Celebrating International Women’s Day
Today I was invited to make a speech at the rural village of Guiaan on International Women’s Day. We made our way out to the village by car later in the afternoon so most of the women and girls who attend the Sewing classes and Adolescent Girls’ Group could be present. During the day I had reading some the strongest feminist messages being posted around the world – Anne Hathaway addressing the UN about gender stereotypes, Emma Watson’s line “If not me, who? If not now, when?”, Gloria Steinem, Malala Yousafzai, Amal Clooney and many other outspoken feminists and equality ambassadors sharing their thoughts on this day. I particularly liked the statue of a young girl staring down the raging bull on wall street as a symbol of women’s economic power. No fear! I also saw a famous Indian Bollywood actress hold up white board messages highlighting the progress India is still yet to achieve in relation to women’s safety and equality, as well as providing better choices, opportunities and education for young girls.
I was a tad nervous, but I always am when making a speech. And as my nerves tried to conquer, I recalled the echoing comments made by a 16-year old girl at a village I visited two years ago when after our discussion about women and gender stereotypes and traditional and archaic customs that limited their potential, I asked her, “How can we support you?” And her answer back to me still lingers in me: “Fight for our rights.” It was something I took away with me from that meeting with these young girls and I often think of them. It’s also something I’m still trying to work out how to actually do – how can I/we best fight for her rights. It is one of the defining moments of being here two years ago and one that keeps me connected to this place Buldana, keeps me in communication with Dr Moses, and the motivation to bring my whole family here to live and see what life is actually like for so many millions of women and girls in rural Indian towns and villages.
We arrived at the village to a group of women sitting on mats outside the Village Health Worker’s (VHW) home. It was a small floor area and it space filled up fast. Some languishing men and boys stood up the back keen to see what the heck was going on here today. But today it was the women and girls who were invited to celebrate the fact that they were born female and we just happened to be here on this day. Varsha (Dr Moses’ sister) is a strong advocate for women’s rights and she spoke at length to the audience about women’s education and careers and the opportunities to progress their lives and livelihoods. But more importantly she talked at length about valuing girls and to not think that baby girls are any less value than baby boys. Here in rural India female infanticide has been practiced due to a culturally conditioned belief that boys are preferred over girls. An ongoing problem with rural Indian village life is that it is customary for girls who get married to leave their family home and live with their husband’s family. It means that girls leave; boys stay which is problematic if you only give birth to babies that are girls.
Families with only female children are under more strain as it leaves the older generation with a major problem: the parents have no one to look after them in old age. If there is no son there is no one in the house! It is just one of the many customs that does not favour girls or their parents. The other customary practice that surrounds girls is dowry – the amount of money/goods a bride’s parents/family must pay to the groom and his family at marriage. The dowry may be a certain amount of cash, or livestock such as cows and goats, or white goods and cupboards. Families on both sides come to an agreement. It’s another sign of women being chattels, products of their fathers and then transferring over to their husbands. However, one looks at it, it’s archaic and needs to stop. The extra pressure placed on parents/families who have daughters to come up with a decent and acceptable dowry is immense and often families go into debt or depression. Many farmers have committed suicide due to the devastating financial impact, or dowry requirement, that their daughters present on the families. In our situation with four daughters, many locals ask us bewildered “no sons?” It is a social norm engrained into their way of life that will take a long time to eradicate.
Another problem in many village laws and customs is the fact that women who find themselves tragically widowed are not allowed to remarry. Men are permitted, but women not. This leaves so many women – old and young – in a financially desperate situation, usually with young children to feed and educate. The worst cases for women not able to remarry and move on with their lives include their husbands leaving them for another person. Women are at the mercy of their husbands and often mercy just isn’t there. It is a good thing now though that women no longer commit sati – the act of a widow killing herself by jumping onto her husband’s funeral pyre. It was expected that they go with him.
But today there were people who spoke about the customs and indifferent attitudes towards women’s worth and value in homes and schools and work. The CBHPs (Community Based Health Project) nurse Rachana spoke eloquently about the need to have healthy girls and for girls to stay in school, and the need for the Indian government to be more proactive in establishing the much needed services for women and girls in rural India. And although the speeches were delivered in Marathi (the local language here in Buldana) it was evident that the messages aligned with what I had read on social media earlier in the day – women’s lives and their voices are valid and they need to be heard to make change a reality in their own families and communities and across the world.
I made my speech with Varsha standing next to me translating sentence by sentence to the audience. This is what I said on to these villagers on International Women’s Day:
First word was “Hello” which was met with some friendly laughter and the response back from the crowd “Hello!” It was kind of a nice way to get started.
“Today is International Women’s Day and I’m honoured to talk to you today here in your village in rural India, Buldana.
Today women and girls around the world celebrate being female. We remember those women who came before us and fought for basic human rights and established laws to help protect and empower women and girls.
Today is also a day to be proud of being born a woman and supporting the next generation of young girls to continue realising our potential in our homes, families, communities, countries, and the world.
I am Australian. You are Indian. We all have a head. We all have feet. We all have stomachs (laughter again here). We may speak another language and have different coloured skin. But we are all the same – we are human beings. I am a mother. You are mothers. And every mother just wants the very best for her children. We are one in the world. Women can change the world, women can voice their ideas and opinions in the world, women can lead others that benefit many in the world. Women are mothers, teachers, doctors, engineers, wives, nurses, astronauts, and much more. But most importantly we are human beings.
Together we can take on the challenges of equality, equity, respect, health, career, education, choices and opportunity.
I am Australian. You are Indian. But together as one we are women of the world who can change the world for the better and raise our girls and boys to know their value and their worth.”
After some applause I find a seat in the crowded space. A rose is gifted to each of us by a young girl sitting in the front. They are so excited to hand us a rose of appreciation. Then Dr Moses asks some of the elder womenfolk to come up to the front too. It’s getting very tight now as more and more women come to stand at the front area. I move out of the way to take photos, and Dr Moses asks us to hand the rose to the women as a gift from us to them. It’s a beautiful gesture of oneness and we hand our roses to the women of this village. After this, the young girls want to know more about us, especially our daughters. I’m asked to introduce all my family members. First Steve, “this is my husband, his name is Steve,” and there’s an excited squeal coming from the women and more clapping – is he famous here! I go through naming each of our girls and they stand up and receive a round of applause. So too do my parents. Then the girls want to know more about each of the girls. So Charlie, Ash, Billie and Dacey take in turns to stand up in front of the village crowd and share a little bit about themselves – age, grade, interests and what they want to do when they’re older – while Dr Moses and Varsha help with the translation. These kids in the audience are perplexed that such tall and strong girls are still in primary and secondary school. They had thought based on how old they look to be in College!
It was a very humbling experience for us all. Another golden moment to take away with us and remember in our life journey. According to Dr Moses the women in this particular village are dominated by their men. It’s a patriarchal hierarchy and there are limited choices for women in their villages. Here men brew a nasty concoction of homemade liquor in the village that is sold cheaply and causes many social and domestic problems from men fighting to domestic violence. We don’t see this negative side for ourselves of course, but these are the types of problems that exists in many villages, the types of issues Dr Moses and CBHP are trying to address and gently change. Unfortunately like in all corners of the globe today, women and girls are often victims of the pungent smell of male power and control. In our eyes they have a long way to go on the road to equality (not unlike many other societies), but the raw ingredients of energy, enthusiasm and optimism that we saw amongst this group of village women and girls was contagious and uplifting. We live in hope of real and lasting change for future generations of babies who are born girls.
As we left the small and intimate space for the International Women’s Day celebration of speeches, discussion and traditional Indian fruit cake, we walked out to the main village area. Charlie and Ash had brought along their drone to fly up over the village and show the people. The villagers seem to relish seeing this unfamiliar technology and mostly it was a great way of showing the village that girls can do anything, even fly drones!