As I entered Bedawal village, in Salumbar, Rajasthan, I witnessed a very uplifting sight – a group of women in colorful attire, linked arms and danced to Holi songs on the lanes outside their homes, laughter abound. I was to attend a meeting of the Ujala Samuh in the locality–created to help women cope with public and social interactions in the absence of their husbands or male relatives, who have migrated for work.
The Samuh has grown into much more. The women of Bedawal begin their day earlier than 4am, to perform multiple duties – agricultural work, maintaining farm animals, household chores, caring for the elderly and children, collecting fuel and water, and keeping the household finances moving –through local labour under NREGS or home-based work such as tailoring. The group provides respite from drudgery.
Mobilising and organising women around economic identities is not a new concept – however, these women fall outside well-defined economic identities. Largely belonging to the tribal Meena community, they are an example of how privatisation and natural resource depletion, disrupting forest based and traditional livelihoods, has a larger impact on lives of women. While men from the region migrate for work, women are left behind to work in their homes, and marginal family farms, but are not considered economically productive or given the status of farmers, which has deteriorated their value. A number of men, when asked what their wives do reply, “They sit at home and eat”.
Faced with gender discrimination and caste based power relations in their villages, women suffer from multiple vulnerabilities. Organising women has had the effect of creating novel identities for them as community actors and social change-makers, who take responsibility of one another’s’ lives and reaffirm each other’s value. They challenge social norms through actions – When a widow, single or disabled woman is ostracized, those in her group help overcome social exclusion by making it a point to visit her home, and invite her to auspicious occasions at their home.
Jokes and laughter has created an intimate group, and safe place for women to discuss gender-specific issues that otherwise go unnoticed. If a woman faces domestic violence, the group counsels and pressurizes her husband. Having a support group of similar women, who understand her challenges, makes it easy for a woman to take ownership of her life and bring the question of women’s rights into public conversations. In groups that include men, women tend to sit at the back, rarely raising their voice, leading to largely male dominated conversations. Many women acknowledge that it is only now that they learnt that domestic violence is not an acceptable practice. The group has made it a point to challenge discriminatory practices at home – and proudly announce that they aspire to give equal opportunities to their girl child, and equal status to their daughters-in-law – making it highly inclusive and creating a culture of empowering one another.
Being new to the region, stereotypes I had brought with me were shattered- was it possible to women to take over public spaces? Most of the women in the group admit that their families tried to prevent them from attending meetings, often asking why it was necessary for women to be out in public, or discuss things that by common practice, fall in a man’s domain. The group recalls being threatened by powerful groups, including local elites and elected representatives. Many of them attended a panchayat meeting or attempted to understand governance processes previously. They were ridiculed for their attendance; being told that this was not a woman’s place or concern. While a number of challenges remain to be addressed – the very fact that women continue to organise themselves is a victory.
– By Nivedita Jayaram
(Nivedita Jayaram is a new member in Aajeevika Bureau’s Center for Migration and Labour Solutions. She has a background in international relations, political science and development economics, and has great interest in research and advocacy around women’s work and labourforce participation)