Lots to celebrate
07.03.14 | Posted in General
We have different conversations here in Australia about where we’re at as women today. We talk about how many of us hold board and executive roles, how wide the gender pay gap is, the unconscious bias that still exists in our business world, the cost of childcare and the (often wonky!) division of labour in our households.
When I travelled to India in late January this year (as part of the Business Chicks Leadership and Immersion Program in support of The Hunger Project) I wasn’t expecting the conversations I had. I was expecting to talk with the women there about the lack of food, food security, education, water, sanitation, and other poverty-related issues, but instead what I got was conversation after conversation about how they were treated because they were born a woman. And it confounded and appalled me.
In the rural areas we visited, the women talked about the obstacles they had to overcome both in the home and at work. In many instances, if women stepped up and applied to become an Elected Woman Representative (a type of local government leader) their husbands and families would ban their involvement as it brought shame to the family. They would often be beaten by their husbands for showing this leadership, and if they eventually conquered these barriers, there’d be plenty more lying ahead. The women there spoke of times when they attempted to build a road, a school, a dam – whatever initiative they were working on – and the men would knock it down right in front of them.
Some women are subjected to the most unimaginable atrocities – domestic violence is rife, rape is a regular part of everyday life, malnutrition for women is a given (men get whatever meat is available to eat – many women said they had never tasted it while their husbands/sons would eat it a few times per week) and they’re married off at unimaginable ages (and they often don’t even know when the marriage occurred as they could have been four or five years old at the time.)
The biggest thing for me though was the invisibility of the women. In the rural areas they wear veils over their faces in public so they’re not seen (and this is not for religious observation, it’s a social practice). In one session, we were sitting in a room full of women, and they had gradually unveiled themselves as they built trust with us. At one point, a man poked his head in the room and a sea of colourful saris went up once more, covering the faces of these women.
In the home, these women are covered still and they’re again silenced – they don’t address their in-laws (they’re seen as the lowest of low) and are treated as slaves to the family’s wellbeing. When we asked the women how many children they had, they’d often say ‘two’ and when we’d visit their home, there were six children there. Two were boys and the rest were girls. They don’t count the girls. There’s also a practice of gender infanticide – if a woman is having a girl child, they will make attempts to abort the baby (while in utero) or if the girl baby is born, she may be killed by suffocation, drowning, starvation or poisoning.
While you and I can’t for a minute imagine killing a girl child, being in that environment helped me see why it’s such a common practice. Producing a girl is a liability for the family in so many ways, and makes a life that’s already harrowing unbearable. You’ll have a dowry to pay (even though it’s illegal) but before you marry her off, you’ll have to keep her and look after her, knowing that she will have no future value to you as anything she earns in the future will belong to her in-laws.
These conversations we’re having shouldn’t be reserved for one day a year. Tomorrow on International Women’s Day, I’ll be talking with my three daughters about the girls and women I met in India, letting their stories live on in my family, even though we’re worlds apart.
Our fights here might seem insignificant compared to the women I met in India, but they’re exactly the same. We’re all just trying to get to a world where we’re equal. And there’s lots to celebrate about that.