At times it feels strange, being from the Netherlands, to write about another nation’s cultural gender norms and disparities. It might appear hypocrite, because in the Netherlands too there are still –be they more vague- roles dictated to men and women. These roles too result in disparities that render women at times unequal to men, either in the professional or in the household context. To be frank, disparities exist everywhere, whether they are perceived to be harmful or not. Be all that as it may; if these disparities lead to the normalisation of subordination and in many cases the inability to develop according to one’s own hopes and dreams, simply because you were born a girl; then it is necessary to look for ways to give women a kick-start in life. That is exactly what these Bachat Gat are for and what the Swayamsiddha foundation aims to do. These initiatives could be described as supervised micro-revolutions that target the patriarchy that has been a part of women’s respective and respectable lives for too long. In this blog post I will write about what I have learned while tagging along with the men and women of the Swayamsiddha Foundation to their events in Pune and Diva.
It takes more than a few comforting words to break the boundaries that women face in their fight for an equal standing in life. Perhaps one of the greatest boundaries in that regard is their own socialisation with patriarchy while growing up. It is not uncommon for girls to be fed less than boys, or to be sent to a different –be that cheaper- school than their brothers. Many girls learn from a very young age that they are not equal to their male peers. Their development is perceived to be of lesser importance. This struggle reminds me of the difficulties faced by the protagonist in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, attempting to contest the rigidity of people’s interpretations of reality and desirability derived from their mechanisms of socialisation with their surroundings. The proceedings of SHG’s allow for an all-encompassing approach to provide women with the means to empower themselves. Supervised by coordinators, all of which schooled and supervised in turn by the Swayamsiddha Foundation.
The meetings I attended were both organised in that light. Rows and rows of women, one dressed more beautifully than the other in saris so colourful, gathered to be educated in the means to spread the initiative that had filled their eyes with confidence instead of doubt. All these hundreds of coordinators listened closely to Vijay and Dittaram as they elaborated on both the necessity of self-confidence while starting a joint-venture and the importance of finding a hiatus in the market to fill it with the products they will eventually produce. A sustainable example of such a hiatus they found in the ban on plastic bags in Mumbai. In that light, the Foundation invited a lady that gave a workshop in fabricating paper carry-bags, which the groups could in turn sell to department stores and the like. Aside from the two topics above the coordinators were schooled in the ground principles of the Self Help Group and the rules that must be followed for them to be eligible for bank-loans.
Empowerment does not just happen, it is the result of the ability of a woman to gather and utilise both her resources and her agency in such a way that there is no denying her standing in life and society. When women work hard to reach goals they have set together, there is no limit to their success. I know this, for I have seen what these groups and these women achieve. I have spoken to a single mother, from a Below Poverty Line (BPL) family, that has her beautiful, princess of a daughter now attending a private school, through the money she has made participating in a SHG. I have spoken to an elderly tribal woman, also from BPL decent, that has managed to put her son into the Indian Institute of Technology and is now an IT-specialist in London. These weren’t the only success stories. At the end of both meetings, women literally waited in line to explain to me how they were helped by being part of their respective groups. Their eyes were filled with a warm, confident glare that left me in awe. To see these women in turn gather to spread the formula forth to others in need is an amazing sight. I was honoured to be pulled up to the stage to speak of what it is I do and the necessity of documenting all it is they do to incorporate it into the literature regarding means to facilitate gender equality. All these eyes, carrying all these stories, staring at you simultaneously. What an experience.
It is during these trips that I have gotten closer to both Dittaram and Vijay. I learn more from them every time I see them and interact with them. I very much enjoy the conversations I have with them. I enjoy speaking to them in part because they are both so dedicated to what they do and because they both clearly carry a lot of life experience with them. Yet, for the most part I like my conversations and interactions with them because they are truly kind and good men. I appreciate them greatly for that and for the opportunity to tag along with them and the other respectable men and women of the Swayamsiddha Foundation.
To be continued….