I have always believed – who I am, is only determined by me. Everything that I have done in life has been a reflection of this. However, the last few weeks have left a strong impression on my mind; I have realized even more that, this freedom of choosing to be you is a privilege that only few enjoy, especially among women.
As a young girl, Taslima Nasrin’s writings and the discussions that I had with my mom on women empowerment, inspired me. Yes, I am a feminist (don’t mistake that for “misandry”) and a firm believer in equal opportunities for women in education and employment.
Hence, I had never hesitated to climb a ladder, never complained about night-outs in office for bid submissions and have always enjoyed working with a screw driver at site. I have thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it. If you ask me if there were challenges, the answer is yes. I remember having just joined an organization and being sent to a client site to restore a control system. The entire workforce there, surrounded me as they had never seen a female engineer with a screw driver – their looks, their questions regarding my education, experience, etc., even before they allowed me to touch the system, were quite intimidating.
However, this one year in the development sector has actually made me realize that my journey has been rather smooth. The grassroots level truths are actually daunting. The challenges that numerous adolescent girls (and specifically the underprivileged ones) face in our country even today, are beyond imagination. Gender disparity is still deep and persistent in India. Education, in the true sense, for them is a farfetched dream. Not only do they have limited resources and lack awareness, they are exploited.
I meet numerous bright, enthusiastic, adolescent girls of various marginalized communities almost every day and truly derive strength and inspiration from them. It will surprise you to know that most of them do not have any “aim” in life; they have no clue where they will be 5 years from now. No one around them has ever asked them about their dreams and aspirations, or what really makes them happy. If this is my experience in the capital of the country, I can’t begin to imagine the situation elsewhere.
Due to lack of financial resources, the families find it difficult to meet basic necessities, and one of the main motivations for sending the girls to school, is the mid-day meal. This ensures that the family does not have to arrange at least one meal in the day. The Ladli scheme (linking financial assistance to a girl’s education) whereby a girl gets a substantial amount after completing the senior secondary level, is utilized for her marriage – for buying the lehanga, jewellery and paying a part of the dowry, rather than for higher education or vocational training.
The difference in the socially constructed gender roles lead to unequal treatment at home. These little girls help with household work after school, leaving very little time for self-study or any recreation. While the girls do all this, their brother being the “kul ka deepak”, is given more attention, enjoys the best food, is sent to a better school and is never asked to work at home. Well, this treatment is not too uncommon in privileged households also, but I will devote a separate blog for that!
I fondly remember my childhood days and realize the stark difference. For a lot of these girls, the only fate is marriage after school and every day they fight to convince their parents to allow them to study further. Even if a girl is able to convince her family, she is only allowed to pursue a correspondence course. Why? – Because there is a strong belief in the communities that when a girl goes to college, she is no more under the control of her parents. I know students who, despite having good grades, are pursing distance courses because they are not allowed to leave their homes (should I say, a new form of “Purdah system”). The son in the family however, is never questioned about his whereabouts.
My work gives me the opportunity to meet numerous parents and advocate girl child education. I make them realize the importance of educating their daughters and how this is no different than educating their sons. I do this not just as part of my job, but also because I am a woman. It really grieves me to see how girls are still considered a burden in the family.
I never realized that in the due course, I had actually touched someone’s life and made a sustainable impact. There was a girl whose father was not interested in allowing her to study after 12th grade (and mostly this is the situation), but the girl had a lot of potential. Eight months back I had spoken to her parents about her abilities and how she can one day be a support system for the family. Last week, the father and daughter visited me and what a pleasure it was to know that today, he is going out of his way to support his daughter’s education. They both were in tears and the father acknowledged the role I played in their lives. I did not know how to react, I was speechless – the feeling of being able to transform a life was unprecedented. On Teacher’s Day, the girl told me that I was her role model. I can’t express the feeling. I am actually no one, but she made me feel so special. I just hope and pray that she achieves the best in life and realizes her true potential.
A lot has been said and written about women rights and equality and we often we read stories of activist groups fighting hard to provide women their due societal equity. This one year has actually taught me that claiming to be a feminist by reading “Lean In” or “Lajja” is way different from practicing it in real life. My appeal to all those parents, who feel their daughters are a burden, who feel it is useless to educate them, who are in favor of early marriages – give them the wings to fly, support them in their endeavors, educate them enough to earn a living. They are not “paraya dhan”, but your own flesh and blood…just give them the wings to fly and let them lead the rest of their lives with their head held high.