By: Joy Liu
Namaste from Jamkhed, India! My name is Joy and I’m a rising junior studying public policy. I arrived in India a week ago through a somewhat disorienting trip from Kenya, where I’ve been for the past five weeks. My journey was characterized by Kenyan and Indian rural, punctuated by very short spans of metropolitan city, which were at moments jarring and unfamiliar. More than once I found myself taken aback with an inability to reconcile two vastly different images of the same country.
Stepping out at Mumbai’s airport, I was reminded of the cardinal rule of traveling. After spotting my name on a placard, I followed my driver to discover moments later that he didn’t speak English. I was in a car with absolutely no idea where my destination was, whether I would be stopping in Mumbai or Pune or Jamkhed (my final destination and a sizable distance from Mumbai). Under normal circumstances, I probably would have been a little more concerned, but this was traveling. I just leaned back in my seat and watched Mumbai wake up under a pale, cloudy sky. I saw the shine of tin slum dwellings against the glare of high-rise apartment buildings. I noted the legacy of the old in the historical statues that we zoomed past, but also the arrival of the new in the ads and billboard signs that filled the highway. Even though I didn’t really know where we were going, it was comforting to be on the road again with the knowledge that the only constant in traveling is the unknown.
Eight hours later found me at the quarters of the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP), my NGO partner. (I’ve included a sketch of the entrance of CRHP.) CRHP has been working with the villages in Jamkhed for over forty years, and their model of providing community-based primary health care through village health workers (VHWs) was what initially attracted me to the program. The first four weeks of my stay will be spent taking a course on their model of providing care. The second four weeks will be a research project centered on exploring the causes of neonatal mortality in project villages and how CRHP can further reduce those deaths.
Comprehensive Rural Health Project, Jamkhed
In preparation for learning more about neonatal mortality, I think it’s important to first understand the gender dynamics in the community. Much of the past week has been spent on learning about CRHP’s model with a specific focus on the female VHWs that CRHP empowers to educate her village. A point I noted was that whenever the VHWs tell us their personal stories, the first major life event that they recount is often their marriage. This signified on some level how much of a girl’s life is defined by marriage. Although the legal age for marriage in India is eighteen, most of the women that we’ve talked to get married much younger. When a woman gets married, she moves into their husband’s house and no longer belongs to her parents. However, she never truly achieves the status of being a part of her husband’s family until much later in life. Consequently, most young women are caught in a state of in between with no sense of true belonging. She’s viewed as her husband’s responsibility, but not as a part of his family. This is an observation that I’ve also noticed in Kenya, and I think in both cases it contributes to a disempowerment of women in that both husband and parents don’t value a woman or her opinions as much as she deserves.
Another cultural factor that plays a huge part in determining gender perceptions is the payment of a dowry. In Kenya, the dowry is paid from the groom to the bride’s family. It’s viewed as a payment of sorts for claim to the woman. It’s frowned upon from a Western standpoint because girls are regarded as potential sources of wealth for a family and early marriage is incentivized by the promise of cows and other forms of wealth. It can also contribute to feelings that the husband is entitled to do whatever he wants with his wife because he “paid” for her. I was surprised to hear that in India, the dowry is usually paid by the bride’s family to the groom. From what I gather, the train of thought is that the bride’s family is compensating the groom for taking the burden of keeping a girl from them. Interestingly enough, the more educated the woman is, the lower the dowry her family pays. It’s assumed that a working woman will make income that will go to her husband and his family. As a result of this practice, boys are highly favored to girls since they will bring in wealth instead of costing the family money. Although the two methods of dowries seem to contrast one another in practice, the underlying view is the same. Girls are one piece of the puzzle in the transaction of marriage. Her value is associated with some amount of material goods or money. She’s brought in to fill a certain role, one that doesn’t usually involve any elevation in her status or empowerment. This has repercussions for her health as well as her children’s health.
Throughout the next couple of weeks, I hope to understand more of the factors that contribute to gender perceptions as well as ways to empower women in an uplifting, sustainable manner. I find a lot of comfort in having an element of the unknown in my traveling, but I search for the known as well. I want to know what people think and why they think that way. Maybe that’s too much to ask, but I would like to begin my journey here.