families to stay silent because of a fear that no one will want to marry them if this is found out. She highlighted some of the problems in enforcing the law, such as how many women in villages, who don’t even have phones, have no way of communicating to the police that they need help. In her view, a way to tackle this issue is by educating our youth about these issues. I learned a lot from talking to her and what she said boded really well with me.

 

RELIGION IN INDIA

I went to visit the Delhi Isckon Temple, a temple dedicated to Krishna (Hinduism worships multiple gods), with my sister-in-law one evening. Unfortunately, we hadn’t thought the plan through very well because it happened to be the day of Krishna’s birth so it was really, really busy. We joined the slow-moving conveyer belt of people, which took an hour to reach the temple. After five minutes we were led out of the wrong exit, which meant we couldn’t find our shoes (it is Hindu custom to remove your shoes before walking into a temple). This meant we had to walk almost a kilometre barefoot on the concrete roads! It was quite painful and I was so relieved when we got our shoes back!

I think religion is an interesting topic when it comes to India, especially now with the controversy surrounding the current prime minister. 80% of the Indian population identify as Hindu’s (this includes sects of Hinduism such as Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and so forth), whilst around 15% of the rest are Muslim. There has previously been some tension between Hindus and Muslims since the partition of India, with the last mass conflict occurring in the Gujarat riots in 2002 (over 1000 deaths and mass displacement). Many people still believe the Gujarat riots were a pogrom (that the governing state had something to do with it) against Muslims. The current Prime minister is the man who was the Chief minister of Gujarat at that time, which has caused a lot of controversy and apprehension over the country. Thankfully, since 2002 there have been no large-scale religious riots and I didn’t see or hear of any racial intolerance during my time in India.

Religious tension has been around ever since Independence Day (from the British Raj). It is paradoxical that Independence Day is celebrated with such fervour and gusto across the country because this was also when the partition of India occurred. Neighbours who were once friends suddenly turned on each other in religious zeal; Hindus and Muslims who had once lived together in harmony now tore at each other’s throats. It is said that after India’s independence, Gandhi never celebrated it again because it was smeared with blood and marred by the ripping-apart of a nation.

 

A MESSY END

I created a bit of a fiasco before I went home. Before I left, I wanted to get everyone I had worked with some gifts, in a way not dissimilar to giving teachers presents before you leave school. For the students at the sewing centre, I racked my brains and must have called my parents up at least ten times to discuss what present I could get them. Eventually we thought I should gift each one some nice clothes. So off I went and bought around 20 sarees. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to talk to the organisation I was working with about it, which led to everything ending up a catastrophic mess (as it felt at the time anyway).

I’d already taken the bags of clothes to the centre and given the gifts to the few students who were already present before I was told that I wasn’t supposed to. At first I was upset because I didn’t understand why not. I was even more upset because the other students who hadn’t been present that day wouldn’t get one, which would be unfair, and I couldn’t exactly ask for the presents back to rectify my mistake. It was explained to me that it was the organisation’s policy because the same might be expected of any volunteers who come after me. I was in a miserable state by the end because I wasn’t sure what I should do now. I felt awful and tearful for having screwed up and complicated things for the organisation. Thankfully those in charge of the organisation, in particular the teacher at the sewing centre, acted with prudence and dealt with the situation well, cleaning up my inadvertent mess.

I think I learnt two things from this incident. Firstly, it’s always a good idea to discuss things with your senior colleagues before doing anything related to your work. Secondly, good intentions may not always be enough; although they come from a good place, they may not actually be what’s best for everyone.

 

CONCLUDING WORDS

Now I’m not going to say something pretentious or overtly profound or even go as far as saying I’m a “changed person” after these two months – I would just like to end on a celebratory note. I have said a lot about the horrible ordeals that these women have faced and reflected a great deal on how much these women struggle financially and socially. But please, please… don’t pity these women. These women are the opposite of pitiful; they are incredibly admirable. Whilst they may lack some of our high-flying, structured school-education, they have a wealth of knowledge of their own, not to mention an abundance of strength and resilience. We have so much to learn from them.

I went over there thinking I could teach them about legal rights and menstrual health; I arrogantly thought I would be able to make so many of their lives better in my short time there, but I was the one who ended up doing all the learning. They taught me what it means to be resilient. They were so happy in spite of the fact that they struggled to have their basic needs met. They were so genuine and selfless and kind. They gave me a glimpse into what happiness really was. We might think we’re better off than them because of our lavish houses, swanky jobs and fancy gadgets but what have they really given us? We live in a world of stress, depression, jealousy, rivalry and anxiety. Are we really happier than they are? Should they be pitying us? Are they not the ones who have in a sense fared better?

I’m not saying that change is not needed or that we should be apathetic to their conditions and issues. I just want to put into perspective how sometimes we may be arrogant in thinking that our lives are so much better than theirs. We shouldn’t feel sorry for them – they don’t deserve such an insult.

There is so much more that I could write but I don’t want to ramble. Thank you so much for reading my blog. I hope you liked it and will share it with your friends and family. I hope it may have even inspired you to go to India, or any deprived country for that matter, and see some of the things I have talked about for yourself, maybe even do some volunteering there.

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Another slum visit

My last visit to a slum affected me more than usual. I think the first few times I went, the reality of their circumstances hadn’t quite dawned on me. This time it actually sunk in. I saw the places that they called their homes; I could finally see the harshness of their conditions.

I met Neha and Suman, two teenage girls who sew at the centre, in addition to Neha’s cousin, who welcomed me whole-heartedly into her home and made tea for me, though milk is expensive and I was virtually a stranger. It goes to say something about Indian hospitality that even when I visited strangers’ houses, they would go and buy a juice carton or a fizzy drink can for me, even in their dearth. Although it could get exasperating when my extended family showered me with food out of love, I can see it comes from a good place and in India good hospitality is often shown by a means of food.

Neha’s cousin told me eight of them slept inside this one room, her home. For comparison, this room would possibly have been the size of her rich counterpart’s walk-in-closet. I asked how she slept in the space she had pointed to, since she had quite a tall frame, to which she said she curled up and she was used to sleeping that way. The other day I had tried to sleep on my cousin’s marble floor and found it so uncomfortable that I did not get much rest. I will never cease to wonder how she slept like that every night. Neha even spoke about how her father was the sole earner for 10 people. His meagre earnings were supposed to provide for his four children, his wife, his parents and his father’s brother & sister-in-law who do not have sons of their own, in addition to himself! She then spoke about how if a woman goes out to work, others gossip about her husband too, saying he must be incompetent and unable to provide for his family.

Neha’s cousin said that one of her sisters had died a few years ago. The children all treated this very matter-of-factly, saying it was the norm, with what seemed little emotion. It seemed that their situation had hardened them to sorrows such as this; sorrows which to us may seem colossal, but are dwarfed by the harshness of their own situation. Suman similarly spoke about how her mother had passed away a couple of years ago and since then she had not been able to go to school because they needed someone at home; to do the household chores and to also look after the house since petty theft within the slum is common. The girls also told me that the neighbourhood had deteriorated so badly that they could not leave after a certain point of time in the day for their own safety, which meant they would miss tuition classes and such.

This visit shed a new light on the whole situation. It is easy for us to criticize others – to say women should get equal opportunities; women should be able to work; everyone should receive education – having never ourselves faced or even come across such poverty. But there is so much more to it. There are many more factors that need to be taken into consideration, which we may not even be able to perceive. There are societal pressures, issues of safety, poor health and high mortality rates. These in turn then have a cascade of other effects. Each of these problems have to be addressed collectively for any real change. At this realisation, I saw the magnitude of the task at hand. The whole visit was emotionally draining. The hardest part was the hope that some of the women I met looked at me with. I don’t think it’s an issue that can be solved within a lifetime. What am I supposed to say to these women who have suddenly put all their hopes in me?

Gram Bharat & Dilli Haat

As part of my research to help market the women’s products, I went to a few markets to gauge what was currently in style in terms of Indian clothes and bags. We started off by going to a store called Gram Bharat, which exclusively sells handmade artisanal crafts from around India. Their aim is to preserve all the traditional forms of art across India and make sure that the artisans are given employment and proper pay. I was surprised that it was located in a very quiet location because it was not a place that any shopper would be able to happen upon. The shop assistant informed us that this was because people came specifically to this shop rather than stumbled upon it perchance. They usually held exhibitions to display the artwork and generate interest in it.

On a side note, I was pleased to notice that Gram Bharat had hired a shop assistant with Down’s syndrome. I have heard the services for special needs individuals in India are still lacking and that the support system is mediocre at best. I was under the impression that there was still some taboo and reluctance to accept special needs individuals in society. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this issue because my brother has special needs too. Many people assert that these individuals should be taken to religious institutions in order to cure them- they do not understand that this isn’t a spirit to shake out or a phase. It was nice to see that things are changing and that those with disabilities are also being employed.

We then went to Dilli Haat – a place I’ve fallen in love with. I think anyone who goes to Delhi must make a visit here. It was so vibrant; so merry; so full of life. The place was an explosion of colours, glimmering with dazzling shades of gold, emerald, peacock blue, saffron, fushia, crimson and so many more. There were all kinds of artisans selling their merchandise. I saw an old, frail lady sitting in her stall, painting away with the finest of brushes. She had hand painted not just canvases but also lampshades and other things of the sort. This kind of craft is called Madhubani painting and originates from Bihar. We saw many works with this type of craftwork on it. There were also the most exquisitely hand-woven silk sarees and gorgeous embroidered kurtas. We arrived at a stall that sold Rajastani-style wall paintings. Upon asking, the man claimed to have painted everything himself. To prove it to us he painted a detailed elephant on my thumbnail! There was a man sitting on a wall a few metres further, playing this lute-like instrument that only had a single string yet it sounded so melodious.

A little later, before the frenzy of the monsoon rains hit, a parade came by, singing and dancing in the liveliest of manners, wearing traditional Rajastani outfits. The music alternated between two different rhythms, both of which created very different ambiences, though the same instruments played them. I had such a wonderful day and it really made me feel proud to call myself an Indian. Everything was so different to the usual grey that I’m used to back in London. India has so much to offer when it comes to art and culture; I feel so ashamed when I recall that I was once embarrassed by it and tried to reject my own heritage.

A conversation gone awry

So, last Saturday I had an unsettling experience. I called for a cab to go to the sewing centre and since the radio wasn’t working, the taxi driver and I started talking. After the usual pleasantries, the conversation shifted in character and he started talking about the difference in women here to the women back in his hometown in Rajastan. When he began saying that three quarters of the women here [in Delhi] are not of good character, I began to feel a bit uneasy. I decided to probe what he meant by this because it may shed light on the mindset of some people in regards to a woman’s behaviour. However, I was not prepared to hear what came next.

He criticized the clothing that girls are wearing these days and he expressed extreme disapproval at young women drinking and smoking. He continued this way, speaking about how women have 4 boyfriends at the same time and sleep around, then leech the men of their money by getting them to buy her expensive gifts in exchange. He went on to discuss that terrible gang rape on a moving bus a few years ago, claiming that it was bound to happen because obviously a man would feel jealous seeing a woman kiss another man. He also claimed no one would have the audacity to do such a thing to a girl who wasn’t ‘like that’. Never did I ever think I’d hear, first hand, someone condoning any such incident, let alone this particularly atrocious one. He then went on to hold ‘Western culture’ responsible, saying that their adult movies are to blame. In a sense yes, those kinds of movies can often depict, and hence sanction, chauvinism and violence towards women; however, he meant they were to blame for the corruption of women, not for the occurrences of rape. His reasoning was that once a woman watches one, she is suddenly overcome with wanting to have the same enjoyment as the women on-screen and is unable to control herself. I was quite disconcerted really. Not to mention a bit tense and on edge since I was alone in a car with this man. Was this man really trying to say that a woman who drinks, smokes and has casual sex is immoral and as a result is even warranting her own rape?

Women face varying degrees of misogyny across the world, where many societies put a great deal of emphasis on her marriage and much value is placed on her ‘virtue’. However, I was encouraged to see that when I told my colleagues and relatives about this episode, many of them were disgusted and shocked. Some told me that they had heard others say things like this before, but their own disagreement was evident. It goes to show that Indian society has changed a lot, and that whilst some people may still hold views like this, most people are outraged by such comments and understand that a woman is her own person, free to live her life as she pleases. It seems that the majority of the people who hold these outdated, oppressive views are those in the generations above our own – hopefully in 20 years time the majority of India will hold more tolerant views.

Workshop on menstrual health

On Friday, I ran a workshop on menstrual health with a group of schoolgirls. It is still a taboo subject in India and sometimes girls will not even be told that they should expect this to happen at some point. I was really pumped up for it after seeing my co-worker do one a few days before with the women at the sewing centre. She did an amazing job; she was so engaging and entertaining! I learned a great deal about presenting by watching her.

When I reached the school, I was rushed into a classroom with 50-60 ten-year-old girls sitting cross-legged on the floor looking up at me expectantly. I felt totally flustered since I couldn’t find any of my co-workers and I needed to set up the presentation. Whilst we were setting up the projector, I decided to ask each girl to stand up and tell everyone their name and an interesting fact about themselves as an icebreaker. They were quite shy at first but came out of their shells after some encouragement. Many said they enjoyed dancing, drawing, singing and reading. I was really pleased to hear that some of them wanted to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, actors, dancers and even the prime minister.

Then I asked them what it meant to grow up and started tell them about puberty. When it came to physical changes, most of the girls started giggling. When I asked them what periods were, their blank, confused expressions were quite amusing – I had forgotten what it was like to be that age. By the time I got to the science of the menstrual cycle and spoke in detail about different ways to manage flow etc, I had completely lost them because I hadn’t realised they would be so young.

In addition, language had been a bit of a problem. I had done a trial run with my co-worker in Hindi the day before, but when I asked the girls what language they would like me to speak in, most said English. When I did speak in English, I didn’t think they were taking in what I was saying, so things eventually came out a little like a mumbo-jumbo concoction of Hindi and English.

In retrospect, I should have not gone into any scientific depth, leaving it at this happens so that we have the ability to become mothers in the future. Also, when I was 10, I had a talk on puberty where the school nurse came in and showed us sanitary products and how they work, which I think was a good idea and I am planning to do that next time. Nonetheless, I still think the workshop went well overall and the children were quite receptive for most of the time. I also feel it was a huge leap for me since I often struggle with public speaking of any sort – my knees go weak, I stutter and then apologize repeatedly – but I think I handled it adequately this time.

A heartbreaking day :(

A couple of days ago, I went to a slum near the sewing centre where most of the students lived. I had been too disheartened and glum to write about the things I heard about at the time. I entered a room about 7ft x 10ft that Parvati and her family called their home. It housed 5 people; served as a bedroom, living room and kitchen. I was shocked that so many people lived in such a small place! How did they all sleep? Where did they go to the toilet?

She was very welcoming and cheerful as a person and she spoke about how usually during the day she rarely left the house, spent the day in this room sleeping or cooking whilst her children were at school and her husband was at work. She then told me she got married when she was 12 and I realised that she must only be about 30 now.

Sanju, a lady I have been teaching how to count at the sewing centre, recounted a similar story about how she was married 2 years before she even got her period, saying it was normal in the rural villages and that she knew a girl who got married when she was 5! Although she then mentioned that these children continue to live with their parents until they hit puberty and then live with each other. I was absolutely appalled at these stories, especially since these women were closer to my age than my parents; to know that child marriages still happen, to know that they are still common.

When I questioned the reasoning behind this, I was told that in addition to girls being an financial liability, parents worry that no one will want to marry them when she is older or worse, she may go off the rails and elope. It seems that many girls are raised to aspire to marriage and only marriage, and that any other dreams they may have are quickly quashed because they are told this is not something they can achieve or even should be allowed to achieve.

I now realise just how important a person’s psychological state is. If someone is told from the start that their dreams are unattainable and that their aspirations for marriage are the only ones within reach, of course they will only ever strive for that. Many of these women see themselves as inferior and not worth much. When someone feels this way, all else is often lost. They will not fight for their rights, they will not try to achieve their dreams, they will consider most people as superior to them and will not try to get themselves out of the situation that they are in because they have been told they can’t.

During the workshop, the women were told to stand up and introduce themselves. To say there names with pride and say a little about themselves. I was so heartbroken to see that every single woman’s voice had become quieter than her normal speaking voice, and that some even felt there was nothing interesting to say about themselves. I can now see clearly in front of me the importance of self-worth, the impact it has on a life.

I was so distraught that day that I couldn’t bring myself to blog about it then. I mean, where do you start? If these women feel they are capable of achieving nothing, if they feel they are not entitled to much, everything else is futile. No matter how much information I give them on their legal rights, they will not use it because they still feel they are not entitled to it and it will all be pointless.

An insight into a different world

 

Initially talking to the women at the sewing centre was nerve-wracking since both parties were awkward and shy. In addition my ability to speak Hindi limited how much we could interact. However, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and found that they were all friendly and some of them opened up quite easily!

Getting to know these women has been an incredible insight into the way women are perceived and what is expected of them in many communities in India. Shama, a recent BA graduate, gave me a glimpse into her world. She spoke about how she lived in a joint family and her father’s older brother held certain opinions, which directed the actions of everyone else. It is quite credible that he held the belief that any individual, man or woman, should be allowed to study to whatever level they wished to study since many communities in India still believe that it is pointless to educate women to a high standard. However, he does not think women should go out and work because it may lead to negative influences that cause them to elope and behave in ways not deemed acceptable by the rest of the community.

Shama and her brothers believe it is important for people to be able to ‘stand on their own two feet’ but no one would dare to disregard him which means his mind-set has dictated the fate of all the women in his family. Often if one does not put to use their knowledge, it will disappear gradually – a sad story that the women in her family have endured. It seems that often women are restricted not out of malice, but as a form of protection and shelter. Perhaps this stems from the (false) stereotype that women are weak and unable to fend for themselves, or that they are less intelligent than men so unable to make rational decisions. I think the first step is to change the mind-set of people; get them to acknowledge that women are capable individuals who should be given the liberty to make their own life choices.