By Moin Qazi*
I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The can to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.
Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.
.– Maya Angelou (“Woman Walk”)
It is an image of resilience: women bending over rice fields, women bending over to lift sacks, bending over to tend children, bending over to draw water from wells, bending over a patch of embroidery, bending over all the time. A woman’s work is never done. The most vivid image of village women is that of a woman as a daily wage farm labour, or on a family plot, legs straight, her body forming a V as hour after hour she is bent over double, hoeing, sowing, weeding, day in and day out, under clear skies and hot sun. Sometimes this work is done with a baby on her back and the only rest might be when the infant cries in hunger and mother finds a place at the edge of the field to nurse her child.
The “typical” Indian woman, representing about 75 percent of the four hundred million women and female children in India, lives in a village. She comes from a small peasant family that owns less than an acre of land, or from a landless family that depends on the whims of big farmers for sporadic work and wages. She can neither read nor write, although she would like to, and has rarely traveled more than twenty miles from her place of birth.
From early dawn she is up and around, working about house, taking care of the family and the whims of her husband, she will then head to the field to work when the sun, high in the sky and burning hot, is too harsh to work under. Back home in the evening, it is back to cooking and more chores. Even a single chapatti, the Indian flat bread, has behind it a chain of drudgery that has not changed in thousands of years. To make chapatti, a woman needs water, which is often several miles away by foot. She also needs wheat, which she must harvest by scythe, under a blazing sun, in a back-breaking bent-forward motion, and then grind by hand.
To cook the bread she needs fuel, either firewood, which she collects herself, or cow-dung cakes, which she makes herself. To get the dung she must feed the cow, and to feed the cow she must walk several miles to collect suitable grasses (this assumes that the family is lucky enough to even have a cow; many do not). The bread is at last prepared over a small mud stove built into the dirt floor of her hut. While she cooks, she breast feeds one child and watches three others. If she fails in any of these tasks, or performs them too slowly, her husband often feels it is his prerogative to beat her.
These women match their male folk in everything – hard work, initiative, patience and adjustment. Men will help with seasonal tasks; clearing the land, for example, ploughing the fields particularly if the plough is drawn by cattle. At the economically lower end of the strata, women are saddled with husbands who only drink and help produce children, but they still work from dust to dawn, providing succour to their families, including a drinking allowance to errant husbands. And yet invariably the woman considers her husband a god.
It is the women who produce secondary crops, gather food and firewood, process, store and prepare family food and fetch water for the family. From walking to collect water and firewood to ploughing fields, from premature deliveries to malnutrition, women are taking the first direct hit of ecological imbalances and climate change.
In rural India, some women walk for several hours a day to fetch water, which is used for cleaning cooking, , bathing, washing, food production care of animals, , and waste disposal When she gets home from work, she grazes the family’s buffalo and four goats for an hour, cuts fodder and brings it home.
But women are fighting. In flood areas, they’re farming at different levels, are growing beans which are creepers, cucumbers which grow at higher levels, trying organic and coarse crops,” tweaked her crop mix, sowing corn, arhar, groundnut and veggies. Her village’s men too have migrated; women manage farms and families.
Empowering women has been held up as an answer to myriad global problems, starting with poverty. We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common. While progress has been made in reducing the gender gap, the global average for women’s annual earnings is still only about half that of men’s, despite the fact that women work longer hours when unpaid work is taken into account.
“Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying. The wisdom has dawned on us only now. Years of servitude have taken a heavy toll of them. Yet the Indian village woman bears no grudges, no animus. She is pliant and adaptable, just like the clay that her fellow women knead as potters and give myriad shapes and forms to. Bury her and she is steadfast as the earth. Burn her and she will ride the flames .The only bonus she expects is, love, compassion and understanding. Fortunately, the world is now awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.
For all interventions, the fundamental logic is plain: if we are going to end extreme poverty, we need to start with girls and women.
*Author of the bestselling, “Village Diary of a Heretic Banker”, has worked in development finance sector for four decades . Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)