It is six am, Sunday morning and I can’t sleep. I climb out of bed and tip toe across the room so not to wake my husband. The house is cold. It is winter now. I look out the window. The sky is midnight blue; the stars are still shining brightly in the sky and a crescent shaped moon hangs as if someone hastily put it there. The village is dark, but for a single light burning in each house. The women are already up and moving about, preparing for the day ahead, a day like all the others because in Jaunpur there is no day of rest for women. One day blends into the next, the same routine day in and day out; wake up, splash some water on the face, start a fire and put a pot of chai on for the family and then off to the cow shed to clean up after the animals and give them some feed, gather some wood and head back to the house to make breakfast for the family. Then it is off to the mountain sides to cut fodder (grass for the animals), climbing high in the tree tops for the best leaves, and scouring 75 degree slopes for the best grass. The load is tied up and hoisted onto their heads and carried back to the cow sheds –feed for another day. The rest of the day is taken up with tending crops and washing clothes at the local tap, and minding small children while sharing gossip with other women — maybe she will do a little knitting for some family member –but she is never idle. She is busy throughout the day, and then it is evening, and again the cows need to be fed, so she sets off to tend to her animals and again she returns with a bundle of wood balanced perfectly on her head, back straight as an arrow, perfect posture developed over time since she was a small girl going with her mother or older sisters, learning the ways, the life of women in Jaunpur. And then night time arrives. She has cooked dinner over an open fire for her family and washed the dishes and now, at last she can rest, and she curls up on her mattress, closes her eyes and dreams, because she still wants to. It soothes her soul.
This is the life of a Jounpur woman in the heart of the Garhwal region of the Indian Himalaya. And now I am a part of this life. I met my husband, Kunwar, seven years ago while I was conducting research for my PhD in Anthropology. Kunwar is Jounpuri, and we live in his village of Sainji. He is a respected leader in this area and has brought a tremendous amount of positive change to the area, and for this he is to be commended.
In many ways he is different than most men in this area, more thoughtful, more progressive and open minded. It was these qualities which attracted me to him – these and his life commitment to bringing about positive changes for the people of Jounpur. His experience, his resolve, his knowledge and intuitiveness and innate understanding of the culture are what inspire me; make me want to help him in his mission to improve the lives of his fellow villagers.
In my time living in Jaunpur I have come to know a little of what it is to be a woman living in this area. My husband, for all his wonderful qualities, is still a man who was raised in a ‘man’s world’. I love him dearly, but inwardly I have been challenged to live in an alternate sphere where my role as a woman is somewhat tilted. My voice as a woman in this region holds little power. I often find myself screaming inwardly because outwardly no one, it seems, can hear me or even wants to hear me. But still I have more voice, more power than the women around me, these women who are toiling day in and day out — going about their lives quietly, suffering inwardly, accepting compromise, living with their prescribed roles because they were told as little girls they were not worthy of more.
The role of women in this region has roots extending back through the years to a time when group polyandry was the standard form of marriage. Girls were married off, with no ceremony, to a group of brothers. Most were children, as young as 8 years old. After some time, the brothers would take another wife and then a third or a fourth. Families were large, and the traditional houses reflect this as the connecting rooms extend several meters. Children referred to the men as, Big Pappa, Middle Papa and Little Papa, depending on the birth order. All were their fathers and all the offspring, their sisters and brothers. If a woman was not happy with her arrangement, she had little recourse, especially if her natal family was poor – they simply could not care for her – she would be too much of a burden. In the 1950s marriages began to change to monogamous arrangements. This was due in part to the road that came through the area and to the influence of plains culture, which placed a stigma on such marriages – they were seen as been perverse, backwards, so people wanted to change to the norm. However, little girls still married at a very young age and this continued until about twenty years ago. My mother-in-law spoke of her experience.
“One day a man came and picked me up from where I was playing near my village of Kandhi, and carried me to Sainji – about ten kilometres. I was eight years old then. He carried me on his back and we walked for about 4 hours. I was frightened, but I came to understand that this was my new family. They were good to me – treated me well. I lived with my husband, who was 11. We were only children and we just played with each other as children do. I had my first baby when I was 14. Then I had three more – all boys. And I was a widow by the time I was twenty-one. It was difficult. Everyone wanted to push me out of the village. They wanted our land. I only had my mother-in-law to help me, and I had all these children – the oldest was only seven, and my youngest, a baby. But still I went everyday to tend my fields. One day, these men from Sainji came with sticks. They were going to beat me and they would have killed me, had it not been for some other women from the village who helped me. At last, my husband’s uncle came to my rescue. He was living in Delhi at the time, but he helped me keep the land, and he gave me some help with my children – he took Kunwar, who was only ten at the time, to Delhi and educated him there.”
Life improved somewhat when the government began opening more schools in the area and making education more accessible for children, but up until the late 1990’s many women were denied the opportunity to achieve a full education. In our region of Jounpur, it has only been in the last decade that girls have been able to go to high school, and in the last five years that they have begun pursuing university degrees. Twenty years ago, girls were allowed to go to school, but most often were pulled out in their early primary years.
Recently, as a grammar assignment I asked my students to interview their mothers about their lives and to write an essay based on what they had learned. What began as a simple grammar exercise has transpired into something truly remarkable. The children began hesitantly at first, asking the standard questions like; ‘When were you born? What is your favourite colour? When did you get married? ‘ and so forth. But every week we reviewed and discussions ensued, and soon the children became really curious about their mothers, so they would return home each day with a whole new set of questions, and the stories began to grow and the regimented questions and answers dissolved into real dialogue and the stories, the real essence of their mothers, began to emerge. What surfaces in almost all these stories is that all of these women, as young girls, had dreams and in most cases these dreams were shattered by the reality of their poverty and the brutal truth that because they were girls they were not a worthy investment – not because they were not loved — they were. In the words of one of our students,
My mother got her education at a government school in her village until class five. At that time people thought that girls would give nothing back to their parents if their parents were to give them education. This is because girls married outside of the family. So my mother’s parents didn’t help my mother with her education. But at least until class five her brother helped her. He paid her school fees and provided her with stationary things…. My mother lived six kilometers away from her village in a cow shed. In that cowshed there were more than 105 goats and sheep. My mother used to look after them. At that time my mother was in great difficulty. She had to go to school and also care for the animals. She struggled a lot, but she didn’t give up. I am proud of my mother. After class 5 my mother went to school using her own money. She made alcohol and sold it to pay her school fees. She knew that making alcohol was not good, but she had to do it. She hardly managed to study until class ten. When she was fourteen her parents passed away and that was her saddest moment in her life. That is also when her schooling ended – Ritesh, class 7
Similar stories came forth from our students. One boy, after interviewing his mother, approached me and said, “I never knew how much my mother wanted to go to school. When I grow up, I will make sure my girls get the same education my sons get.” In a conversation with a young lady in our village, I asked her what she wanted to be when she was young. “A teacher.” She replied. I could see the spark in her eyes, but it quickly faded when she added, “But I only managed to get my class eight.” I studied her for a moment. She was engaged, and her wedding was only a few months away. “What about now? What do you dream about now?” I asked. “Nothing, I don’t dream anymore.” Came her answer.
Simply put, in the face of abject poverty, where there is no social security and where girls marry outside the family, the investment in education will always fall to the boys. Times are changing and opportunities for girls are emerging, but not in time for the mothers of our children. Yet they dream – they dream of a future for their children, one with little toil and many rewards.
Six years ago, my husband and I opened a charitable English Medium School for our village children and named it, The Garhwal English Medium School (GEMS). We opened the school in response to the very poor quality of education in the area. Most young people had not mastered the educational skills that would help them win scholarships for higher education or compete for good paying jobs. Young men were migrating to cities for poor-paying labor jobs and girls simply hoped to secure a good marriage into a family where they will not have to serve as farm workers like their mothers. Even with a grade 12 education, most youth struggled to read at a class 3 level, and managed with only a basic understanding of math.
At GEMS we strive to offer quality education, and we encourage our children to reach for the stars. However, while we currently have over 230 children enrolled in our school, just 70 are girls. Many of our male students have young sisters at home and who are enrolled in government schools, but parents will not pay the extra fees to enroll their girls in GEMS. We would like to increase the number of girls at GEMS to 100 over the next year. Our girls dream of a better life, and education is the stepping stone to improving not only their lives, but of their families as well. When we used to ask the children what they wanted to be when they grew up, the girls would smile and say, ’We will be mommies one day.’ Now, when we ask this question, the girls smile widely and declare, “I want to be a doctor so I can help the ladies in my villages”, or “I will become an engineer.” The list goes on to include; nurses, teachers, business women, policewomen, even politicians. We believe that with support, our girls will go on to live their dreams and those of their mothers.