Bilaspur, June 2002. At the Asha Abhiyan project office in Chingrajpara, a meeting is in progress early one afternoon to discuss the next round of toilet construction in phase I of the HUDCO-financed, ActionAid-run slum development project. The men in front and sitting on charpais in the tiny, tin-roofed space do not hesitate to express their views and opinions in minute and extensive detail.

In due course, someone remembers to ask, 'ab mahilayon ka kya kehna hai?' 'Now what do the women have to say?' At the back of the packed room the few women sitting are clearly at a loss – they whisper hurriedly among themselves. Ultimately the meeting coordinator Tiwariji asks, 'Sahmat hain?' ‘Do you all agree?’ The women manage to nod energetically. 'Bhaisahib is right,' one of them says finally.

The casual visitor may well come away with the impression that the women in this community do not have much to say. And there is a sense in which they may be right. With levels of illiteracy as high as 90 per cent (as an early Asha Abhiyan survey in February 2001 found) women in Chingrajpara lack access to a necessity for civic participation.

Pic: Ashima Sood Chingrajpara's womens' committee poses in front of the pond. Pic: Ashima Sood.

The literacy figure is even worse than the district-wide female illiteracy rate of 72 per cent. Yet silent they may be, these women are no prisoners of domestic walls. They may be silent at the meetings, but come time for work they tuck their pallus on the side and are ready to carry cement and bricks alongside their men, with or without their husbands.

I. The work of women

The lone female voice that piped up at the meeting was that of Radha Yadav, a petite, pretty mother of two who, improbable as the idea seems given her tiny frame, also goes to work as a casual labourer when that work is available. She is also a generous contributor of labour to the local latrine construction project.

Radha’s husband Ratiram is a rickshaw driver, one of the lucky ones to own his rickshaw. He goes out to ply his services in the afternoon but lately business has not been too good in the SECL area (the South Eastern Coalfields Limited office near Chingrajpara) where he has his stand. So when someone suggests a construction job, Radha takes it up to supplement the family’s earnings.

Even in households where the women bring home a significant proportion of the family earnings, it is the men who are in charge.
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In many ways, Radha is better off than her sisters in Chingrajpara. Yet the narrative I find here points to a real gap in the womens' lives. For the women of Chingrajpara, it is not their freedom of work and movement that is circumscribed. The women do go out to work in the world but on terms set by their men. The distribution of the costs and returns for their work is not structured to favour them.

Even in households where the women bring home a significant proportion of the family earnings, it is the men who are in charge. Is it any wonder then that they hesitate when it comes time to assert their voice in processes of community decision making? In the words of Moroccan sociologist and feminist Fatema Mernissi, the women of Chingrajpara carry their ‘harem’, the gendered space that circumscribes the range of their possibilities, ‘within’.

Consider the case of Meera and her husband Nandkumar Devangan. As a new owner of a neighbourhood kirana (grocery) shop, Devangan sits atop the slum’s occupational structure. By becoming a petty capitalist after twenty years of rickshaw driving, he has managed finally to escape the grind of hard physical labour that is the lot of unlettered migrants like him.

But while Nandkumar enjoys his new-found leisure, Meera whose savings helped finance the shop still goes to work as a construction labourer and does not return till after dark, working a good ten-eleven hours every day. Though the pay is not bad the building project she is working on is a short-term one; once it gets over she will return to her usual job – walking long distances everyday to hawk a basketful of fruit.

I have to wait till late one evening to meet Meera, a short frail woman who looks about half her husband’s age. Even in the flickering candlelight, she looks anxious, hassled by the two youngest of her four children and with the evening meal that is to be prepared. When I ask her age, she looks to her husband. Like many illiterate women here Meera speaks only a thick Chhatisgarhi. Being more articulate her husband soon takes over.

I do not ask him if he would go continue rickshaw-driving so that Meera can take care of the shop. Though he is liberal in giving her hard work and savings the credit for his gains, neither Nandkumar nor his community question his exclusive right to the fruits of her labour.

Considering Meera Devangan or Lacchmi’s mother Kiran Sahu (Slum Diaries – I) then, it is clear that full-time workforce participation does not enhance by itself these women’s power over their own labour.

II. The cart’s tale

A tall well-built woman with a big laugh, Kamla Lodhi at first glance has nothing at all of the subdued air of the other unlettered women I have met before. Kamla and her family live in the shack between Geeta Sahu’s and Devendra Sahu (Slum Diaries – I). Even in a generous, welcoming community Kamla is more open, less reserved than everyone else. A mother of six, including of nine-month old Lokesari, she and her husband Bhagwan have both spent their lives as hamaals, loading vegetable sacks in the local market. Now she is in her mid-thirties and complains of back ache.

In fact, the family recently bought a cycle cart to help Bhagwan ferry the sacks longer distances. In recent weeks, however Bhagwan has not been going to work at all. He is not well, says Kamla. The doctor found some mouth sores, probably due to the heat. The mouth sores are healing but Bhagwan is still to be found playing cards with his friends in the tiny space outside their house. When I point this out to Kamla, she is not unduly bothered. 'But he was not well,' she repeats.

Pic: Ashima Sood Kamla Lodhi's daughter Lokesari plays at her feet. Pic: Ashima Sood.

So Kamla goes to work everyday with her eldest Rohini who is now fifteen and has been doing hamaali for two years. On most days when I visit them, Rohini is the last one to return home. She is a tall, shy girl who does not linger to chat with visitors after her tiring day. One evening when a few of the women have gathered at Kamla’s house, I ask why Rohini cannot take the cart. Kamla laughs out loud at my naïveté.

Why, a girl of marriageable age on a cycle, exclaim the other women. The boys would tease her to death.

I persist. There are plenty of women in Bilaspur riding mopeds, I say.

That is different, they say, those are rich people. Here in the slum some things cannot be done.

Little Lokesari plays in the dirt, unaware thus far of the rules that will constrain her life to come.

The cart meanwhile lies almost unused out in the sun and rain.

III. Protecting a water pump

Next door at Kamla’s neighbour Geeta Sahu’s house a meeting of Chingrajpara’s Mahila Samiti (women’s committee) is in progress and it is hard to believe the proposition that the women have nothing to say for themselves. Encouraged by Asha Abhiyan’s insistence on the involvement of women in community mobilization and leadership, the Mahila Samiti, formed as a women’s self-help group, is now taking on more responsibilities. Their most important charge, in line with the Chhatisgarh government’s State Policy on Women on this matter, is the recently installed community water pump that supplies the public toilets and hand pumps.

The issue today is Parag Sahu, not so long ago elected coordinator of the twenty nodal samitis that form the scaffolding of Asha Abhiyan's community leadership structure. Intoxicated on his new-found power, explains Geeta Sahu, 'Adhyaksh' (President) Parag as he likes to call himself, now wants to seize control of the water pump. Parag does not have a wife to install on the Mahila Samiti in his own stead.

Most vociferous in opposing Parag is the Maharajin. A plump, feisty grandmother now, the Maharajin is one of Chingrajpara’s few Brahmins. Though she too speaks only Chhatisgarhi she is not afraid to take on the system.

Geeta Sahu’s sister Seeta is another articulate member of the group. Seeta is in the unusual situation of being a single woman in the slum, though having her sister’s family nearby no doubt is a big help. To support herself, Seeta takes in tailoring but her class tenth education is an important asset to the group. Geeta too has completed secondary school. Their family was well able to afford their education, they are careful to tell me. In the years since the two sisters moved to Chingrajpara, their family’s fortunes have risen further. Their brothers now own a popular restaurant near Bilaspur bus stop.

The Gender-related Development Index (GDI) accounts for female literacy, enrolment in school, expectancy of life, health and income indicators. In 1998, the GDI for Bilaspur district was 0.60, somewhat higher than the all-India average of 0.553, but much lower than countries like Sri Lanka (0.732).
Voluble as they are among themselves however these women are less comfortable in mixed group meetings, where men are present. Finally the Maharajin volunteers to speak personally with Tiwariji, head of ActionAid’s partner NGO here, the next time he visits. Her chance comes a week later. Sometime later, Parag gets his reprimand, from Tiwariji and the women are left in peace.

The ending this time is a happy one but the complicated route for voicing their concerns reveals the shortcomings of this group’s empowerment. It is significant that the women of the Mahila Samiti are all on average older, better educated, higher caste, more prosperous than their less active sisters. They have available the time away from work to devote to civic matters.

But in settings where men are present, now and over the subsequent months, lacking a precedent or exemplar for intervention the women find themselves hesitating in putting forth their viewpoint. The Mahila Samiti is a nursery for women leaders within the Asha Abhiyan, but the project staff recognizes that the process of social change is long. Policy interventions can only initiate change but social change takes its own time to unfold.

* * *

Postscript, January 2004: On my next visit to Bilaspur there are indeed signs that progress is in the air. Mahila Samitis are sprouting up in other parts of Chingrajpara and their membership is widening. But even now, at Asha Abhiyan’s group-wide meetings women say less.

Lokesari is a snot-nosed toddler by now, carried around by one of her older sisters. Rohini is married and no longer lives in Chingrajpara.