#MeToo Bundelkhand: Three stories of women at work in the hinterland show dark lining below social, economic change

What does the workplace look like for these women who are resetting centuries of gender, class and caste oppression? Can they speak truth to power as we hear women in other places speaking? Or is silence a small price for the slow-moving liberties that they have gained? What shape can #MeToo take here?

Khabar Lahariya January 01, 2019 09:41:41 IST
#MeToo Bundelkhand: Three stories of women at work in the hinterland show dark lining below social, economic change

#MeToo Bundelkhand is an exclusive two-part series on the continued silence around crimes against women in rural Bundelkhand, and the normalisation of this silence. What emerges is that systemic violence and discrimination against women, especially in rural areas, runs deep, and goes beyond just the sexual. 

Bundelkhand, as of late 2018, is poor, dry and stuck in a paralysis of governance, far from the ‘feel good’ narratives that most state-sponsored PR and blindsided patriotism seems buoyed by. Things are not getting better here, but things are also not the same. Cheap internet connections and smartphones are aglow in villages that dot the barren ghats. Women are at work, ‘lower castes’ are in public spaces, changing and redefining them. Large bribes are paid so that the women of the family can be teachers and nurses, earning hefty permanent salaries, and supporting unemployed male members.

But what of the dark lining below these stories of social and economic change? What does the workplace look like for these women who are resetting centuries of gender, class and caste oppression? Can they speak truth to power as we hear women in other places speaking? Or is silence a small price for the slow-moving liberties that they have gained? What shape can #MeToo take here?

I. Rajkumari*, 25, Journalist

The editorial structure of the media here is shaped like an inverted pyramid, with the number of paid editorial staff reducing to a pinpoint as you go lower and deeper into up country or rural locations, and where advertising revenues are slim. Large media corporations may have stringers, who, since they are not on the payroll, work for multiple organisations, and double as advertising agents with revenue targets and hefty commissions. In this game of mobility, networking, insecure finances, blackmail and political and administrative power brokering, women are rarely seen or heard. The ones who are, are treated with some curiosity and a lot of lewd relish.   

Her Story

He made it impossible for me to go to the administrative offices.

Everyone was under his thumb.

No one would speak to me.

I stopped reporting.

Rajkumari never finished school, and in her late teens when she had the opportunity to be trained as a professional journalist, she took it. A Dalit, her family has had few avenues of livelihood, and there were many sisters to support. Rajkumari began working as a reporter. After her marriage, her marital family wasn’t supportive of her ‘gallivanting about’ at unpredictable hours, and so she had to leave.

Years of economic and domestic strife later, she pleaded her way back to journalism. She began to work in the Ajaygarh block of Panna district in Madhya Pradesh, a short bus ride across the border from her village in Banda. Rajkumari saw no other women reporting, as she began to establish herself in her new beat, familiarising herself with villages, panchayat level workers and local influencers. When she went to the block office to question a few relevant officials on her first lot of stories, she was accompanied by a colleague, a senior reporter. It was clear immediately that the block office was controlled by one man, Ram Milan Pande, the Block Pramukh. (The Block Pramukh is the highest level of elected official at the block level.) Panchayat elections are both overtly and implicitly political, and Pande was a longstanding Congressman, with strong influence in the region. He had ambitions of running for an MLA position, in the upcoming Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections, and he saw Rajkumari, a young, confident and mobile woman in the area, as a creative tool for campaigning. He was pretty friendly and quite aged, must have been more than 50 years old, Rajkumari’s colleague Rajni told us.

In the weeks after, as Rajkumari began to report independently, she was a frequent visitor to the block headquarters. This was when Pande ‘started sharing things with Rajkumari to win her confidence’. Well aware that this was par for the course, she suffered Pande’s overtures just to get her stories done. But then, one morning in July this year, at the block to interview Pande for a story, Rajkumari’s repeated requests were ignored. There was a meeting on she was told, and many officials from the block were present. Pande dealt with the issues at hand, and slowly, the room emptied out, leaving Rajkumari alone with him. He asked her to wait, have tea, he wanted to speak to her about something. He said he would pay for her fuel costs, and she should do some campaigning for him in the block. When she backed away, he grabbed her hand and said,“Not a leaf in this area moves without me. I’ll have your newspaper shut down.

Rajkumari left the office.

In the weeks that passed, she wasn’t entertained by any official in the block, none of her requests for interviews or bytes were acknowledged. She slowly stopped reporting in the area.

Within a month, citing domestic reasons, Rajkumari left work again.

MeToo Bundelkhand Three stories of women at work in the hinterland show dark lining below social economic change

#MeToo. Illustration courtesy Namaah K for Firstpost

II. Seema*, 25, lawyer and activist

Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh has been a dirty, petty thing, resulting in deep and complex shifts in caste dynamics and social structures in the region over the last three decades. One important historical factor was the establishment of the Bahujan Samaj party in 1984 by Kanshiram, and its mobilisation in Uttar Pradesh. Kanshiram’s successor, Mayawati, played a key role in the grassroots mobilisation and spread of an empowering Dalit politics in the state. Increasing political awareness worked alongside policies (including affirmative action for ‘other backward castes’) that benefited the ‘lower’ castes in Uttar Pradesh, significantly differently from other north Indian states. Youth in Uttar Pradesh have grown up in this atmosphere of political and social opportunism and opportunity, both frustrated and buoyed at the promises of political emancipation, as well as disappointed by the poverty and unemployment that deep-rooted gender and caste based discrimination still has them trapped in.

Her Story

If I say that I was wrong, people will say I brought it on myself, through my own actions.

I can’t name people in the party (BSP) who have abused me. It will give the party a bad name. But many have. They’ve posted abuse on Facebook, photos and comments. If they see this Dalit girl stepping beyond her boundaries, they do everything they can to pull you down.

Seema was married at 13, in a village that was shadowed by the threat of the notorious ‘Babli Kol daku’ of Bundelkhand. She is Dalit, and like many Dalit parents, hers brought her up to value education above anything else. She studied even after she was married, and despite resistance from her in-laws, got a job in the labour department in Chitrakoot. Her friendship with a distant relative proved to be a lifelong trauma for Seema, as the boy, observant of her ambitions and perseverance, took photos and posted them online, in the early days of Facebook, resulting in public shame and the end of Seema’s marriage. He would call her from different numbers, blackmail her, even come to her home and abuse her. Work became more and more important for Seema to survive both personal strife and economic upheaval,“When I have scars, I lie and say I fell from the roof. Even though everyone in my mohalla knows I’m being harassed and abused, everyone knows I’m being used. Now if he says something or does something, I won’t stay quiet. I will fight back. If I don’t fight, what hope is there for the next generation? Even though I feel that I’m so aware, I’ve had to bear so much.”

Meera lives in the district headquarters now, and has been studying law and running her own practice in the district court in Chitrakoot. Over the years, to cope with public and domestic abuse, she has networked with women’s groups, political parties and bureaucracy, to help her along the thorny path of a Dalit woman trying to get by in the world. The more mobile and aware she is, the more the forces seem to close-in to throttle her. The district court in Karwi, Chitrakoot, is a sea of upper caste men fighting to maintain the status quo, and make a quick buck as and when they can. “You know how it is, when you should charge 50, they charge 100; when they should charge 500, they charge a 1000,” she says. Enter Seema, young, slight, Dalit, smart and articulate.“When I go into the courts, and see women testifying about rape, and see what questions and comments they have to face, the filthy abuse, so loud and aggressive, I understand how someone would be driven to say, it didn’t happen, I wasn’t raped, I’ve filed a false case – even if that is entirely untrue. I’ve seen this happen.”

Last year, her Facebook account was hacked and controversial videos and posts were circulated from it, causing her great stress and public shame.“They plant their people in cyber cafes to watch which Dalit girls are coming and what their Facebook IDs are. And then they post objectionable videos and photos from your accounts. I couldn’t eat for days, I was terrified my parents would find out, and commit suicide. But if you work in an office, you have to compromise. People will say, ‘Bring us tea, if we come to your home, won’t you serve us tea?’ And you ignore them, else, how will you feed your children?”

Even as a politically conscious and mobile young woman, Meera is not enough for the forces of gender, caste and feudal power that conspire to hold her down in the world.

Also read part one: Who killed Neetu Shukla? A deep dive into a suicide-murder case from Uttar Pradesh's hinterland

III. Susheela*, 53, Auxillary Nurse Midwife

The Auxillary Nurse Midwife or ANM is a permanent or contractual government health worker located in a village level sub-centre. She is responsible for catering to the basic healthcare needs as well as childbirth for a population of 5000. The ANM is a salaried worker, and has a joint account with the village pradhan, into which she receives a fund of Rs 10,000, for various equipment or tasks. The job of an ANM is a prestigious one. It also involves being beholden to a network of village and block level officials, health department staff and politicians. The ANM is crucial to the system of maternal and community healthcare, but is also a woman embroiled in the highly corrupt and chimerical world of local politics and bureaucracy.

Her Story

I was abused.

Let me tell you the story.

It was the 25th of September.

I was at the Panchayat Bhavan.

It’s been four months, but every time I think of that incident and those people I become a mess. 

It was evening, most people had left. I was waiting for my son to take me home.

My husband is dead, people know I am alone.

Susheela has worked as an ANM for the past 18 years in a remote area of Bundelkhand’s Banda district, surrounded by mountains and forests, and regularly visited by dacoits.“You can go to any family in this area and ask about my credentials, if I have ever had a complaint against me,” Susheela says. She does not stop weeping throughout our interview. Through her tears, Susheela explains the topography of her area of work, through the network of men she must ‘work’ with — the sarpanch, local BJP leaders, the Chief Medical Officer, doctors, police superintendent, constables, and local thugs.

As a long-term government employee of the area, she is regularly asked to pay the pradhan “for expenses of the party, I don’t even know what the party is and what they want the money for”. The money that comes into her (joint) account, recently for sanitation tasks in the health centre, is paid to the pradhan. On the fateful evening she describes, Susheela was asking the pradhan to sign in her register to acknowledge she had given him the money — Rs 8,000.“There were many people around, but I only recognised the three of them, the pradhan, his brother, and the (BJP) treasurer. They began to abuse me loudly, beat their chests. They grabbed my register and tore it, looked at me in a way that terrified me. So many people saw, but no one said a word. Isn’t this molestation?”

Susheela went into shock, but later that evening, called the local police station.“They told me I should have dialled 100. I said I wasn’t feeling well. Then I spoke to the CMO. Within a day, they had arranged to get me transferred. They don’t want me creating trouble.” For months, Susheela resisted this transfer away from her family, her government housing and her familiar area — at the age of 53.“They told me to go from one official to the other, one doctor to another — each wants a cut. How can a woman be tormented like this? People ask me to pay them money, then circulate these rumours that I extract money from people. Ask anyone whether I ever did any wrong. The SP, DIG or the Mahila Aayog hasn't heard me out.” She went into a kind of trauma, still visible in her broken, rambling speech. She hasn’t been paid a salary in four months, since the incident took place. She received death threats from the pradhan and his brother, and calls from the local police station — “Madam, thane mei aakar FIR kar dijiye” — calls she recognised as barely concealed threats if she didn’t ‘compromise’.“Why will I file a case? I need to live in this area. I want my posting cancelled.”

As of 19 December, her transfer has been nullified. She has been reinstated to the sub-centre where she has been working for 18 years, where she slowly adjusts to living in fear.“I haven't slept in four months. I feel like I should call the BJP (party workers, media) and kill myself in front of them.”

*Names changed on request.

Reporting by Khabar Lahariya Bureau. Written by Disha Mullick.

Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.

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