On my arrival in Khandar, the tehsil in Sawai Madhopur district of Rajasthan where I am currently working with Udyogini, the first thing I noticed was motorbikes. They were everywhere. I did not see a Moped or non-gear scooters. Only after two days did I see an Activa, being driven by a man. I pondered on this observation and asked the reason, to which the response I got was “kyunki idhar aurat toh gaadi chalate hi nahi hain”.

This isn’t a question about who rides which kind of vehicle. The focus is on the larger point as to how come it is so rare to see a woman riding a two-wheeler in this region. Can we associate the act with empowerment? If you ask me, I think yes. It is closely related with one’s mobility.

Udyogini largely focuses on women empowerment by creating women entrepreneurs and working with them on their livelihood enhancement. A few years back, the organization worked with a woman who would ride a two-wheeler to market the produce she grew on her farm. Though this seems regular, here it was a sight of amusement for people around. It is said that the men in the market would look at her in shock and wonder what is a woman doing here. Wouldn’t it be better if this becomes a regular sight in all the areas? Shouldn’t it be normalised to have women travelling on their own and performing economic activities independently.

It is needed because a woman’s identity has to be delineated from just being somebody’s wife or daughter, and rather, to be known on her own. This will give her a sense of independence, individuality and would also instil confidence in her.

Now, let us look at the usage of mobile phones in the region. Only a few women own mobile phones in the villages. It is a reality here that the girls are neither given phones nor are they allowed to buy one for themselves before getting married. Then be it a smartphone or a simple keypad phone. After marriage, the decision depends on the affordability and mindset of the men (husband, brother-in-law, father-in-law) in the house. It got interesting when I ventured into asking why they don’t have a phone.

They said that since they do not have adequate education, they cannot use smartphones and hence, are not given a phone. But this isn’t true as most young girls and women know how to use it. Or they can learn.

The men say that it’s all about “Maryada” They believe that girls should not be given phones before marriage because, “The system in villages, unlike in cities, is different. If a girl speaks for long hours on phone, what would other people think. They cannot be allowed to use the device so casually as they would get spoilt. During their free time, they would use it for “wrong purposes” or “galat istemal“”.

Many women I spoke with, are aware of these opinions. However, they are the ones who are outspoken and have some kind of exposure to the outside world. They are many others, who even I would take time to reach.

One possible way a woman gets to own a mobile phone before marriage is if she starts working and hence, mobile becomes a need. For example, one girl works as an E-Mitra, to provide online delivery of various government services. Consider a situation where a boy or a girl is sent (deliberate use of word ‘sent’ because she doesn’t have the agency to make this choice by herself) to study away from home, which again is a rare occurrence in these villages. In such cases also, only the boys are given a phone.

A woman writing about the problems she faces in her village

I was conducting Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in one of our villages where I asked women to list out their issues. Though I did not want to interfere in their listing, as a facilitator, I pointed out some of the challenges I had observed, to ask if they also see them as challenges.

Most houses do not have a bathroom or a toilet facility. Women had to take bath in the open and walk some distance for their morning routine. They step out as early as 4 AM, much before men. Yet, they never mentioned these as their issues because they have accepted this as a part of their life. One of them told me, “Bathroom toh chahiye lekin ab kya kare?”. The bathroom in her house had been converted into a storeroom. Taking a dump whenever one wants is a privilege many women don’t have.

Most women or girls have never stepped out of the Sawai Madhopur region. Most men too, have not gone beyond a radius of 100-150 kilometres and hence, have low exposure to the outside world. This could also be one of the reasons for their limited awareness and knowledge.

From what I’ve understood, choice and agency are the two most important aspects of empowerment. We, at Udyogini, have formed a women-led and women-owned Farmer Producer Company (FPC) here. They are the shareholders and decision-makers in it. Should the profits be given as dividends or should they be invested back into the company is a choice they make.

A male labourer had to be employed for a particular role. We ensured that his interview and the decision to select or reject him was taken by the president and other female members of the Company. In a few years, the goal is to ensure that the FPC runs independently irrespective of the involvement of Udyogini.

Empowerment does not have to be these all encompassing large achievements that are breakthrough or extraordinary. It can be the smallest of small things, as simple as riding a two-wheeler or having the freedom to own a mobile phone or a private space to take bath or a choice to make one’s own decisions.

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