The Other India: A Reality Check

Reality in India is a multi-faceted thing. There is the reality of what we read, watch or hear every day, from Indians scuffling in the heart of New York to ‘freshly minted campaigns’ intent on changing the face of the country to national newspapers circling breasts of film stars in ‘news’ articles. There is an overload of information and our conversations, thoughts, and ideas gravitate more and more towards the hundreds of communication based stimuli that we receive on a daily basis. One can say that the internet has made distance irrelevant to communication but the magnitude of the distance might not always be the best indicator of how easy it is to reach a person and communicate.

From the metro cities, which scream out the reality of India as a potential superpower, travel a couple of hours and into the hinterlands of India and reach the other reality of undulating fields, small hamlets, buffalo pens in the by lanes. One finds ancient cities, women donning ‘ghoonghats’ afraid to speak about their lives, not having access to adequate nutrition and rest, let alone schools, televisions, mobiles or radios. I descended rather sharply from the former reality to the latter about a week ago, while on a visit to Varanasi and Mirzapur, two adjoining districts in relatively underdeveloped eastern Uttar Pradesh, for a research project.

“I took a pregnant woman to a local hospital for a check up and the doctor there said that she is HIV positive. He refused to give her a report, any medication or even a referral and told me to leave with her immediately. I then told her brother about it and we went to Allahabad to get it checked. They said there is no such thing, who told you this? Now the family is threatening me that they will file a case against me for starting bad rumours about their daughter in law”, shared an anganwadi worker.

I could only nod in sympathy and gulp down the sense of horror I felt at the injustice that this dedicated anganwadi worker had to face almost on a daily basis. A job for which she gets paid Rs 3000 a month. She is perhaps the only source of information on Reproductive Maternal and Child Health (RMCH in NGO parlance) that most women in India’s villages have access to! She is the first and in many cases the only line of defence against some of the biggest public health challenges facing India, including Maternal Mortality Rate, Infant Mortality Rate, HIV/AIDS transmission from Parent to Child and malnutrition of children under 5 years, especially girls.

These diseases were only a problem for husband and wife earlier, but in this ‘kaliyug’ even unmarried people should know about it”, a young college girl shared with me. My jaw dropped just a little bit because these words came from a young college girl from the city of Varanasi. I did not have the liberty to question her on why she thought HIV/AIDS was a problem only for married people, but did wonder on the kind of mixed messages she had been getting since childhood about it, since she has access to modern means of communication like TV and internet.  But I had to suppress a smile at another young belle cutting her off quite definitively and saying “no you know sometimes young people do make mistakes, suppose if my ‘friends get into such trouble, it is very useful to know about these things”.

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Then there was the cliché that became real, when a bunch of “Saasu Maas” or mothers-in-law interrupted my chat with a group of very reticent married women from a village in Mirzapur, because “there was work to be done at home”. The fear of the mother-in-law was written large on the faces of these young girls, who clammed up even more, insisting on finishing the discussion as soon as possible. The most belligerent of the dowagers could well have been the face that launched a thousand conspiratorial family drama soaps on Indian television and their terrific popularity made some sense to me for the first time. It might be the kind of entertainment that liberal city audiences look down upon as regressive, but it has succeeded in breaking a seemingly insurmountable communication divide, at least to some extent. Yes, more and more Indian women are trying to break the shackles of patriarchy, but here in these villages time has stood still for these tired, wrinkled women, on their 3rd or 4th pregnancy, still bound by the duties of the honourable “bahu”. But there was one ray of hope, even here, in the form of one feisty lady, telling everyone else to give it back to the Saas if she got too nasty!

As a development communication professional, the starkest realisation was the serious need for separately targeted strategies of Behaviour Change Communication for women and girls of different ages and different social strata. The Anganwadi worker needs to be paid much more and empowered with stronger communications tools to provide the next push towards RMCH. Even young, educated, urban women (and men) are susceptible to the many myths surrounding HIV/AIDS in particular and STDs or Sex in general. Hence, there is a need for a clear and informative communication programme on all of these.

But despite all these thoughts about the tremendous amount of work that needs to be done, I left with a smile of hope. There was no screaming for justice, no candles being lit and no placards being held up. Somehow, going about their daily business, these women and girls have taken the first steps towards taking charge of their own bodies and reproductive health, opening up to their own sexuality and speaking up against patriarchal exploitation. The real feminist movement of India, it seems to me, is alive and kicking.

– Nimisha Srivastava

(This blog was originally published here)


 

About the author:

Nimisha Srivastava is on a journey of self discovery as a communication professional. She started out as a correspondent for a news channel and decided to shift to the development field after a few years. Since then she has worked with NGOs and the government on media campaigns, advocacy initiatives, communication research projects, media policy and on issues like sustainable development, disaster response, violence against women, declining child sex ratio and female literacy. She loves travelling and re-reading Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle. Check out her blog here.

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