It is my third visit to rural India this year. My visits to the “field” as a development sector professional mean two things. One, I fall in love with India again, as I marvel at bruised monsoon skies dramatically poised over lush fields dotted with funny looking scarecrows in rags. And two, I come back wrecked at how villages are hollowed and sucked dry with migration and poverty, crushed under caste inequality and gender norms, the girls silent, busy, almost invisible.

During a recent visit to a village near Nasik in Maharashtra, I asked a group of girls what was different between their lives and their mothers’ lives. Nothing, one said. Another said, “I can go to school now for a few years more than she could.” She and a handful of others were in school uniform. The rest had dropped out of school. They were right, I realized, stunned. Our middle-class urban lives were so starkly changed from one generation to the next, but shockingly, very little has changed for these girls. No mobiles (although some of their younger brothers had one), no internet, no movies at the cinema. I recalled asking the same question to another girl in a village in Rajasthan. She had said, “The only difference is now we go to the hospital for childbirth.” “The only time girls from villages go to the hospital is to have a baby or if they have attempted suicide,” one of the social workers had told me.

Our middle-class urban lives were so starkly changed from one generation to the next, but shockingly, very little has changed for these girls.

The girls I’ve met over the last few years are curious about everything, relieved to have taken some time off chores. They laugh at one another’s gaffes in Hindi (or perhaps it was mine), and giggle at mention of love and romance. They always ask sharp questions. One asked me what I was going to do for them with the information I’d gathered. Another asked me what my daily struggles were at home and work, nodding sympathetically as I spoke. In a village populated by adivasis, one girl asked me what I did all day and looked at me blankly through my description, especially when I said, “Then, in the evening, I go down with my children to play.” Go down? The multi-storeyed Mumbai lifestyle was so distant from them that even our tongues were different.

In a village populated by adivasis, one girl asked me what I did all day and looked at me blankly through my description, especially when I said, “Then, in the evening, I go down with my children to play.” Go down?

In one village in Gujarat, one of the girls didn’t have a name – her parents had not bothered to keep one. In another village in Madhya Pradesh, girls as young as ten years first said they did “nothing” all day. And then spoke in detail of making meals for eight people, fetching water, looking after siblings, going into the forests to forage for seeds and herbs to sell to local agents of large pharmaceutical companies.

Some Takeaways

  • Our middle-class urban lives were so starkly changed from one generation to the next, but very little has changed for rural girls.
  • Rural India runs on the labour of girls. But no one ever asks them what they want or need.
  • For junior college (Class 11-12) there are no schemes, which means the girls have no way to get to junior college.
  • As long as a girl gets married after the minimum age of 18, or delivers her child in a hospital the government believes it has done its job.

Rural India runs on the labour of girls. But no one ever asks them what they want or need. Instead, as it happened in a village in Maharashtra, when a Gram Sabha did take place, and the girls, after a year of negotiation and fighting got to place their issues to the village elders, one man got up and said, “If a 13-year-old elopes, she should be killed”. Other villagers nodded their heads in agreement, “Yes, yes” they echoed. The girls shut up once again and silently retreated to being invisible, their ears ringing with this pulsating threat. A girl in the village is a “kaanchkabhanda” it is said. A glass pot. “If it breaks, all honour is lost.”

A girl in the village is a “kaanchkabhanda” it is said. A glass pot. “If it breaks, all honour is lost.”

Girls is a policy catchword these days with multiplying schemes and global attention. In practice, these are half-hearted and bizarrely implemented.

When girls, as part of a community research project, requested a cupboard in which to keep the books of a “library” they were setting up, the Sarpanch finally gave them one. But it was locked and the keys were missing. After weeks of following up trying to find a key, the girls finally broke the lock and put it to use. In yet another village, the girls enquired at their local Panchayat office if there were menstrual pads available for girls. They were told the pads had come under another scheme, “only for women not for girls”, so it could not be given to them.

Girls get cycles under many government schemes to increase their enrolment in middle and secondary schools, often far away from the village with no public transport available. “But that’s only for girls at Class 8,” I am told. For junior college (Class 11-12 in other places) there are no such schemes, which means they have no way to get to junior college. This is puzzling because the need to be mobile does not stop at Class 10. Boarding school too is available till Class 10 in some places. But what after that? What about Class 11-12? Where will girls go?

Common sense has left the building as far as implementation of these schemes are concerned. This is only part of the problem. The bigger one is the limited vision that fuels these schemes. What’s missing is a real intent to enable girls to speak, act, have greater control over their lives, bodies, futures.

What’s missing is a real intent to enable girls to speak, act, have greater control over their lives, bodies, futures.

The truth is that most village elders, and government officials don’t really think the girls have any business going out and about, seeking college education or jobs. Why do rural girls need college? As long as she gets married after the minimum age of 18 (contributing to better statistics on child marriage), or delivered her child in a hospital (contributing to better statistics on maternal health) the government believes it has done its job.

#WomenAndTheVote
#WomenAndTheVote

Film screens are filled with imaginations of “small town India”, but there is little in newspapers, TV or social media on rural areas even within a school picnic’s distance to cities. It’s time to call out this unconscionable failure of governance, and make visible the biggest development disaster you’ve never seen.

Manjima Bhattacharjya is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry,  a feminist activist, researcher and writer based in Mumbai. Her writing has appeared in the Times of India and Elle magazine, and she has been a columnist for the leading social justice website Info-change India. 

Email us at connect@shethepeople.tv