We were taken to a house in a relocation area. This is an area where poor people have been relocated, away from the centre of Delhi (so the city centre looks nice when people visit.) Am not sure if that’s true/the whole reason, but that’s what we were told. The roads were unmaintained, covered in litter, with cracked tarmac. Some were wide enough for vendors to have stalls at the sides. Some were narrow, long dusty lanes with houses on each side. The houses were tall, entered through an open doorway. It didn’t seem polite to take photographs, so I will describe it for you.
We went through the doorway and climbed steep steps that twisted, similar to climbing steps in an ancient castle tower. We reached a room, full of people and laundry and noise. We walked through, to another staircase. At the top of this one, in another room, we removed our shoes. I looked around.
There were two closed doors and two open doorways. One had a soaked floor, so I’m guessing that was an area for washing. Water is carried up from taps in the street, or via hosepipes. There are also communal toilet blocks in the street. The other doorway led to a kitchen area. A double ringed hob was powered by a large gas bottle – like a camping stove but bigger. There was a stretch of work surface, with pots and pans and a couple of sacks of what I assumed was food. No refrigerator, no sink.
The charity rents a room in this house. Above us, up more stairs, were two more homes. So people constantly walked through each other’s house. There is not much privacy if you are poor in India. One doorway led to a bedroom, the other to the room rented by the charity. We went in and sat, on rugs laid on the concrete floor.
The room soon filled with women, and they sat and shared their stories. They were very strong people, you had to admire them.
We heard from the woman who, when she married, was required to remain in the house all the time. If she ever left, she had to cover her whole head. She asked her husband for permission to leave the house, which he gave, and she began to meet other women. She knew they were being hit by their husbands, even though they denied it and explained the bruises by saying they had had accidents. Gradually they trusted her enough to tell the truth. I got the impression that this was huge – just getting the women to speak about what was happening in the home. They then formed a sort of support group, a place for women to share their problems with other women. I’m not sure that anything changed physically, but they were no longer alone, they supported each other. They are beginning to campaign for a women’s court, so their legal rights are upheld.
We learned that in India, when a boy is born, there is a big celebration. Everyone visits, they bring gifts and food (it sounded like a Baby Shower in the US.) If a girl is born, it is kept quiet. The mother doesn’t leave the house, the baby is kept hidden, people mourn. These women were trying to change this. When girls are born, they try to persuade the mother to come to a celebration, which they organise. They give a gift, and acknowledge that having a girl is also good. It’s very tough, because the families don’t agree, and family is very important in India. They are also campaigning for girls to be vaccinated, to have health care and decent food, for baby clinics to check girl babies.
Girls grow up knowing they’re not valued. They are encouraged to stay at home, they seem to be very much ‘owned’ by their husbands. This is even though the woman’s family has paid a big price as a dowry – they pay for the man to take the girl. I’m not sure how it’s different in other areas of India, or amongst rich and educated Indians, but this seems to be the case in the relocation area we visited. I wasn’t sure if I had understood correctly, so I did some online research. Apparently, a dowry was historically given to the bride by her family, so she had her own money if her husband mistreated her. This has evolved into it being given directly to the man. Officially, it is outlawed – but it is still commonplace. I then read horrible facts, that if a dowry is too small or withheld, the woman is burnt and her death reported as accidental or suicide. Crimes against women are rarely investigated. It was all too horrible, so I stopped reading.
The women chatted, laughed, told us their stories. They were coping with so much, both physical abuse and emotional damage. Married aged 15, then rejected by the community because they had given birth to girls. They were learning to recover, learning they had value, learning to support each other.
They laughed as they recited a rhyme they all learned in childhood, which repeats a phrase with “abla” in. The word “abla” is sometimes used as a prefix to a name, so ‘Abla Anne’. It means worthless. The women have changed the rhyme, substituting “sabla”(might be spelt wrong) which means the opposite, means ‘of value’. These women are gradually trying to change their little bit of the world. Nothing massive, but even these tiny changes take great strength of character. They are very brave. It was an honour to meet them.
Thank you for reading.
Tomorrow I’ll tell you about our visit to the slums. Why not follow my blog, so you don’t miss it?