The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Academic and media interest in the condition of women in India seems to be fixed on the suppressed, much-tortured image of the fairer sex. There seems to be little recognition that in tiny pockets, women, aware of their own problems, have worked hard to overcome the existing constraints. One such area is the Hooghly district in West Bengal where absolute poverty has forced women out of their homes.

These are mostly women whose husbands are landless and unwilling to shoulder the domestic responsibilities. Neither time nor Operation Barga has changed the existing state of affairs. What has changed is that these women, egged on by older women, have organized themselves into small labour units to meet the material demands of their families. Large groups of these women work for about eight months in a year, even travelling by train to distant fields.

Rice-planting is the most lucrative season for them. Those with experience and skill can earn a daily wage of up to Rs 200 during this period. This is also the time when women stock contraceptive pills, buy household goods and the season over, go in for ligations, often at the prompting of their own mother-in-law. The most remarkable fact is that the men are sometimes not even consulted.

Women power

The two other groups of economically-independent women are sellers of fish and vegetables. Those dealing in vegetable buy their stock from the wholesale markets at Tarakeshwar, Nalikul, Singur and Seoraphuli and sell their ware to customers in small towns. Some women load up huge baskets and take them to the slightly more lucrative markets in Calcutta by train.

The women who sell fish fall into two categories — those who sell their own catch to local households, and the other more assertive group of women who buy their fish from the early morning auction at the local markets. They have their “accounts” with the owners of the various auction stalls and bid alongside the male fish-sellers.

These women usually save their money in private chit-funds, run by local businessmen they know and trust. The most important factor is that even the poorest among them take their children to the anganwadi schools, even on the busiest of days. The mid-day meal of rice and dal supplied in these schools has become a major incentive for them.

Turning the tide

A major factor in this quiet revolution has been the ladies’ cycle. It is serving as girls’ vehicle towards education and freedom. Working mothers, and sometimes fathers, from poor families are now buying their children cycles to go to school. Despite being burdened with domestic chores, girls, who regularly outperform the boys at this level, are using them to their advantage. Thousands of young girls from the suburbs and villages, who make it to the higher secondary level and even to colleges, thus go to the city and towns in local trains after having cycled to the railway station from their home miles away.

It is a delight to listen to the conversations of these women on the local train. They laugh and share jokes, their mirth diminished neither by illiteracy nor alcoholic husbands. The work that brings them both joy and money however takes its toll as they grow older. Exhaustion, poor nutrition and bad sanitation aggravate afflictions like anaemia, tuberculosis and gynaecological problems. However, the horror associated with hospitals has disappeared. They are now conscious of their right to free treatment at government hospitals, and are also critical of the facilities offered.

While the government and non-governmental organizations can do more to help these women, they should be regarded as more than mere objects of sympathy. These women are breaking away from patriarchal norms by going out to earn and thereby regaining their self-respect. Far from being meek and demure bahus, these women are now in a position to decide what kind of help they would accept from society.

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