Things were quiet around the hospital when I was there during Pongal festival; most people were on leave. It gave me a chance to go about my business of thinking and observing the people, more so the women who worked at THI. Life was so not easy for them; not that it is for women the world over, trying to wrestle their rights and space from male dominance.
When it started functioning in the Sittilingi area, G and Tha made a decision to run the initiatives along with the community. The health workers, health auxiliaries and the staff are today predominantly women, all of them are tribal. The area was one where education for girls was seen as unnecessary, like in several parts of the country. People just didn’t see the point in educating a girl. Wasn’t it enough as long as she knew how to cook, clean and keep house?
When THI began, the girls trained and employed usually had completed just 8th standard, these days, they are better educated. Tribal women who work at the hospital or in any of the other initiatives take home an income that has become crucial to the livelihood promotion of their individual families and the community as a whole. Yet, despite the money they bring to the table, despite the respect and independence it brings them, the women still have a sword hanging constant above them.
Take the case of a tribal woman who works at the hospital. Let’s call her Roopa throughout this story. Roopa is a pint sized, spirited lady, always smiling. On my way to the village once, a number of months back, I saw her wheeling her bicycle to the home of an artisan on some work. She smiled when I asked her why she wasn’t riding; or more likely, she didn’t understand what I was asking in my rudimentary Tamil. It was only much later that I got to know that she was pregnant and wasn’t supposed to be riding. Several women get dropped off and picked up by their male colleagues. It was also later that I was told Roopa was forbidden by her husband to ever go with any co-worker.
Roopa gave birth to a beautiful baby girl a few months ago. Her in-laws were not happy because it was a girl; her mother wasn’t informed until some days later. Such subtle ways of showing a woman her supposed place in society is not uncommon. There is an easy familiarity and a comfort level when the staff talks to each other, laugh at jokes or look after each other’s children. But in cases where the girls are married to men not working at the hospital, such as with Roopa, things often get difficult.
I am told of situations where there is a quiet resentment at the work she does, though the money she brings is more than welcome. Such as in the case of another girl whose house I went to sometime ago. I could not shake off the feeling that her sisters-in-law somehow thought she was not being the dutiful daughter-in-law and the ever present mother and wife because of her work at the hospital. It is a classic scenario for a working woman everywhere. But I imagine it gets a little more difficult in societies that are lesser aware, that are lesser open to non-traditional roles that a woman might don.
Women empowerment is crucial for any society to progress. It is only when the mother, the wife and the daughter in a family is educated that a family and a community can hope to achieve wholesome progress. In tribal societies, I imagine the problems that she might have to face, from a silent resentment that brews just below the surface to the more tragic aspersions on her character and false accusations. These are not restricted to the tribals alone.
When the traditional dominant role of the male is questioned by a woman who proves herself of being financially independent of him, malignant behaviour is almost always a given. Yet, the tribal girls, like women elsewhere, continue to face these challenges head on. They might get married early and bear children right after, but by coming out of the house and working in an equal atmosphere every day, they are being instrumental in spearheading a quiet progress that will stand the community in good stead in years to come.