Women's Empowerment in Jodhpur by Jacqueline Woo

June 25, 2010:


I chewed slowly on the very spicy ramen noodles that Chandrakanta’s eldest brother’s wife cooked for me, listening attentively to the flurry of Hindi coming from my hosts’ mouths, even though I didn’t understand any of it. Chandrakanta’s brother is my age, twenty-two. The siblings live together with their parents, four other siblings, and spouses—the two eldest brothers are married—in a small stone house with a portable electric stove and a squatting toilet. That’s considered well off in the community they live in, but it’s still below the poverty line in India. When my boss Vijay and I arrived at their house, the women chased Chandrakanta’s father off his bed and offered it to us to sit on shyly. I sensed from their admiring glances that we were more than just guests in their eyes; they looked up to us, the “haves” who were helping them.

Vijay, my boss, translated the Hindi for me during a lull in conversation. “The brothers own a photography studio. The mother takes people on religious tours once a year.” Chandrakanta doesn’t attend school because she has to take care of her siblings. She does attend Marwar Seva Sanstha (MSS), the women’s empowerment organisation that Vijay founded three years ago and that I will be working in for the next seven weeks. It is my second week in Jodhpur, a city in the state of Rajasthan, and I am already learning much about India and ground-level development.

There are many small non-profits like MSS that teach young women trade skills like bag making and henna decoration. Many organisations also sell the products made by women, a program MSS is slowly developing as well. Each non-profit usually targets a particular colony [neighbourhood]. Most of these women who attend MSS are part of the scheduled Meghwal caste, which migrated from the rural areas to the city. As a result, they typically have little education and are low-skilled workers: drivers, construction workers, packers. Due to their poverty and the extreme gender discrimination present in their culture, a Meghwal family’s resources are usually diverted away from the women and to the men. Megwal women are thus uneducated and unskilled.

This situation is slowly changing as men begin to see that investing in their female kin can relieve their own financial burden. Of the six families we visited, many men, struggling to make ends meet as the sole breadwinner of a large family, supported their wives’ and daughters’ participation in MSS’s programs. I wonder, though, about the other men we will visit in two days. Some may view these newly skilled women as a threat to their dominant position in the household, especially if the women have on their side rich do-gooders. Women’s empowerment organisations are definitely changing the male-female dynamic in developing countries, but whether it is for better or for worse depends on how each individual organisation tackles the dynamics both between men and women, and volunteers, teachers and participants.

Development is a complicated mess, but that is what I’m here for. Each day I unravel the different strands of the system, slowly working at the knots and loose ends. I don’t expect to find an answer soon, but I think by the end of the summer I’ll get a better idea of how the strands of thread connect to each other.