It is important to recognize how gender injustices underpin the caste, class and social inequities. “I did start going to school. But as I am a Dalit (untouchable), I was made to sit away from the rest of the children. If I touched some upper caste child, even by mistake, I would be thrashed by the teachers – who were all Brahmins (upper caste). Even as a child I could feel the upper caste-Dalit divide. So, I stopped going to school. I am illiterate today because of the stigma against Dalits that still exists in our society, especially in rural areas. Later in life too, when I sought to work to make ends meet, my caste came in my way. Being a Dalit, nobody was ready to employ me as a domestic help. I was fit only for the job of a sweeper”, shared Geeta (35 years).
Who says untouchability is dead in shining India?
Geeta’s testimony is a grim reminder of the fact that even after 70 years of our independence, caste system is alive, and the Dalits remain India’s most oppressed group.
Geeta was married at the age of 15 to Sanjay of Banda in Uttar Pradesh, India. Marriage brought only pain, misery and sorrow for her. There were 15-20 people in her in-laws’ family. “They all ganged up against me. They took away all my belongings. I had to dance to everybody’s tune – cook food till late in the night, get their bath ready, do myriad other chores. A slight delay in any work would trigger a beating, not only from my husband but also other family members. My husband would return late in the night and then abuse me physically and verbally. The more I resented the more I got thrashed. I was treated worse than an animal”, remembers Geeta.
She suffered for eight long years in the hope that her husband would mend his ways. But instead of improving, things slipped from bad to worse. Meanwhile Geeta had become the mother of a daughter and a son. “He worked as a sweeper in Banda. But he would never give me any money to bring up the children. He even disowned our second child, saying it was not his. I was at the end of my tether. I would make hand fans out of bamboo and sell them to somehow put two morsels in my children’s mouth” rued Geeta.
A neighbour told Geeta’s mother about Vanangana (a rural community based women’s rights collective working in Banda and Chitrakoot districts of Uttar Pradesh, India). She went to their office with her mother. With Vanangana’s intervention, a written compromise was reached with her husband. He promised to treat her well. So, she went back to her in-laws’ house. But once she was there, her husband was back to his usual self.
Enough is enough: She eventually let go of what she could not change
One day he thrashed her, and then not only threw her and the children out of the house, but also threatened to kill her if she ever returned. Geeta somehow managed to reach Vanangana in a decrepit state. There she was first treated for her injuries and then counselled to take an informed decision. Geeta refused to return to her husband’s house. Vanangana helped Geeta file a court case, demanding monetary help from her husband. But even after 10 years of filing the case, nothing has come out of it. In 2010, the court did decide in Geeta’s favour, ordering her husband to pay her INR 2000 every month. But the order has yet to be implemented.
Earlier, Geeta stayed in her parent’s home. But two of her brothers were reluctant to keep her. The biggest challenge for her now was to take care of her children and make both ends meet. Eventually, with Vanangana’s help, she got the job of a cleaner in a school. She now earns INR 3500 per month. She also earns INR 20-30 daily by making and selling bamboo fans and trays. She has also got a room in the school premises to stay with her children.
Vanangana helped Geeta stand up on her own feet and not be dependent on others. It also gave her the courage to fight her battle single-handedly, and work for a better future for her children.
Geeta has come a long way, even as she regrets not having studied and being married at an early age. “I never got any happiness in my married life, neither did my children get their father’s love. But I am very happy now. My daughter has reached Class 10 – no other girl in my area is that educated – and my son is studying in Class 8. People do talk behind my back that I must be an immoral woman and that is why I have left my husband. But I no longer care for what others say. I am bringing up my children to the best of my ability, doing honest work and am answerable to only myself and not to others. I also hope that one day I will get my rightful due from the court and my son will get his share in the property of his father” said the resolute Geeta.
Despite her own hardships, Geeta goes out of her way to help other women in distress, raising her voice against gender injustices. She has even taken loans to help survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Her motto is ‘live and let others live’; instead of hurting others, help them. She feels indebted to Vanangana and Oxfam India for supporting her to put her life back on track.
Her message to other women says it all: “If women will not understand the pain of another woman, how will things improve? Earn, eat and be merry. Do not be dependent on others. If you have money, people will respect you; if you do not have money you are a nobody. This is the harsh truth I have learned from my personal experience.”
Keep the promise
Let us not forget that governments of over 190 countries, including India, have promised to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, one of which is to achieve gender equality and end all forms of discrimination and violence against all women and girls. The governments reviewed the progress made on these SDGs at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) which just concluded in United Nations earlier this month. If we are to deliver on these promises of sustainable development and gender justice, lot more action is needed on the ground.
The upcoming 3rd Asia Pacific Feminist Forum (APFF 2017) to be held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, would hopefully provide a platform to mobilize stronger action for dismantling economic, social and political systems that produce obscene levels of inequality and fuel violations of women’s human rights.