For more information on Joanne’s Non-Profit helping the women of India visit: http://www.heartshareinternational.org/.
JOURNEY TO INDIA
By: Joanne Watkins
Women want the same wherever they are – to feed, protect and educate their children and take charge of their own destiny. The only difference between the women we met in India and the women we are is geography. As our trip drew to a close, we knew our world would never be the same again, and we pledged to one another that we would do all we could to make a lasting and sustainable difference in theirs: Our pledge was HeartShare International.
We left our lives under the banner of HeartShare to make this journey, made our own sacrifices to get here along with the help of a handful of women, many of whom we had never met and whose stories we didn’t know yet who donated anonymously, generously and spontaneously, all in the space of just twenty-four hours, so that we could make this trip for them and that they could make a difference too.
An unforgiving wind swept through the open sides of our rickshaw carrying the rain deep inside our cab. “It’s not normally cold like this,” shouted our guide above the engine noise, grinning over his shoulder and bouncing wildly in his seat as we hit crater after crater in the road.
The traditional Indian clothes we wore in honor of the women whose stories we had come to share gave little comfort from the cold and no protection from the elements, though being wedged tightly against one another did create a kind of “seatbelt stability” in the back, for which I was grateful as we had none. The dirt roads, which were no more than narrow tracks in places, became a sea of mud in a matter of moments, seeping into our open-toed sandals each time we stepped out. The last time I felt mud like this was making mud pies as a child in the garden. Back then I was making my dolls eat it; sticking my bare feet in it wasn’t part of the game until my shoe slipped off when my mother called me in for lunch.
This was no game though. This was real, and neither the guide books nor our lives back in our native countries had prepared us for this. It was meant to be warm; we had no coats, no sweaters, no boots or umbrellas and no idea of the depth of poverty we would see or of the height of inspiration our hearts would soar to. And so we carried on. Our first mission to buy socks for the widows at Vrindavan, requested by one donor, was one of many lessons learned and an example of how a small item of such seeming inconsequence in our lives can make such a big difference in theirs. For a woman who has lost her husband, her home and her life, warm feet are a great comfort and a pair of socks a luxury.
With the generous help of Dr. Mohini Giri, herself a widow, and the tremendous organization she created, The Guild of Service, born from her own painful experience, we were able to encounter one of the many faces of India that outside the country few really see, at her widows shelter Ma Dham and some of the surrounding villages where the Guild helps.
It is hard to comprehend how an entire society can reject a woman simply because she has been widowed, much less her own family. Of the twenty thousand living on the streets that make their way to Vrindavan, the holy birth place of Lord Krishna, Ma Dham houses only one hundred twenty. In or out of the shelter, however, these women lose their status to invisibility and pray for the same thing– an early release from this life and an end to their suffering. A woman could be married at seventeen, be a mother at eighteen, and a widow at nineteen. Now considered ‘bad luck’ by her family, her life would be a long and difficult one, alone. Among the women we interviewed at Ma Dham, which offers them shelter, sisterhood, safety and sustenance, fate had taken its toll on their spirits and their faces, aging them prematurely, yet still they kept on smiling. Toothless, some of them, and poorly sighted, I found their loss of value to the world was a doubly harsh sentence to swallow.
If they are widowed without children, the stigma is not the same, and society accepts their remarriage; but once she is a mother and a widow, it’s a different story. “Since when did motherhood become such a crime,” I wondered, “and women become so worthless?” One lady we interviewed, a widow in her sixties suffering from osteoporosis and a former employee of India’s Ministry of Finance, widowed for over twenty years and at Ma Dham for three, was asked how she thought India treated its widows. Articulate and in excellent English, her response was damning and evident: “Terrible,” she said, with a defiant strength in her eyes far greater than that of her frail body, “Terrible.”
The Guild helps not only widows, but also women in local villages, to form empowerment groups, and it offers computer lessons for some of the children. Though internet connection was haphazard and the computers were aging, their teacher and Ma Dham’s head, Mr. Dastagir Ali Azam, was eager to show us just what the children could do, ranging from Excel spread sheets to complex pictures. Without printers, however, parents never got to see their children’s efforts, but then, printers needed paper, and paper, like socks, was a luxury.
At one primary school we visited, run by the Social Outreach Foundation in Nodia, headed by one of Dr. Mohini’s colleagues, Prabha Grover, and set up for children of rickshaw drivers who couldn’t afford the cost of their child’s education, we heard well-disciplined and well-educated children tell us their hopes and dreams. Many of the boys wanted to be computer programmers or lawyers. The girls wanted to be teachers, nurses or doctors. To show recognition to students, instead of awarding them with children’s gift vouchers, computers or IPods, we gave them bars of soap, pencils and pads. As with socks and paper, we were back to basics, and it was impossible to imagine the kind of poverty these children returned to each day or their simple struggle to be more educated than their parents. The pride and ambition of these children were both humbling and inspiring, and it was clear that the greatest gift of both Ma Dham and the Outreach School was giving not only knowledge but pride, things many children in the developed world have yet to encounter.
We turned a corner and entered our last village, Ramtal Ka Nagla, about three miles from Ma Dham, to meet another women’s empowerment group eager to hear what we had to say and give their permission to be filmed. By now we were running so behind schedule that some women had returned to market where they were selling jars of pickles they had made but came hurrying back to join us. We met in the crèche, a room with a rug but no glass in the windows, just bare concrete and care. Such tiny tots, so well behaved, sitting on the floor like the rest of us, all in a row; their little hearts touched mine and I wondered what their future would be.
All that these people have is each other, and with the help of The Guild of Service, they use that strength to their benefit. Each woman, with the approval of her husband, saves fifty to one hundred rupees a month, just over a dollar; they are about to open a bank account so that if anyone in the village needs financial help, they will have access to money they could not otherwise receive. That these women, mostly uneducated and illiterate, had organized themselves in this way because they wanted to take charge of their own lives, and improve them, was inspiring.
With no running water in the villages if the tanker doesn’t come, and it usually doesn’t, these women have to walk miles to bring some back. While we were there to assess the opportunities for work, microfinance, and training, it was clear that the most immediate need for all the women we met in the villages was water and toilets. Water, the source of life and a basic human necessity that we more often than not take for granted, is often lacking, and proper sanitation is impossible.
Through the sea of mud women came. Women dressed in such bright colours as to make your heart sing. Carrying themselves with such dignity and grace, wearing smiles that seemed in total contrast to the struggle they faced. The women’s empowerment groups did more than just empower or inspire these women – they empowered and inspired us –to do all we could and be more than we were. This is the real face of India. It is the face of humanity, and she is beautiful, bold and determined.