What does it mean to be a women?


By: Nithya Vemireddy, 2017 Global Social Benefit Fellow

“Guess it’s just us two females hanging out in a crowd of just males once again.” This common phrase was jokingly uttered between Maya and I multiple times throughout our field research in India. Gender inequality is not a new concept to me; it is something I have become very conscious of every summer spent in India. Even though gender inequality exists in America, it is more apparent here in India. Everywhere men dominate public spaces while most women stay inside their houses. When we arrived to the rural areas to conduct our interviews with the end-beneficiaries, the men would crowd around us while the women would be outside their houses looking at us from afar.

 A common sight for us on our first three field visits. A common sight for us on our first three field visits.

To see the social impact of Awaaz.De’s technology, we visited a total of five organizations: Precision Agriculture for Development (PAD), Self-Employed Women Association (SEWA), Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF), CRISIL, and Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan (JJSS). All of these organizations use Awaaz.De’s technology to further promote their mission. Our interactions with the endusers during our first three visits— respectively PAD, SEWA, ACF—were filled with males. During these fields visits, our only interactions with women would be at the homes/fields we visited, and even then, women would only interact with us when they would give us chai.

At first, it didn’t bother me as much because I was used to it, but I never thought I would be so excited to interact with women before. Sometimes, I would find myself drawn to the women crowded on the steps of a house and approach them with a simple head nod. They would immediately return the same greeting back to me, but I would have to leave soon after to conduct our interviews. However, for brief moments, when I would be able to have conversations with these women with my limited Hindi, I would feel immense happiness.

 I almost cried tears of joy interviewing our first female I almost cried tears of joy interviewing our first female

Our last two field visits were to CRISIL and JJSS where we interacted with mainly women, which may have been a factor to why these field visits were my favorite. For CRISIL, these women became financially empowered after going through a two-day financial literacy workshop and were receiving voice messages post-training to supplement what they learned. We met with many groups of women where they patiently answered all of our questions, expressed their gratitude for us visiting them, and repeatedly offered us food. One group even gave us gamuchas, traditional Assamese white rectangle pieces of cloth with red embroidery that is given to others as a sign of high respect.

 Sweaty me wearing a gamucha with a cute baby Sweaty me wearing a gamucha with a cute baby

As a trade union for unorganized sector workers, JJSS started after individuals conducted a survey in Bihar looking at the effectiveness of the National Rural Engagement Guarantee Act (NREGA), which they found was not effective at all. Originally established to help individuals gain work through the NREGA, JJSS expanded to talk about a variety of social issues including gender inequality.

When we embarked on our first day of our JJSS field visit, one of the founders, Kamayani, accompanied us to a village. On the bumpy car ride, she explained a major issue in this area is reluctance to inter-caste marriages. In this specific village, a young couple, an 18-year-old boy from the Dalit caste and a 17-year-old girl from the upper caste, ran away from home to be together, but they were found in Delhi; the girl was brought back to her house while the boy was put into jail where they both remain till this day. A month ago, she wrote a letter consenting to this relationship and explained that she left her home due to her abusive family. However, when she came back to her family’s home, she released an official statement where she stated that the boy kidnapped her and left her at a narcotics dealer’s place in Delhi before she was found. Because these two written statements from the girl didn’t match up, Kamayani explained that the family probably influenced the girl’s latest statement in order to preserve their reputation, as a girl running off with a member of a lower caste doesn’t look good on the family.

No matter what, nothing can be done to save the boy as he did break the law—the minimum age to marry is 18 in India. However, the boy’s father, grandfather, and maternal uncle have been in jail for 2.5 months now for no real charges, and JJSS believes the girl’s father bribed the local police to put them there. This situation is a clear unjust power difference, which is why JJSS is stepping in. Today, Kamayani will attend a meeting with all the other women in this village to write a petition to ask the police commissioner to take the girl’s statement again without the influence of her family. As well, JJSS is scared that the girl may be in an unsafe home situation, so they will also ask for the girl to be taken to a safe place without her family.

 A typical day during our JJSS field visit A typical day during our JJSS field visit

If I am being very honest, I gained so much respect for JJSS as Kamayani explained this situation to us. Social norms are hard to change in any society, especially gender roles. Something I’ve always had to grapple with whenever I was in India was the limitations of my freedom, especially my freedom of movement. For example, I could never walk outside in the villages without being accompanied by a male.

As a young child, I used to think that India needed to be more like America regarding this inequality, but as I grew up, I realized there was no such thing as gender equality in my homeland. Even then, who am I to say how Indian society should be like, especially as an outsider. What makes JJSS amazing in my opinion is how they tackle issues that the community members want to talk about, not what issues JJSS want to talk about. In order for me to understand what societal structures keep this inequality in place, I will have to talk to Indians who grew up in India. I may never have the solution or even know what the solution may be to this social injustice, but if I ever wanted to do something about it, now I know that I need to follow JJSS’ footsteps and live among the community in order to hear the voices of Indian society to understand what the true issue is.