Why is the educated adivasi woman still in darkness?
By Nandini Manikpuri, Kanker, Chhattisgarh
The evils of society somehow seem to impact women more. This is true down the ages, in practically every society. And in every time period, in different situations, in diverse regions, the struggle to be heard, to be recognized as an equal partner within the family, society has taken many forms.
Yet what seems to also be running like a common thread is that women bear the brunt of regressive practices, not necessarily relating to them as women specifically but affecting society in its entirety. Superstition, age-old prejudices and even so-called ‘social norms ’ actually hurt them more than anyone else in society. ‘Sati’ horrifies us today. It is illegal. In the last century, it was lauded, upheld as the ultimate ‘deliverance’ for a widowed woman. Child Marriage denies young girls, the chance for their bodies and mind to grow before being burdened by domestic duties and childbearing and rearing. Even the condemnable practice of offering sacrifices for appeasing local deities is somehow heavier on women, on children. In many parts of the country, the concept of ‘dayan’ or a ‘witch’ makes the woman a target of social ostracism, ire and often violence. While women suffer on various fronts, the leaders of society look away, there is a tacit approval, in many situations an active role in keeping alive the traditions and mind-set that rob women of their rights as human beings. As equal citizens.
The attitudes in society, the deep-seated prejudices against women is something they live with, sometimes it is at the periphery of their existence. Sometimes, it confronts her within the security or peace of her immediate environment, her home, her husband. That is when she feels cornered, helpless, lacking the support of a more enlightened society. It is those times and in those instances which lead to the only question that needs to be asked? How can equality between the genders be established? How can society ensure that a woman is treated at par, given her due in the family and society?
Often what happens is that women underplay their capabilities to follow social norms, which sees them as inferior beings? Even if she has the intelligence, sensibilities to contribute to family decisions, she is disregarded. And invariably she accepts her fate as such. Till sometimes it explodes in her face, tearing the fabric of her life.
This is what happened to Surja, a woman living in village Goyanda, Durgkondal block in Kanker district with her husband, Shivadas who eked out a living working as agricultural labour. Surja had been to school and was considered by villagers an educated and a sensible woman. Yet the decisions in her life regarding her health, the care of her young children were not her own, but of her husband who reflected the social mores of the day. His belief in witch doctors, the ‘ojhas’ and the ‘jhad phook’ was strong and he subjected his wife and children to this during any illness. Surja had extremely difficult pregnancies, compounded by the fact that the family could ill-afford the nutrition and care required for the woman at this stage. The couple has lost five children to illnesses, compounded by magnetron and an overall poor quality of life. However it is not the lack of resources alone that makes people like Surja and her family vulnerable. Superstition and retrograde social practices weigh heavily on people in villages and keep them locked in their tight embrace, debilitating, often fatal.
What keeps families like Surja’s in poverty, superstition and the resultant agony? The aanganwadi worker Indira acknowledges that it is a combination of forces but fails to understand why an educated woman in a village is not able to assert herself or break out of the quagmire. What has been particularly painful in Surja’s case is that after facing the trauma of losing her five young children, her husband Shivadas abandoned her for another woman.
Dealing with a personal tragedy is one way of approaching Surja’s situation. But let us not miss the larger picture, of what led to this. If a woman is educated, to whatever extent and in this case Surja was more than her husband, then why cannot this be brought to bear on family decisions, especially crucial issues like health?
In Chhattisgarh, where superstition rages and influences the psyche of the people, women need to be made aware of how to link their education to their daily lives, of refuting what is unreasonable, illogical and detrimental to herself her family. To enable her to make a distinction between what society prescribes and one’s own insight and knowledge is the answer, the response to what Surja and countless other women in the villages of Chhattisgarh require. One needs to provide an environment for such a transformation to take place.
Unfortunately such an environment does not exist in Chhattisgarh. This is a tribal dominated region and in tribal social mores, there is equality between men and women. We seemed to have moved far from those mores and today society holds Surja responsible for the misfortune in her life, of her husband leaving her for another woman. In a way women like her are caught between two identities, that of an educated woman making life’s choices and the other being subservient not only to the man but his misplaced notions on foundational aspects of life. We have many Surjas in our world today. We need to put our minds to how they can benefit from even a rudimentary education and put it into action in their lives. At the same time, we need to understand the dynamics of the society and family structure that women like her live in.
Surja substituted the gains from her own education to play second fiddle to her husband who was uneducated and uninformed because of social conditioning. This needs to change and all those concerned about health issues in Chhattisgarh need to factor the mind-set of the people into their planning.