By Tanima Banerjee:
How many of us actually believe that a woman’s life is unsubstantial and meaningless the moment she becomes a plain housewife? How many of us have at some point, ‘thought less’ of our mothers or female relatives, who are just housewives? I am sure right from the greatest patriarch to the most liberated feminist, believes that a woman’s life has no value and the most limited if she turns out to be a housewife. Even though there have been thinkers and scholars who have valorized the ‘job’ of a housewife by asserting that if a housewife’s income is calculated on the basis of the labor and management skills she puts into, her salary would be greater than an MBA graduate working in an international company. Despite such claims, being a housewife in the age of growth and increased women’s education is still seen as a redundant and limiting for a woman, or in simple terms “the end” of her life.
Even I believed that in our country, there are two types of women, the housewife and the career-woman. And then, I met the third kind. Sridevi Silish, who is a mother of two children in Bangalore, is also a successful urban entrepreneur. Despite belonging to an orthodox family, she stepped out of the house and set up a production unit that provides employment for around 60 destitute women of a slum in Bangalore. She trained these women employees in handicraft using eco-friendly raw materials as well as helped them improve their financial status by saving money or opening bank accounts. Thus she has provided these women employment as well as self-sustenance, ushering these women with new hopes and a new life through her innovative business initiative.
Meera Mahadevan, founded Mobile CrÃ¨ches, in 1969 aimed at providing children of construction workers with a happy and nurturing childhood. Since then this social movement has been working towards their future where these children are safe, healthy and educated. What must be noted here is that Meera was a regular housewife at that time. Mobile CrÃ¨ches have now expanded its operations in Mumbai and Pune as well, where the women of the Mahadevan family work in this movement catering to the problems of the migrant population on the construction sites, which no other organization works towards. Not only educating children, they also train the women on construction sites to be teachers, which is undoubtedly a brilliant step towards building self-reliance of these women.
These are stories of urban housewives, but even the village women are not behind in proving their capacity to bring a change. Rajkumari Devi, a 58 year old mother of three grown up children, a resident of a remote village of Anandpur, in Saraiya block of Muzaffarpur,Bihar, is now called ‘Kisan Chachi’. Apart from being a housewife all her life, she utilizes her self-acquired expertize in agriculture by sharing her experiences with the villagers of her area. She cycles through the dusty village roads, giving tips to people on kitchen farming and on developing the right agri-based products for business.
She has also been able to mobilize around 300 women by forming Self Help Groups, who earn Rs.3000 monthly and made them self-reliant and financially secure. Fellow SHG member, Manju Devi, says, “Life has changed here. Women have started earning. It is true that we were only experts in household chores. But now we also sell our home-made products in market.” ‘Kisan Chachi’ is an example of a woman who uses her domestic expertise of farming practices that she acquired with age and time, and now helps people assess their land and predict the quality of crops. She has taught the villagers expand their business and grow their business by shifting to variety of crops, fruits and vegetables, and also make agricultural products like jam, pickles etc. SHG has now expanded its farms to fish farming, poultry and cow breeding. Thus ‘Kisan Chachi’ has transformed the lives of many around her, including her own family, and redefined their economy.
Lalit Lokvani is the first community radio station in Lalitpur, a district in the impoverished regions of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh. The uniqueness of this radio station is that it has mostly female employees as radio jockeys, community reporters or field coordinators. This is an initiative to encourage women from within the community to take to reporting and anchoring programmes on issues that concern them.
Rachna, a girl of 19, who is a radio jockey in this radio station, has emerged as a role model for girls in her village. What she has achieved by making her voice reach across several villages is a remarkable feat for the people here.
Another woman, Uma Yadav, 33, a housewife, mother-of-five and one of the 12 community reporters at the station, has defied her family restrictions to do some productive work for the society. She says, “Until now no daughter-in-law in the village had ever taken to reporting, recording programmes and getting involved in solving issues related to women… I still have to face the snide remarks of my sisters-in-law when I leave for the station every day and return in the evening, but I feel it’s a small price to pay for what I want to do.” The station has been doing useful work by taking on social and developmental issues of the area and mobilizing people and spreading awareness related to health and family welfare as well, thanks to all the committed women employees of the station.
These women have not stopped at just being housewives. They have extended their social role. This is not to say that they have neglected their household. They handle the kitchen with as much dedication as they can. But their specialty lies in the way they have expanded their space and gone beyond the kitchen to make real contributions to the society at large. These women are not the professional women, who work in companies and institutions for a salary of 30,000. They have actually gone beyond the roles society has laid down for women, and taken new, path-breaking steps to give a new meaning to their lives as well as the world outside. They are “Innovators” who are harnessing their skills and talents beyond just home management, choosing paths unimagined before, achieving what is normally out of range for a conventional housewife. They have empowered themselves as well as made valuable efforts to strengthen the community, beyond being just the homemaker.
What these women have achieved cannot be under-estimated. They have defied all odds and rebuilt themselves and the society around them by harnessing their talents and expertise. They are no longer dependent on social institutions like family alone to substantiate their lives, but have expanded their visions to newer horizons. They have all had a dream, and they have striven hard to make them real. In a country where a thousand and one gender prejudices exist, this is a big leap forward. The stories of these unsung heroes come as a motivation for all those women, who think that life for them is confined within the four walls, and there is no hope for them after being termed as housewives.
Women like Sridevi, Meera and Rajkumari prove that one doesn’t have to be a big degree holder to work for the society and make their life meaningful beyond the household. A housewife needs to look within herself and find her hidden talent, fueled by a will and resolution to bring a change in the world around through little steps. Women need to realize that if they want, they can do anything. They need to think beyond the assigned social role they are asked to perform, and understand their relationship with the community at large. Only a woman can bring a change in the lives of other women who are still disempowered or oppressed. A woman needs to understand that she is not a dispensable entity, but as much a citizen of the country who is as much needed for the country’s development as an engineer or doctor. So, the next time you under-estimate a housewife, think again! She might be the agent to the next big change in the political, social or economic scenario of your country.