“I have come that you may have life, and have it to the fullest.” Jn 10:10
This is the Lord’s promise to every human person, whether man or a woman, rich or poor. It is His promise very specially to the marginalized and deprived sections of our society.
However for most Indian women, specially in rural India, this promise is yet to become a reality.
I have encountered women who want to be educated but the system and the culture does not allow them to be educated. I have seen uneducated women who struggle in their life. I have also witnessed when a woman is educated how she is empowered and she empowers the family and the community.
Today I share about the women with whom I work. Their struggles and their inner power.
Lily is a 26 year old tribal woman from Rania block of Khunti Diocese in Jharkhand State, in the east of India. She has 3 young children, and lives in a joint family of 12 persons with her in laws. Living in a joint family is very common among the tribals in our area.
The sole means of livelihood of Lily’s family is agriculture. They have some goats too, and sometimes the family gathers produce from the forest like fruits, mushrooms and wood, which they sell in the village weekly market. Lily’s village is situated in a hilly area. There is no public transport system, and the roads are in a bad condition. Anyone going to the market from her village has to journey through the forest on foot.
One Saturday before Christmas, Lily was taking a goat to the weekly market to sell. She had looked after this goat for nearly 15 months. It was well-fattened, and she was expecting a good price. She wanted to buy provisions for her family for Christmas.
She had to walk around 6 kilometres through the jungle from her house to the market. As often happens in our area, men from outside her village were waiting by the roadside to snatch things from helpless villagers before they could reach the market. Around one kilometre before the market, a man stopped Lily, forcibly took the goat from her and gave her just one 500/- rupee note in exchange. She protested in a meek and frightened voice, and held on to the goat with all her might. He kept shouting at her in a loud voice, demanding “How much more do you want? It is not worth more than 500 rupees!” While arguing with her, he kept thrusting 10 rupee notes in her hand, one by one. He then lifted up the goat and walked away. Lily, having got many rupee notes in her hand returned home satisfied. In the evening, when she handed over the money to her family, the men scolded her for having sold the goat for just 580 rupees. The goat was worth around 2000 rupees, and the money that Lily received was not even worth the fodder that they had fed the goat.
A few days after this incident, we held a meeting with the women in Lily’s village. The meeting was organized in front of her house. So after the meeting, as I was chatting with the women, Lily’s husband told me about the incident. I asked how he knew that 580 rupees was very little for the fattened goat, which Lily did not know. He replied that he had gone to school, and passed grade 10, while she was illiterate. I asked whose fault it was that Lily imagined 580 rupees was a large amount of money, because there were so many notes. She was not able to understand the value of the notes.
Like Lily, women and girls are very often cheated and exploited in rural India. In the incident I have shared, Lily was cheated while selling the goat, and then humiliated by her family members (or the so called educated) because of her lack of education.
We conduct women’s meetings in the villages every month. At the next meeting, I invited Lily to share her experiences with the group. After listening to her, the other women came up with many such experiences of exploitation. Practically everyone had something to share about how they had been exploited or were not consulted when family decisions were made because they were not educated and did not understand.
The discussion at our meeting was very interesting. One explained that women were often told to maintain silence and ignored when family decisions were being made. Another pointed out that it was true that they were not educated, and not as knowledgeable as the men. Thatery, another group member, raised a very good question, asking, “In the family, who gives any thought to educating a woman?” She said that she herself was very interested in education and always wanted to go to school with her brothers, but her parents told her she was needed in the family to look after her younger brother and to cook for the family when they went to work in the fields.
I told women the time and opportunity were not lost, and asked if they would still like to be educated. In one voice they all responded, “Yes!” Since they were so well motivated, we started a functional literacy programme in their village, and conducted classes everyday for one and half hours, six days a week. The women were taught the alphabet, how to read numbers, to distinguish currency notes, to understand entries in a bank pass-book and to write applications to Government offices. Some sessions were also organized on developing the women’s potential. Within nine months, they learnt to read and write, and are now able to maintain the records in their Self Help Group account books and do bank transactions by themselves. Lily is now a Secretary of this group. Recently, they had deposited the collection of their group member contributions for two months in the bank, which was not credited to their bank account. They followed up the issue with the bank authorities, and had to go five times to the bank before the mistake was rectified and the entry properly recorded. When it was finally done, all of them claimed that, if they were not literate, the bank would have cheated them of their money. This also built up their confidence. They now participate in the weekly village meetings. When there are important issues to be addressed, they pressurise the village head to call a meeting. These women also motivated women’s groups in other villages to start literacy classes, and, over the last three years, nearly 600 women have been educated through the functional literacy programme. It is wonderful to see how women’s education has changed the family and community life in these villages. It has helped to improve health, livelihoods, and relationships in society; and every child in these villages is enrolled in school.
Education is important for everyone, but it is especially significant for girls and women. This is true not only because education is an entry point to access other opportunities, but as we have seen above, the educational achievements of women have a ripple effect within the family, the community, and across generations. We all know that it is a mother who brings up the children. For all practical purposes, she is the one who manages the house and its resources. Educated women recognize the importance of health care, and know how to access it for themselves and their children. Education helps girls and women to learn their rights and to gain confidence to claim them. The education of parents is linked to their children's educational attainment and the mother's education could greatly influence household negotiations to help her secure more resources for her children.
Talking about India`s educational status
From the policy perspective, we have very sound programmes in India like the Right to Education and the mid-day meal programme. To achieve gender inclusion, girls’ education is provided free till high school level. But we still need to have a conducive environment and effective mechanisms to implement these beautiful programmes and policies, which is a tremendous challenge in our country.
In India women’s literacy rates are significantly lower than men’s, and 68% of the school drop-outs among the children are girls. This does not happen automatically, there are several factors which block girls’ education. Some of them I would like to discuss briefly.
The girls' secondary status has gone deep in indian conscious.
Right from female foeticide, she is always referred to as some-one’s daughter, later some one’s wife and then some- one’s mother... The women are treated badly if they bear a girl and even worse if they are childless or widowed. Girls are deprived of many facilities because they are seen to belong to another family.
As Thetary rightly mentioned, poverty is one of the primary factors that denies girls access to education. In poor families, specially among the labour class, a girl is considered a good source of free labour, to manage the domestic work at home while her parents are out in the field and her brothers go to school. In some cases young girls are made to work in the field during sowing and harvesting seasons so as to add to family income.
2 --- Trafficking & corruption
Among the tribal dominated states like Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and other eastern States, poverty and oppression of women has resulted in trafficking, which has become a burning issue. Sending 10 to 12 year old girls for domestic work to metropolitan cities is now a common phenomenon. In some places, due to extreme poverty, parents willingly send their minor girls for domestic work to cities through agents with the great hope of becoming rich. These agents often cheat and exploit them. Our tribal Women’s Centre works closely with the district government on this issue. In the past three months, we have rescued ten girls, all between the ages 12 to 19. Except for two, they were blackmailed on their way to school and lured away by agents. Two were literally sold by their relatives. All these girls were rescued from very unpleasant situations.
3--- Unsafe and insecure environment
is another major factor responsible for female drop-outs from the school. Often a girl who has come of age is not sent to school, because the parents are afraid that she may be molested on the way. And for this very reason parents give away their daughters in marriage before puberty, so that they do not need to worry about their protection. We still have situations of caste prejudice in our country, where a child from the lower caste is made to sit alone, on the last bench in the classroom. This makes one wonder if a child born in a lower caste does not come from God!
In all this, her own desire, her potential, her freedom is suppressed .Her whole life is manipulated by others for its own convenience. I really feel every time a woman is not allowed to bloom and her potential is suppressed, her right to education is denied , we disrespect God who made us in His image and who wants us to have life to its fullest.
I have seen and experienced that investing in girls' education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. If today’s girls are educated, as mothers tomorrow they will not let their girl child be used for domestic work or exploited to earn some income for the family; and there will be more quality living in the family, community and society.
As we saw earlier education helps her to develop her potential, gives her knowledge, empowers her for economic activities. With education she is able to face hierarchy, dialogue with the corrupt system the way our women dialogued with the bank manager. And she feels respected and loved which is a basic need of any human being.
I would like to commend the Church’s selfless efforts to make quality education accessible to the less privileged in India. In many places where no one else has ventured, Church schools and students’ hostels have been established for those at the margins of society. But we still need to work towards creating a positive attitude and atmosphere in our society to welcome gender equity, and to accept the fact that a girl child, if educated, has the power and potential to transform society, as Lily and the women of our Self Help Groups in very remote village have done. We still have a long struggle ahead to usher in God’s reign and to work towards fulfilling His promise to all that: ‘I have come that you may have life and have to its fullness.’
If only there can be one Lily and the SHG women in every remote village to change the scenario ?
As I conclude, I thank all the organisers, specially Chantal and her group, for hosting this wonderful event in the Vatican.
Daphne Sequeira rscj