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.
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.