Working With These Women Showed Me What The Struggle For Equal Rights Needs

Mere parivar waale mujhe aur padhne nahi dete” (People in my family don’t let me study.) – an angst of an 18-year old girl, who wants to continue her studies. “Mujhe to apna kuch nahi karna hai, agle saal meri shaadi karwa denge.” (I don’t want to start anything on my own, I’ll be married off next year.) — a reason for a 17-year-old girl to not attend entrepreneurship training.

I often hear these kinds of things from women, when I visit the slum areas of Delhi, where Dhriiti conducts entrepreneurship sessions. Sometimes, I try to know more about their problem and sometimes I ignore them as I am helpless to do anything for them. Yes, our society still does not support education for girls. Our society still believes that girls should not study after a certain point, as it may be a problem to find a qualified groom for her. We are still in a society where girls are forced to marry before the legal age of marriage. When I saw “Parched”, the line “padh sun ke collector banegi kaa?” (Will you become a collector by reading and listening?) reminded me of that girl who wants to continue her studies but her parents are not allowing her to study anymore. I had asked her if I could meet her parents to convince them to allow her to study. I even told her to continue her studies through long distance education, but her parents are not ready to allow her to study at any cost. When I got familiar with the Pinjra Tod campaign, I remembered my university days where we too were not allowed to go outside the hostel premises after 9:30 pm, whereas boys did not have a curfew time.

Although, the terms women empowerment and feminism have become fancy words nowadays, I still want to use these fancy words to support the struggle for women. If you ask me, “Do women really need empowerment?” My answer will be ‘yes’. This is not because we consider ourselves to be weak, but because the customs and mentality of the people of our society are still weak. People may think that only weaker section needs empowerment, but my answer is, “Women are not weak; they are powerful to deal with any kind of situation, just the society needs to recognise their power and existence.”

The concept of women empowerment is incomplete without their economic empowerment. When I went to the slum areas of West Delhi to meet women from a handmade bag making unit, I asked them the reason why they came to the centre. I got a spontaneous answer. “Mai yahaan roj aati hoon, sikhne aur mehnat karke kuch kamane taaki mujhe apne pati se paisa na mangna pade.” (I come here every day, to learn something, work hard and earn so that I don’t have to ask my husband for money.) Yes, the source of money is a matter of concern for many women in India who are completely dependent on their husband’s income. In such cases, women are the homemakers, who take care of the home, children and in-laws. But, in most of the cases, women are not recognised for their work as they are not making any money out of it.

I have one question. How will a girl get better employment and source of livelihood if she is not allowed to study? In most of these cases, parents do not allow their daughters to study, because they think they will not get qualified grooms for their daughters or they do not want to spend their money on a girl’s education as they are forced to save money for their daughters’ marriage. On the other hand, husbands do not give equality to their wives while taking decisions related to household matters. Most of the women are not even allowed to go outside without their husband’s permission. They treat their wives as insignificant pieces in their lives because their wives are not earning anything.

I am thankful to Dhriiti for giving me the chance to see these ground realities of the unprivileged ladies of our country. Now, as a part of Dhriiti, I am also trying to bring women empowerment through economic empowerment.

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About the author: Poonam Barhoi is an India Fellow of the 2016 cohort working with Dhriiti, an organisation working on promoting entrepreneurship skills amongst the urban youth from lower socio-economic backgrounds in Delhi.

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