It started raining heavily all of a sudden. It wasn’t supposed to, in mid-November. The scooter I had borrowed from a co-worker kept threatening to skid on the muddy roads. Every time we nearly fell down my heart would skip a beat, and I am sure hers did too. We were going from the first village from her old work area to the second. She has been around for about ten years, and had worked in these villages for three. Everybody recognized her and invited us for chai and commonplace conversation.
We were looking for women willing to undergo training to become financial counselors in their villages and the surrounding ones. I tried to do the same thing by myself two weeks earlier. I thought I had found suitable women. Literate and numerate women without any babies to look after. I enlisted twenty women. On the morning of the induction, nobody turned up. I made phone calls. Some had forgotten. Some had a religious ceremony they couldn’t avoid. Some had to plant onions. Someone’s distant relative had passed away. She was waiting with me to conduct the induction. The only four people who showed up were sent by the field staff with no explanation. None of them was interested in working once we explained what we had called them for.
We restarted recruitment the same day. She took me to the villages she was most familiar with. The first one had no takers. We managed to reach the second one, completely drenched and nearly slipping 47 times. She went into a friend’s place, and I went along with another local woman to invite people for a gathering. People began to mutter about having to cook dinner and how we should’ve notified them sooner. We managed to get a decent sized group together, and she began explaining our program – nature of work, incentives etc. Like a pre-placement talk in a university campus.
Her husband called in the middle of the conversation. He said he’d be late, and told her to go home to her adolescent daughter right away. She explained where she was, and assured him she’d be back as soon as possible. He insisted till she got mildly annoyed but masked it in a derogatory comment and hung up. People started getting up to go home and cook. She ordered them to sit down and finished what she had to say. Ignored a couple more calls from him meanwhile. She stayed till she cajoled two of her old friends to enroll. Only once we were satisfied they were keen, we left for home. Her husband called repeatedly. She cut the calls repeatedly. I asked if things were fine. She joked about how it happened all the time and advised me never to get married.
“All this talk about women’s empowerment is just talk. You’ll still be answerable to your husband”
I just nodded in empathy. It was easier than pointing out the existence of sensitive husbands or partners at that moment. We did this for five more days. I was surprised initially at her un-dwindling enthusiasm. It did dwindle eventually. Most women we’d meet belonged to one of two sub-sets.
– Young women with little kids who needed their time, and whose in-laws would only baby-sit in case of farm work
– Old women who were now beyond caring for the two perks we had to offer
Monetary incentives and empowerment. The third minuscule sub-set we actually needed was women with kids young enough so they don’t have arthritic knees and old enough so they don’t need to supervise them in case they try to bite on a mosquito repellent coil.
I know I am not opening eyes, I am only thinking out loud. Female empowerment is so contextual, and women’s expectations of gender sensitization range from this person asking for video game plot lines to not portray women as vulnerable beings that need the male players’ protection, to me expecting my male housemate to do the dishes as often as I do, to my co-worker expecting her husband to let her prioritize her job as he would do his.
About The Author: Jahnavi Reddy, 2014 Cohort Fellow, worked with Chaitanya in the western Maharashtra region in financial literacy program with women farmers, and wrote about her personal experiences overlapping with those of her women.