“My granddaughter was subject to sarcastic comments because she didn’t have a brother.”

18 February 2013 | by Shruti Kohli | HIRMATHALA, HARYANA

Technically, a village is a place which is light years behind schedule as compared to its urban neighbourhood. But a visit to Hirmathala, a non-descript village in Haryana, proves otherwise. You end up with the conclusion that villages and towns in India are quite at par. And this may not necessarily mean that the villages are catching up but that the cities maybe lagging behind, by light years.

 

Sharda, 35, contorts her face to express her disgust when told how women are sexually harassed on the streets of Delhi and other cities. The disgust is not so much for harassment as much as it is for the fact that women are not behaving themselves by becoming more “modernised.” “Men won’t bother a woman who minds her own business and does not throw gestures at men,” she says. If you stress too much to make her believe that in Delhi and other cities women are harassed just because they are women, she will end up suspecting your character.

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Sharda shares her thoughts about sexual harassment and status of women

See, the rural-urban parity? In cities also with all our education and western exposure, we believe women ask for it. But it hits harder in villages where women can’t fight back for lack of adequate facilities and exposure. For, even if they rebel to go to school anyway, they will need someone (read a man, for other older women will not be educated enough) to help them enroll in a far away school and also escort them to school and back everyday till they can take care of it independently.

 

No wonder girls in rural areas drop out of school due to sexual harassment and sexual assaults en route to a far away school. Many villages still don’t have functional schools or many have only primary or middle schools which are mostly grazing grounds for cattle or they end up as boys’ schools as girls drop out early due to lack of toilet facilities.
Sharda’s village started getting proper toilets since three years back when the non-profit organisation, Sulabh International, came here. “This is a big step towards safety of women. Earlier, women had to go to open areas outside the village to defecate. Men would stop by and ridicule. It was so embarrassing!” says Shakuntala, Sharda’s mother-in-law.

 

Hirmathala has a primary school now and a non-formal school starts shortly. Shakuntala’s younger daughter-in-law, Poonam, will be teaching at this non-formal school. This is big change from girls not going to school to them teaching there.

Poonam is all set to teach at the non-formal school starting in her village

Poonam will be a teacher at the non-formal school starting in her village

But inadequate toilet facilities are not the only hurdle in the way of women’s education in villages. Marriage plays a major role too. Girls are married off at the age of 15 and start having children a year later. Where is the time for school and education anyway? This may look like the obvious rural-urban divide.

 

Girls and boys returning from school at Hirmathala

Girls and boys returning from school at Hirmathala

 

But no! The idea of early marriage of women stems from the deep rooted belief that women won’t be able to pull it off without men. The “educated” city crowd tells their women not to slog too much to build careers because “after all it’s your husband’s money that counts.” The educated urban women find it “convenient to be a woman.” Nobody will be shocked if they leave their job and decide to sit at home. Nobody will question them if they are professionally not ambitious. So there, the similarity.

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Shakuntala and Wahidan are happy that things are changing while they discuss the issues about status of women

So, women in this village are married at the age of 15. The next step is to have children, no, have sons. They must go on reproducing till they have a son and if they have a son, they must go on reproducing till they have many more sons. You don’t even need to be told how similar this is to t urban scenario! “Every woman bears 15 children on an average,” says Shakuntala. But not all survive to adulthood.

 

“Women’s bodies become weak. They start bearing children at such a tender age and have one child almost every year. It’s obvious that children will be born weak and some so weak that they won’t survive through adolescence even,” says Vijaylakshmi a resident of this village.

 

“Three years back, when my granddaughter went to tie rakhi on her cousin, the latter’s mother told my granddaughter ‘you don’t even have a brother! Why do you tie rakhi on my son?’ She stopped her from tying rakhi. My granddaughter cried inconsolably! Such a thing would never happen in cities where people are more educated.” says Shakuntala. “Now she has a brother thankfully otherwise I don’t know what would have happened,” she says.

 

What if a couple can’t have a son after years of trying? “They bring from outside….women. They marry again…they marry women from outside the village and at times they have three wives in the same house in anticipation of a son. If one can’t bear a son, the next wife would. If not the second one, the subsequent one would. And so on…But a son in mandatory. One man married nine times and still doesn’t have a son!” says Shakuntala.
However, a few young couples have discarded these old fashioned ways.

 

Wahidan, 60, who gave birth to 15 children, is happy to declare that her daughter-in-law has three children, two daughters and a son and she has got sterilisation done. “It was their (husband and wife) mutual decision,” says Wahidan. This is a big change for another reason too. Sterilisation is not allowed among Muslims. But, yes, it’s the woman who must go in for the sterilisation while the man doesn’t have to disturb his reproductive system in any way.

 

However, change is seeping in and the villagers are welcoming it with open arms. Besides, they look up to the educated urban neighbours as role models. The later, with all the required means at their disposal, must not let them down.

 

 

What to Do!

If you, or a woman or women around you, are subject to domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual violence, and other atrocities at home or anywhere else, here is what you can do.

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