Jhansi: The unpaved road leads to a haphazard colony of mostly makeshift and a few pucca houses in Mauranipur, in Jhansi district in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region. The lanes are narrow, the sewers are blocked with fallen leaves and sludgy water. Cows masticate nonchalantly on a sliver of ground visible from between two houses.
The daughters-in-law of Mishraji, the owner of a mom-and-pop store, are slaving over a mud oven, getting dinner ready, rolling out perfect round rotis and roasting them directly over the coal fire. Sangeeta and Bipan wipe off beads of sweat from their faces with the ends of their saris. The heat of the burning coals had hiked the temperature in the courtyard in the centre of their home. Sangeeta’s little daughter wanders in, smiling shyly at me.
“Do you go to school?” I ask her. “No,” she sulks.
“Why? You don’t like schools?” I ask.
“No! I love school but my aunt says that there’s no money, so I should stay home and help my mother,” she pouts at me. She is barely 6.
“What do we do, sister?” Sangeeta says. “We can either feed them or send them to school.”
There is a difference of 21 percent between male and female literacy in the Bundelkhand region, according to a 2011 report. The gap is higher than the national average of 17 percent. In Jhansi, the difference was 22 percent. Almost 30 percent of girls are missing from schools.
But for Sangeeta, this is not an issue that will determine her vote. It will be what her husband or father-in-law said. For now, her concerns reflect that of her male relatives, and her vote is an extension of her husband’s. Women in the Bundelkhand region, ravaged by a series of droughts, crop failures, and poverty levels higher than the rest of the country or even the region, live sequestered lives.
“Women live in a strongly patriarchal society, which even as it associates them with dignity and family respect, suppresses them and puts them into the background, to be hidden and protected, or to be subjugated and dominated,” the first ever regional human development report on Bundelkhand (2012) released in 2015 said.
The region suffers from a high female infant mortality and women are scarcely allowed to pursue higher education. They are also married off earlier than in the rest of the region. “Violence against women is higher in Bundelkhand than the rest of UP or MP,” the report had said.
But women voters in this region are not aware of these as issues. They are still voting for the men, as advised by the men.
“We are not educated. What do we understand about politics? We vote for whom their father tells us to vote for,” Kasturi, Sangeeta’s mother-in-law, says, nodding toward her husband. Her son whispers in her ears and hesitantly, she adds, “I also haven’t got my pension. Our children will look after their families or us?” Asking something for herself was alien to her.
Around a hundred kilometers ahead in Deora village, also in Jhansi district, I meet Suman and her three daughters. In Suman’s village, they have a primary school only till Class 5. Suman’s elder daughter, Kalpana, stays with her parents in Kaithi village in Hamirpur district, where they have a high school. But her second daughter, Nidhi, stays at home, helping with the housework, after she finished primary school.
“I cannot send all my children to my parents. They are old,” she says.
“The nearest high school is in Bagroni, which is 4-5 kilometers away. It is difficult for girls to go as there are no travel facilities. In the rainy season, the roads are flooded, girls rarely go to school. I send her for private tuitions,” she adds.
“If girls have to travel over three to four kilometres to reach school, then they (parents) would prefer not to risk sending their girls to school,” The Bundelkhand Human Development report had said in 2015, painting a picture of 2012. The situation has stayed the same for the region even now.
The region also has a poor record when it comes to women’s safety. Assaults against women in UP-Bundelkhand stands at 6.1 percent of the state’s total, against a 4.8 percent share of population. Their status in society has remained lower than men. In Bundelkhand’s traditional society, women have continued to play a subservient role at homes.
In Suman’s house, for example, her only son, Sunny, is treated like a god. He is served by his sisters and his mother and his grandmother. Although he is only 9 years old, his body language exudes the confidence of being special.
“Does your brother help with housework?” I ask Nidhi.
She looks shocked. “No. He doesn’t need to,” she says, while sweeping the courtyard with exaggerated care.
In the interim budget for 2019-20, the Indian government said they had moved from ‘women’s development’ to ‘women-led development’ during the last 4.5 years. If that is true, Nidhi should be in school and not in private tuitions. I tried persuading Suman to say it is an issue with her, that she will vote for a government that will ensure her daughter is in school and not private tuitions. But she merely parrots the concerns of her husband.
“We vote according to the elders. We have to respect their decisions,” she adds. In her home, the elder is her mother-in-law, who ironically will vote on the advice of her son, Suman’s husband.
A couple of hundred kilometers ahead, I meet Ammaji, Suman’s mother. Ammaji works from dawn till dusk. I squint open my eyes at 3 am. She is apologetic.
“Did I wake you up?” she whispers. I say no and follow her out to the courtyard where she milks the cow. Then she sweeps the entire house, washes utensils, prepares for breakfast. Her devoted assistant is Suman’s middle daughter Nidhi, who had tagged along with me to visit her grandparents.
“She is very good with housework,” Ammaji says with pride. “When she comes to stay with me, I have no trouble. Her sister, on the other hand, is useless,” she says with serious exasperation.
Kalpana was adamant that she wanted to continue with her studies and so moved to live with her grandparents. “I want to go to college and then work in the city,” Kalpana says.
Girls like Kalpana are rare in these villages. While girls are no longer discouraged to study, the buck stops at attending schools within the village. In every village, walls are painted over and over with messages of 'Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao'. But the government somehow forgot to provide high schools to actually make this happen. Girls are dropping out after primary school. They are literate enough to use a smartphone, say hello and thank you, and dress in western clothes, but they are not empowered enough to voice or vote their opinion.
In Deora, for example, not only is there no high school, but the anganwadi centre too has been lying defunct for over five years.
“There has been no development in this village, sister. There’s no anganwadi. Where will the children go to study? The school is also only till Class 5 and the quality of teachers very low,” Rajesh Kumari, a cooperative worker whispers to me, hurrying to add, “I only want the best for this village. That is why I am talking to you.”
She is the only woman I met during my travels in Bundelkhand who was upset about the situation of education and its implications for the girls.
“I didn’t have the courage to even speak up a few years back, my husband would shut me up,” she says, smiling from behind the end of her sari that covered her face.
But Rajesh had to be given a free rein by her husband when he fell ill and could not work. Rajesh got a job to run a block co-operative, where she holds periodic meetings with villagers and reports their concerns to the block office.
But despite her new-found feistiness, Rajesh wouldn’t speak to me in front of the men, just like Sangeeta earlier. Earlier she had called me inside her home, where she had gathered a few other women, to talk to me about their issues. These women have found a voice, but they are still hesitating to voice their opinion because apart from society, our governments too have constrained their self-worth around home and kitchen. Which is why the aim to deliver eight crore free LPG connections to women is considered a major vote catcher among women in Bundelkhand, despite the fact what women need in this region — and need it desperately — are safety, education and empowerment.
A lack of these three has meant that women have been constrained to their homes in purdah. They are kept out of schools and colleges and married off early. Suman, for example, was married off before she was 16 and now in her late twenties, she is already the mother of three children, the oldest being 13 years old. The status of women in Bundelkhand has remained restricted within the four walls of their homes. They have no decision-making powers and no say in important matters, including exercising their right to vote. But no government has yet tried to redress the situation, apart from allowing for reservation for women at the panchayat level. However, that reservation, too, has been usurped by the men.
For example, Ram Devi is the village head of Deora. But she doesn’t live in Deora. She lives in a nearby village called Sijhari with her husband, although her original address is in Deora, which allowed her to contest the village council elections.
When I reach Deora, I am, however, introduced to a man called Inderpal Singh as the village head. He calls himself the representative of Ram Devi. Nobody in Deora has seen Ram Devi much. They prefer to take their problems and issues to Singh.
Ram Devi was persuaded to fight village council elections in Deora owing to reservation. Her son put her up as a front and after she won, she went back to Sijhari. Inderpal Singh is now the de-facto village head. “She is a woman. Who goes to a woman with problems? She can’t also just roam around the village. She has household responsibilities,” a villager tells me.
On 29 April, women in these villages will vote. But they will vote according to the men, to ensure the status quo of its patriarchal society is retained.
And cooking gas is not going to break down this patriarchy. Schools and access to quality education just might.
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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 19:20:07 IST