My final day volunteering in the village of Hathoj was last Friday, and I had to fight back tears at the daycare center when hearing for the last time the chorus of “Hello, didi,” seeing the big, beautiful smiles of the children, and giving countless handshakes. It was equally difficult for me to say goodbye to the girls in my computer/English class. My last day of September 5 also coincided with the Indian holiday of Teacher’s Day, where students take over the role of the teacher and give the teacher presents. I was given many new earrings, candy, snacks, and henna art on my hand. The generosity of the girls and the village was overwhelming, and while my volunteering experience was one of the most challenging and frustrating experiences of my life, it was also one of the most rewarding. I will never know the full effect my time in Hathoj will have on the villagers, just as they will never know the full effect they had on me.
My experiences in the village have fueled a deep interest in the situation of women in India, but determining their level of freedom has been challenging, as there are so many different factors involved. I found a UN report online entitled “Women in India: How Free, How Equal?” (http://www.un.org.in/wii.htm) which discusses many aspects of freedom, including the freedom to live a long life, the right to health, the right to education, freedom to work without exploitation, freedom to participate in decision-making, and freedom from fear. The report introduces the topic by explaining, “Human development is about expanding people’s choices, enhancing their capabilities, and promoting their freedoms. Development therefore requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: freedom from discrimination, freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from injustice. It also requires that citizens be assured the freedom to develop and realize their potential, freedom of thought and speech, freedom to participate in decision making and freedom to work without exploitation.” India’s Constitution is one of the most advanced in the world in terms of the freedom it guarantees its citizens. However, these constitutional guarantees are not a reality for many women, and men as well, in India. The situation for women depends on many factors—what state they are born in, the family they are born into, rural or urban environments, socio-economic status, etc. It is impossible to generalize the situation for all women living in India, but there are some general trends in India that are common amongst women that clearly limit their freedoms. As I witnessed during my time in the village, many women are tied to their homes raising children, cooking meals, cleaning, etc. What I was most startled about in the report was that even at home, many of these women have no autonomy or decision-making power over such things as what they cook, when they cook, how they clean, and many women must ask permission from their husbands or in-laws to do such things as visit their own families or go to the market. The illiteracy rate for women in appalling in many states, with Rajasthan—the state where Jaipur is located—having a literacy rate of 40% amongst women. However, this trend cannot be generalized across India as Kerala, a different state, has a literacy rate of 97% amongst women. It is common practice in India for women to move in with her husband’s family upon marriage, having to leave her own family behind and begin serving another. While this situation can work out, I have also heard so many horrible stories about the relationship between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws. Arranged marriages are still prevalent in India as well, so the woman also has no choice over her husband or the family that she will have to live with for the rest of her life. Many women in India are not even given a chance at life simply because they are female. Ultrasounds had to be outlawed in India because of the preponderance of sex-selective abortions, although many ultrasounds are still performed illegally. India has offered incentives to families to have fewer children, so these families want to ensure that they have a male child. In some cases, the female child is undernourished because she is fed last. India is one of the few countries in the world where men outnumber women, and the report said that if men and women were treated equally in India there would be 105 women for every 100 men. The report goes on to say that if this were the case, there should be 512 million women in India, but estimates show only 489 million women are in India. Therefore, there are an estimated 20-25 million “missing” women in India—some who were never born and some who never got the chance to survive. Of course, most of these issues are not unique to India and indeed describe many of the “unfreedoms” that women face everyday across the world. And on the flip side, this also does not describe the lives of all women in India. Many families value their female children, and many will grow up to be doctors, lawyers, or whatever else they want to be. If you have the time, I highly recommend you scan the report to learn more about some of the conditions of women in India. Again, the link is www.un.org.in/wii.htm.
What has become much clearer to me is how much of our freedom is determined before we are even born—for example, where we are born, who we are born to, and our gender at birth are all factors that can greatly change the lives we lead and the freedoms we have. Meeting women in Jaipur and Hathoj who were my age, but leading very different lives, started to make this very clear to me. These uncontrollable factors are something that I don’t really ever think about because I don’t feel any of my freedoms were hindered because of them. However, meeting people who are not allowed all freedom possible because of such factors has made very clear to me their importance.
I left Jaipur on Sunday by bus to my next destination of Delhi. In Delhi I have many meetings with people from all different disciplines, and am currently being hosted by an American family doing research in a heavily Muslim area of the city. I have been connected to many of the American Fulbright scholars doing projects in India, and have been enjoying getting to know them and learning about their projects. So far I have met Aditi, who is a recent graduate from Harvard doing research on street theater and public health, Michelle, a PhD student from Temple doing a year of research here on Nehru (the first Prime Minister of independent India), and Suzanne, who is doing research on advertising and beauty in India. Yesterday all three accompanied me to the September 11 remembrance ceremony at the American Embassy, which included a flag ceremony and a short speech by the US Ambassador to India David Mulford. Afterwards there was a short reception where we all get to meet the Ambassador briefly and described our projects. It was strange being at a gathering of diplomats and powerful people and feeling rather unimportant (as well as under-dressed).
I will be in Delhi for two more weeks and am looking forward to all of the people I will meet during that time and all the various perspectives on freedom from those in varying disciplines. I am also adjusting to the different atmosphere of Delhi. Delhi has more of a feeling of a large city that could be located anywhere in the world, and while I certainly don’t blend in, I don’t feel as if I stand out so much as this is very much a global city. I do feel like I have to be on guard a lot more here, as there are scams galore, especially in the touristy areas. The one I encountered while walking in a popular area called Connaught Place involves a young man coming up to you offering to help you find the place on the map you are looking for. He then proceeds to take you to a shop where he most likely gets commission for bringing in customers. Several of these types of men approached me yesterday, and it is hard to discern who really wants to help and who is taking advantage of you. After getting fed up with this, I found other tourists from the western world and asked if I could walk around with them. The two people I found were Alex and Angeline, lawyers from London on a two-month holiday in India. What amazes me the most is that if you are walking with a male, so many of the problems are traveling in India as a female vanish as you are effectively ignored. Being ignored was a nice change of pace yesterday, but only goes to further show the male-dominated culture of India and the challenges of being a woman here.