The story of everyday women in Kumaon who stepped up to become more than they thought they could.
Almost every village family in Kumaon has their own land, farm and cattle, enough to make sure that no one ever goes hungry or thirsty. And the responsibility of maintaining this life has equally and in some cases solely landed on the women of the house. From climbing the tallest trees for cattle fodder to collecting and carrying firewood for the house, to farming, cooking, taking care of the children, elders and the house itself, they do it all. While the women do all the housework, the men are to go out to earn money for the families, because even with the farms and the cattles, it is quite impossible to sustain oneself without cash.
But very slowly, the things have now started to shift. "The slow but steady connection to the rest of the world via roads, internet et cetera, has made us more aware of the life outside. Farm yields and the interest in farming has been declining for years. Better healthcare, education and a wider range of opportunities has prompted many more villagers to migrate to more developed towns and cities. And the men who would earlier go alone, now take their wives and children with them, in the desire to get their child a better education outside”, says Radha, a teacher. Up until recently, in Kumaoni villages, women were not encouraged to get educated. Willingly or unwillingly, they had to stop going to school after grade 8th. And married before they were even 18. That was not a problem before, since they didn’t know better, but with the growing connection to the outside world, people are realizing that women can work and earn just as much as the men and more people are encouraging their daughters study. More importantly, the girls themselves are realizing the importance of becoming financially independent.
Bhotiya women are expert yarn spinners, weavers and natural dyers. But most of them had stopped using the skill for livelihood generation, sticking to farming and cattle rearing for meeting their basic needs. But even today, every household has a pit loom and they have kept the tradition of creating furnishing sets as wedding gifts for their daughters alive.
With no other earning opportunity nearby, and no tertiary qualifications, Lalita's work at the organisation not only gave her financial empowerment using her traditional skills, but also let her earn while being able to stay and care for her ailing mother in their own house. Now, a mother to a newborn girl herself, she wants her daughter to study as much as possible so that she may have even better opportunities than her.
With experience, the new generation of parents are becoming more and more aware of the importance of education not just for the boys but also for the girls.
“The girl I had come with had brothers who got very angry that she was working and stopped her from coming back. But we were too poor to think about all that. So, even though relatives of ours complained, my parents knew how much help I was when working than when not”. “After a while, there were about seven to eight girls who had become trained solar technicians but all of them discontinued work once they got married. I was the only one who was lucky enough to have a husband and a mother-in law who never asked me to stop working.” says Meena.
Today she has a six year old daughter, who looks up to her mother with pride and Meena has big dreams for her too. She stands out because not only did she continue working but her work is what is traditionally considered a man’s job. And even today, Meena says, there are people in her family who cannot stand the fact that a woman is earning money for the house. And until such a mentality stays, progress will be slow.
Text: Prachi Gupta
Images: Avani archives