An invitation to a Women’s Day celebration in one of Seva Mandir’s rural areas is always one to jump at, as they are very colourful and joyous occasions. So when we were invited to join the festivities in Mohandungri village in March we didn’t hesitate.
One of the key focuses of Seva Mandir’s work in southern Rajasthan is women’s empowerment. You may not like the slightly jargonistic term, but it is appropriate. In the 700 villages with which Seva Mandir works, the majority of the women are from tribal communities and, while they may have some freedoms not shared by women in other regions (notably the right to move around from place to place, and the right to choose their partners), they face significant disadvantages in other respects. They are traditionally excluded from the social institutions that regulate social behaviour in their villages, and frequently face domestic violence and abuse. Their access to education and health services and their ability to share in their family’s decisions on finances are very limited. None of this stops them doing their share of hard physical work – digging and repairing roads and walls, agricultural work, fetching water on their heads from miles away – as well as cooking, cleaning and child rearing, of course.
Seva Mandir has been working for over 20 years to make gender relations more equitable. In a nutshell, the work includes insisting that village committees, which are the starting point for the NGO’s involvement in the development of a village, contain women in meaningful roles; helping the women set up discussion and mediation groups to allow them to talk about domestic violence and to find practical solutions to cases brought to them (and, very importantly, bringing the men to accept these solutions); helping them set up cooperatives to which they contribute and from which they can secure loans at reasonable rates; providing reliable and regular health care for women and children; and encouraging parents to educate girls, and women to become teachers.
So the tentful of brightly dressed women and children we encountered on arrival at Mohandungri had a lot to celebrate.
As ever, the sexes sat mostly apart – women and children at the front, men at the rear (fewer than the women, but obviously interested – or perhaps drawn by the excuse for a day off, music and fun, and a free lunch!).
There must have been over 500 people gathered in this open-sided tent set up in school grounds surrounded by the lovely brown Aravalli hills. The heat was intense.
Being guests of Seva Mandir, we qualified as VIPs and were welcomed with a crimson dot carefully applied to our foreheads, a friendship bracelet tied round our wrists and a garland hung round our necks. Other VIPs included people from other organisations such as NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), the Village Watershed Programme, and a Seva Mandir-trained teacher from one of its schools who has been elected sarpanch (head of the village-level government body), as well as SM’s General Secretary and several staff from head office and the local block (or rural division).
As always, the speeches began with a recap of development activities in the village over the last 25 years – a new road, a federation of women’s self-help groups, loans from NABARD to facilitate much of the physical work going on in the area (added to by village contributions), health and nutrition initiatives sponsored by overseas institutions, and a celebration of the villagers’ ability to resist the temptation to opt for personal benefits over communal.
A succession of local women were invited to summarise the previous day’s discussions on women’s health (in particular, concern with regard to female consumption of tobacco, which is chewed as well as smoked in the region, and even marijuana) the education of children and adolescents (the usual story in rural India – not enough good schools or teachers), and migration of young people aged 14-20 (who go away to seek work and live in difficult conditions). One new development that was welcomed was the building of a hostel for 100 girls near a decent school, thus allowing girls to continue their education in safety.
Migration is a knotty problem in this whole area. The women felt that it wasn’t all bad. Young people who migrated for work (often to the neighbouring state of Gujarat to pick cotton) brought in more money, but they often didn’t use it very well, buying tobacco and mobile phones, going to the cinema, in other words spending it on themselves rather than circulating it within their community. The influence of Bollywood films and the mobile culture is clearly not felt to be a healthy one. Girls who live away from their villages also strike up relationships with boys (something that is certainly frowned upon throughout much of Indian society), leading to an increase in teenage pregnancies. (Of course, after an arranged marriage, sometimes at what seems to us like a very young age, early pregnancy is not a problem, but it clearly is if the girls are not married and not with a boy chosen and approved by their families.) There is a link with the state of rural education here, as the mothers felt that, while in school, their daughters’ behaviour was under control but that, once they migrated, their teenage energies and hormones led them into trouble. The moral: spend more time focusing on school-age children and guiding them towards healthier behaviour.
There followed a puppet show – along the lines of Punch and Judy. One man speaks in English, which the woman he is addressing doesn’t understand. ‘What is your name? How are you? Who are you?’ Hilarity all round!
There followed a dramatic exploration of the topics just discussed – promoting schools, parent-teacher relationships, even giving birth in hospital – and finally some patriotic chants!
After this interlude there were further recaps of the women’s discussions held earlier on the subject of maternal health – the distance and time taken to reach government health services which can be very inaccessible to these rural women. Some women feel they have no choice but to move somewhere nearer to a road in the last stages of pregnancy to avoid the need to walk miles to get help when they go into labour. They said the general feeling was that pregnant women were not fragile and needed no special consideration, but they agreed this needed serious consideration.
Then we came to the musical part of the day: four girls came forward to dance, dressed in caps and sporting dark glasses and hair studs, scarves tied over their shoulders.
Another group sang about the village coming together and taking control to solve its own problems. ‘Let’s organise meetings, get more women to join.’
A newly arrived VIP from a government department talks about women’s role in society and the need to end discrimination against women and give them more opportunities to work.
She points out an uncomfortable truth which is that it’s not just men discriminating against women, but often mothers giving preferential treatment to sons. Women do indeed have an important role in Indian society.
Another government representative arrives (promptness clearly not being a requirement for any official in India!) and talks about education and sanitation.
The Seva Mandir General Secretary talks about the importance of physical projects such as watershed work aimed at helping the community to save water and prevent soil erosion during the monsoons, vital in this area which is dry for 9-10 months of the year. But he points out that managing demand for water is as important as its conservation. He says, ‘Seva Mandir is not just about providing schools, childcare centres and watershed projects. We are a family. You are Seva Mandir. We need to work together to make the government more accountable.’
Before our arrival there had been various sporting activities and it was now time for the prize-giving. We were asked to give out some of the prizes – a huge and rather humbling honour for us.
A final speech from the local block coordinator thanks the local villages for contributing Rs 1,000 and 200 kg flour for this event. Cue drumming, dancing and very loud recorded music blaring from speakers,
and lunch follows for all.