Women in India: still waiting to spread the wings
At its December 1999 54th session the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Resolution 54/134 on the International Day Against Violence Towards Women. The UN chose November 25th because on this day in 1960 the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo brutally killed Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa, the three Mirabal sisters, “The Butterflies”. Because of their political activism and the strong opposition against the dictatorship the Mirabal Sisters became, since their assassination, the “symbols of popular and feminist resistance.”
Twenty years earlier, in December 1979, the UN General Assembly by its resolution 34/180 had adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Convention was the first global and comprehensive legally binding international treaty aimed at the elimination of all forms of sex- and gender-based discrimination against women. It aims to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women both de jure and de facto, in all fields of life, including in the areas of politics, economy, society, culture, civil and family life. Despite all the international declarations and treaties, women have had to struggle for a long time to recognize their value and their emancipation…
Few years later…in 2012.
What drives a young woman just over thirty, mother of three, to be so foolish?
How can she be so selfish?
I felt anger and indignation growing inside me for every single detail Luiza was telling me.
That day I arrived half an hour early at Navjeet, the Community Health Centre where I was doing my one-year voluntary service, in a neighborhood located in West Mumbai. No one was there, except for the Sister, already at her “work place”.
A few minutes later, a young woman, younger than her wrinkled looking face and hunched back, entered the office and naturally sat on the bench near the reception desk.
I already saw her face many times, with her three children twisted between her legs, silently waiting to receive a concession, a job, a help.
That day, though, she was alone. Initially she was crying softly, trying to push the tears back, then stronger and desperate.
I felt always something “strange”, intensely, troubled and intimated, watching Indian women crying. Probably because it was extremely rare, or maybe because tears clashed with the bright and shining colors of their sarees or, maybe because, when they cry, it is as if they cried all the tears of their lives. Hiding the face, screaming in silence.
I approached her to ask what had happened. She shook her head and started confusingly whispering in Hindi. Obviously, I did not understand almost anything, but from her gestures I knew that she had been ill for three days, repeatedly vomiting. This last fact became clear to me when she suddenly was about to vomit all over me, but fortunately she found the strength to get up and flee behind a hospital wing.
A few minutes after the “missed accident”, the doctor showed-up at the Center and quickly spun the few sheets that Mamta (the young woman’s name) had carried with her. He wrapped them in a plastic envelope and…. finally the picture became clear.
“It could be dengue…!” The doctor referred to the mosquito-borne tropical disease caused by the dengue virus that, in severe cases, can lead to death. There was a dengue epidemic in Mumbai in the past weeks and her illness might be due to that. Later on, the blood tests confirmed this hypothesis. Doctors told Mamta that she needed to be immediately admitted to the hospital, starting the treatment. What about the money? Mamta was living in the Mount Mary’s slum of and did not have enough money to pay for medical expenses and bed in the hospital. This is why she was wandering around the hospital and the Center, waiting in queue for the Sister in order to ask her for a loan.
I left the place for a few instants, and when I went back I did not find her anymore. I asked Luiza about her, and I learnt that eventually she was admitted at the hospital together with her children, who also were infected. Luiza was whispering to me, in a tone that I was then able to recognize: that of the “hopeless cases”.
Before I could ask her any question, she told me the whole story with her typical “euphemisms” and nice words when she tried to avoid thorny subjects:
“Mamta has got HIV. All her family members had been infected. Her husband, who is very beautiful, had passed her the virus”
Mamta discovered she was HIV positive during her first pregnancy. She transmitted it to her baby, and after a few years she had two other children.
“She deserves all the tears she cries!”, I thought listening disconcertingly to Luiza’s story.
How can a woman be so foolish to continue having children knowing that she would condemn them to illness or death? Disease and poverty are not already a fairly heavy cross to bear for themselves? Why she was so stupid and selfish?
I was trying to find an answer, an explanation for so much delusion. Left aside the anger of the moment, some doubts grew in my mind.
I started to think that it was not a case of egoism or stupidity. I wondered if someone had ever really explained Mamta what HIV was; how deadly and painful its effects were, how could it be prevented from infecting other people and the precautions to be taken to avoid pregnancy. I wondered whether her “mother in law” forced her to continue having other children, or if her husband knew he got sick and why he did not tell that to her wife.
The worst shame an Indian women can fear is remaining unmarried or failing to give children (preferably male) to her husband. There is no mention of freedom for those women, but shame and fear.
Thinking about the situation of many women in India today, a word immediately bounces on my lips: object!
A children-making machine, a caretaker for her mother-in-law, a cook for her husband. Something else decides for her: her father, the society, the religion, and even the stars.
Accordingly, a girl has to grow fast in order to be able to accomplish the task for which she was born and if she does not “work” properly she becomes useless and can be thrown away.
However, things are different nowadays for many women. Young women in today’s Indian society are well-educated. They use to watch daily the TV and surf the net from their smartphone. Many of them work regularly, but many more, a silent army is still speechless, waiting to spread their wings, crying all the tears of a lifetime.
Enrica Miceli is the Secretary General of Mediterranean Perspectives and currently in charge of the Secretariat of the Italian Network for the Euro-Mediterranean Dialogue RIDE. She graduated in International Relations at the University of Bologna, followed by a specialization in Development Cooperation Studies. After an internship at the Italian Consulate in Jerusalem in 2010, she moved to India where she served as a volunteer for around three years. She firstly worked in Mumbai for a women’s empowerment project devoted to support women from the peri-urban slum’s areas and secondly in Kerala (south India), within the framework of the European Voluntary Service, in a foundling home for children and women in need. She was awarded International Volunteer 2015 for her commitment and supportive work in Kerala.