She looked back twice to make sure no one was around. Hesitating, she lowered her meek voice to a whisper and asked,
"Hum baccha rokne ke liye kya karien?"(What do I do to not get pregnant?)
I was even more perplexed than the poor soul who had finally mustered the courage to ask. It is not that I had not ventured this information to poor rural women earlier. However, this simple question shook me a little.
I was tired and wanted to call it a day. I had already collected all the data that I needed from the woman, but reflexively I told her about a couple of things like the condoms, oral contraceptives, rhythm and withdrawal methods in a hurrry.
I came out of the house only to find a tall muscular man standing outside. With a moustache that had its own identity, he looked quite commanding. I began to rush, but he went on to question me in a somewhat brash tone,
"Aap kahan se aayen hain Madam? Kiss kaam se? Ee humra ghar hai." (Who are you Madam? Where have you come from? This is my house.)
Exhausted, I replied in a befitting tone and rushed to find the comfort of the SUV we were provided for the project.
On my way back, her face kept flashing in front of my eyes; the face of a woman who seemed no more than a girl. Even today I find myself reflecting on the incident and what I find most striking is that face. The face was so typical that it reminded me of a black and white poster from the bygone era; that of a naive village woman posed by some beautiful actress with a carefully tied sari, a neatly placed bindi and an innocent face….
A year later, when I try to deduce what made me so flustered that day and why it sticks to my memory, two things come to my mind. One, this was not a poor woman tired from her day at work in the field with soiled clothes and untidy hair nor was she among the scheduled castes pushed to live on the village outskirts nor was she with two wailing toddlers wrapped to her neck. She was the newlywed daughter-in-law of the affluent, higher caste family, in a well-lit huge Pucca house. She was the better placed; the "socially advantaged". Two, the fact that for some reason she had to choose the corridor, make sure she was not heard. She did not even try to take half a step out of the house to clarify the bulk of information I had thrown at her.
So, when I look back, the way I see it, "this woman" was my "marginalised woman", since she was not even free to access the basic information we boast to provide through ASHAs, ANMs, VHSNDs and so on. I don’t feel wrong while stating that she was marginalised in terms of "liberty" or “autonomy”.
I was then working in a low performing district in the EAG state of Bihar. The women I was "programmed" to educate were the "socially disadvantaged" and that was the rule. I would sometimes even gather women from the village outskirts to tell them a thing or two on their reproductive health and family planning. This was not part of my work profile since all that we needed was data from them. However, our mentor was particularly concerned about the well being of these women and eventually so were we.
A couple of months through data collection process, I realised that women from the lower socio economic groups were the ones who were crammed with lessons on reproductive health and family planning. ASHAs, ANMs and AWWs could be very authoritative in their tone. This may seem all wrong, but there is still some good that I see. At least "they knew"; they had access to the basic information. But who goes and informs the poor young girl in the rich upper caste household; she is too pure to be allowed to step out of her house. The ASHA may not enter her house or rather may not be allowed to enter. Her mother in law would not send her to the VHSND since it is unacceptable to share space with the rest of the village. Unknowingly strung into the clockwork of patriarchy, her husband also doesn’t seem to be someone who would understand her.
I often think to myself, what can be done for these birds in golden cages. But should I even bother? For all I know, she may not even be a dot in the data. I mean this is just a handful of people in a state exploding with population. Why care?
The social barrier of caste and the “advantage” that accompanies it distanced the upper caste, affluent from the rest of the community. Ironically, the very process of “othering” entailed in casteism resulted in the “upper caste” themselves getting “othered”. The plight of the women in these communities is even more disturbing since they have the added burden of sustaining the “norms” of patriarchy so intricately woven into the system. This excluded them from the “greater good” offered by social protection schemes and public health systems.
I still believe that it would be wrong to blame anybody for this situation. We all create borders and barriers as individuals or as a society, knowingly or unknowingly. Caste, economic status and religion are probably the most evident ones. What is even sad is that these borders are forced on the generations to come; the generations that don’t question; the generations that either make peace with these borders like the daughter-in-law who end up embracing the norms unquestioningly or the husband who fiercely defend them.
But then there is hope; the hope created by the “rare”, the rare who “think”, the rare who “question”; the rare who can make an actual “difference”. All we can do is try to make the rare, less rare.