“Their mother ran away with her lover, leaving these girls behind”. I looked around to see the girls who were being talked about. The oldest of them looked at me and smiled as the younger ones held on to her tightly. I went up to them and out of habit, asked their names and patted on their backs. Most children usually crack up on this gesture. So did the younger girls. However, the oldest one confidently replied “Suneeta“*. She looked shy, and serious. I was immediately drawn to her and ended up going on a village walk, towards her house, while chatting with her.
Two years ago, Suneeta’s mother left the house. But even today, a man made that remark about her. On the other hand, several men here leave their wives, bring another woman home and no one is concerned. It felt disturbing. Don’t worry! I won’t rant about it here.
Suneeta’s father stays with them and works at their farm. She has two brothers, both work in the textile industry at Surat. She has never been to school, and is responsible to take care of her two younger sisters. Suneeta makes sure that they study while she stays occupied with the household chores. Being the elder one, she also does all the cooking and cleaning in the house. That morning, she had made ‘makke ki roti’ and ‘seel ri sabzi’.
As we walked, she pointed at a house under construction and said proudly, “We will live here soon!” Given all the responsibilities she manages, it made me curious to know her age. Suneeta is not sure about how old she is. Her neighbours guessed it to be between 13 and 17. I asked her if she ever tried to find it out with the help of her father. She giggled.
Suneeta had barely been anywhere outside her village. I asked her if she would like to come to Gogunda bazaar with me sometime, and she jumped at the prospect.
There are so many things I do not know about her. Has she tried going to school? Does she like to do all the work she does? If not, how does she manage to smile through it all? But the little I learnt that day made me admire her deeply. It was obvious as I kept exclaiming “Waah! Suneeta”. Her neighbours would giggle every time I say this. Jokes were cracked about how I will take her along with me. The only person who did not seem to care about me being in awe of her was Suneeta herself.
One of my colleagues recently met a confident and lively young woman who had learnt to thread eye brows, put make-up, apply mehendi designs, cut and stitch fabric – all with the help of voice search on Youtube. She had formally studied only up to 5th grade, and now takes orders for tailoring garments as well as provides salon services in her neighbourhood. My colleague was so fascinated that she couldn’t even comprehend it properly.
Here, in the villages of Gogunda, South Rajasthan, I see a lot of young girls who take care of their siblings. In numerous households, once the parents leave for work, the oldest child, usually a girl, takes up all the responsibilities not just of the house but also of her younger brothers and sisters. Someone, who is herself a child, barely 10-15 years old, can be commonly seen walking around with babies. It is so normalised that sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who thinks it to be exploitative and at the same time, identifying it as a special ability of these girls.
Manju*, another local girl, is currently under treatment for tuberculosis at an AMRIT clinic. She must be 15 or 16 years old, and visits unaccompanied by her parents. Her aunt who is also going through the treatment, comes with her. During my conversation with them, I got to know that Manju’s aunt’s husband is an alcoholic and abusive, not just physically but also financially. He sells the ration at home to buy alcohol.
Manju realised that I was having a difficult time following her aunt’s language, and was repeating it using more Hindi words so that I understand it. Her involvement in bridging the language gap between her aunt and me felt effortless. So did her ease with sensitive topics like alcoholism and domestic violence.
Apart from the household chores, adolescent girls here also engage in work outside, at MNREGA sites. It could be construction work or farm labour. Aajeevika Bureau engages closely with ‘Kishori Shramiks’. This study by them in Salumber block of Udaipur district talks about the factors that push these adolescent girls into the labour market, and how they’re exploited. Sruthi, a co-fellow recently wrote about it in her blog where she points out how the conditions post-lockdown have only worsened for the families in this region.
It is interesting to note that in this context of ‘Kishori Shramiks’, their entry into the labour market provides them some agency which they enjoy. Many girls find happiness in commuting to work while chatting with friends. They also like the fact that they have autonomy over spending their income, at least a part of it.
I’m not what makes these girls get up everyday and cook, clean, take care of their siblings, step out of the house, earn money, deal with alcoholism and violence while most girls in their age are studying and playing. But I cannot help appreciate their ability to do it all, while also finding their bits of contentment and satisfaction in it. They are oblivious to my fascination towards them and it only makes me admire them more!
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality