While you were away
Sai Kanika Sharma and Malaika Fernandes

City inhabitants have a very erroneous perception of women in the villages of India that stereotypes them as subservient to men. But this does not hold true for all the villages in India as we learnt. The true strength of women can only be understood when one steps into their shoes and learns about their lives.

The women of the Uttarakhand hills have a history of resistance that dates back to the colonial times with the peasant uprisings and more recently with the ‘Chipko’ movement of the 1970s. Women have always had a central role to play in the conservation of the forests to ensure its continued sustenance.

In recent years, the region has witnessed a significant number of men migrating out to cities for jobs. Hema Bisht who is only 23, is eager to share her story. Having lost her mother at an early age, she and her three sisters lived with their grandparents. Shewas married at the age of 19 and bore a child by the time she turned 20, but held on to her dream to complete her education. Today, with a Masters in Sociology, Hema has beaten the odds in a place where education is a privilege granted mostly to boys.

Young girls engaged in courses organized by local NGOs have discovered new potential in themselves. Tulsi, a young participant of a 40-day-long course at Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (CHIRAG) in Mukteshwar, said that the course has instilled in her higher levels of confidence and faith in her abilities. Her initial hesitation in voicing her opinions disappeared and she is now able to communicate better. In school, she said, she did not have opportunities to pursue her interests due to the lack of infrastructure such as computers, but this course has expanded her spheres of knowledge and access.

Munni and her daughter Neema Bisht live alone in a house in the Myoda village and leave in the morning to a local organisation where the mother works as a director, development, and the daughter as a teacher. They have learned not to wait for the man of the house to make their decisions for them.

But these women were not always empowered. “We women did not leave home before,” Munni said. It was their engagement with local Self Help Groups (SHGs) that they were able to come out of their homes to earn a living. Financial independence has given them new confidence today. The SHGs have also helped develop leadership qualities which has given them the confidence to deal with any situation.

Like when the women in 2007 fought off a potentially catastrophic forest fire in village Talla that threatened to engulf the entire village. It was mostly the women who manually brushed away the incendiary pine needles to stem the spread of the forest fire. It was the women again who later formed proactive groups to help bring the village back to normalcy by planting trees that would help to rejuvenate the land.

Their involvement with SHGs also gives the women financial confidence – and considerable business acumen. “We don’t take loans from banks anymore, as the SHGs have a flexible annual interest rate of 12 per cent,” said Radha Sati of village Malla. With support from local SHGs, even uneducated women have learned to keep accounts of their funds. SHGs have also taught them valuable vocational skills, such as knitting, pickle and jam production, which help bolster household incomes, a necessity when the menfolk are away.

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