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field coordinator for Samakhya
Bhelgandi village, Mandakini valley, Tehri Garwhal
Chatra Devi currently works with the Mahila Samakhya (a government-sponsored programme for women’s empowerment), and is responsible for its campaigns in 10 villages. The Samakhya is active in promoting the cause of women’s equality and education. “We want to keep the flame of self-reliance burning among the women of the villages.” Chantra describes how issues such as deforestation and alcohol abuse affect women directly, and how some protests actions have had a limited success in these areas. However, she believes: “Total change will take a very long time because all of us, who are associated with Samakhya in one sense or the other, have mentally tried to change ourselves but the village women are still very narrow in their thinking and outlook.” She describes mistrust in some villages about their motives and value. “At times, out of frustration, we stop working, as it has happened in some cases.”
This interview gives an insight into the motivation behind her work for women’s equality, as she describes terrible experiences with an absentee father and an abusive husband. Her association with Samakhya has changed her “a great deal” and has taught her “that even women have equal rights. I have given equal rights to all my three children.” She also feels that women are more directly affected by changes in the resource base (being responsible for fuel, fodder and water collection, for example). Men get waged work, and sometimes even profit from resource exploitation, so it is women who have led much of the protest and action for resource conservation.
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||Was forced into marriage. Not good at housework, so faced “a lot of problems”
Village: “There is hardly any education among us.”
People follow traditions and customs, including jointly performing weddings. Village is in two parts - one small (14-15 families) and one large (45). Many have migrated to cities. Three villagers are government servants. “All the rest are either working in hotels or are busy breaking stones.” Majority of the villagers are labourers, others have livestock.
Caste: mainly Rajputs. One Harijan family left – others “could not make both ends meet here”.
||Crops are no longer good. “The reason is that the modern boys are out of the village after getting married.” Old people left to tend the fields.
Former awe of strangers and few left the village. “Nowadays nobody is scared.”
Rainfall unreliable. Population growth - forests “disappearing completely”, causing a reduction in rainfall.
Samahkya prohibits felling “yet people do it on the quiet”.
||New pipeline has reduced quantity and quality of water. Depletion of trees that hold water in their roots has caused the lack of rainfall.
Local fairs, deities, religious ceremonies. “I don't believe in them, therefore I feel that they are redundant.”
||Migration to the cities. “People have become helpless and are forced to do so to look after their children.” Children demanding more goods. “But if employment opportunities are created in villages then this race towards cities can be checked.” Suggests wool spinning and weaving for cottage industry initiatives. “Villagers want jobs in the village itself so that they can plough their fields and earn as well.”
Bad effect of the road: “one’s walking capacity is dying now”, and travelling by vehicle confers status.
What Samakhya has taught her. Works as sanyagini with Samakhya - 10 villages under her jurisdiction. In some villages “it's a tough job to make them understand.”
||“Education is a must for girls.” Has brought “a marked change in their…condition and status.”
Dowry, which is “a curse for a poor father”, should be abolished.
Samakhya campaigns: drinking, forests, cleanliness of the village, employment, industries.
Alcoholism a factor in wife beating. “We educated all such women who had to suffer because of the drinking habits of their husbands. These women destroyed the local breweries.” But only successful for a few months.
||Difficult for sanyaginis to reach all villages. Some villagers feel they “bother them unnecessarily” and want programmes that offer financial assistance instead.
Intervening in a dispute about a rape - ensured the rapist married the victim.
Difference in mentality between Samakhya campaigners and other village women. Feels programme should run activities related to livelihoods “so that the villagers can come to have close contact with us and we can change their heart.”
Mahila Mangal Dal campaign.
||If the Samakhya project were to fail, it would be “a total disaster for us.”
Women’s health problems. Details of herbal medicinal cures.
Have “revolted against” seeds from ‘outside’, which are not suitable. “we know nothing about them, if they are fresh or old, where they have been purchased”. They have proved to be contaminated by other, in some cases, invasive varieties.
Programme workers gathering information on women’s status, the state of the land and water supply.
||The Chipko movement, and work of Mahila Mangal Dal and Samakhya to conserve forests. Corrupt officials often allow felling.
Women protest because loss of forests and grass affects their lives directly. “The men don't bother at all” as they get wages through felling.
Against the construction of the Tehri dam, “as it's a risk to the cultural traditions of this region.” Women traders afraid of being rendered “jobless and helpless.”
||Her childhood - father’s second marriage left her and her mother neglected. “Had I been what I am today I would have murdered my father.” They survived by running a small shop for 10 years, until her father forced her to marry. “I had promised my mother I’d never get married but the social customs forced me to get married.”
Her marriage was unhappy; her in-laws “imposed all sorts of restrictions” and “after the birth of the first child they started beating me.” Her husband used to drink, beat her, and squandered all the money she earned from sewing.
Calls for greater respect and understanding for mothers. “The mothers should train their children to realise how great a mother is and how important a role she plays.”