When it comes to women, success stories are heard more easily than the voice of those who fight the odds every day.
Summer is often called the “silly season”. Nothing much happens. People go away on holidays. In Mumbai, the city where I live, the roads are a little less jammed, the trains fractionally emptier.
During these times, people in the news business welcome a scandal, something with which to fill their news hours. So spot-fixing is the flavour of this “silly season” even as the never-ending IPL season finally draws to a close. As a result, the concerns of women have slipped under the radar. Campaigns launched last year, after the December 16 gang-rape in Delhi, have ended. It is as if enough has been written and said about women and that now we can all sit back.
But can we?
I ask myself that as I pass the two women who live with their three children, two boys and a girl, on my street. Once in a while I see a man. They live, eat and sleep next to a small garbage dump. They are rag pickers. When the sweepers from the surrounding multi-storied buildings dump garbage in the large metal bin, the two women rummage through it to extract plastic, bottles, paper, cloth, tin and anything else that could be recycled and sold.
In 10 years, I have seen no improvement in their lives. They started as young, single girls. Today both are mothers with no evident male around. Yet, they laugh, scold their children, miraculously bathe them and clean them up, feed them and send them off to the local municipal school. Some like me “see” them every day, exchange smiles, a few words. To the majority of the people living in the buildings near this small dump, they are invisible. And their stories will certainly never make it to the news pages, even in this “silly season”.
We read about the crime graph climbing in our cities and women remain the principal victims. Each day there are stories about women who are violated, raped, murdered for dowry, tortured and forced to leave their marital homes, roughed up on the road, harassed in offices, schools and colleges. The two women near the garbage dump would have suffered their share of such violence. But we will never read about the daily violence of their lives.
There is also another side, one that we do read about. We know about the women who have “made it”, who have succeeded where women did not in the past. We read recently about the two women, one from Kerala and one from Kashmir, who excelled in the UPSC examinations. And many more who are topping their classes in school and college exams. The very fact that these successes are noted, and written about, underscores that these stories are not the norm but an exception. Despite the odds placed against them as women, as girls, they have “made it”.
Yet even as we celebrate these successes, we should not forget that for every girl or woman who makes it, there are many more who do not get into school, or if they do, cannot complete their education. The two women separating waste are a part of that story. The little girl who is now a member of their “family” might be able to craft another story for her life, or she might just repeat her mother’s story.
One of the reasons so many girls do not make it through school is because they are forced into early marriage. There is a law banning child marriages. No girl should be married before the age of 18. Yet, 47 per cent of Indian girls are married by the time they turn 18. And 18 per cent are married before they are 15.
On any count, this is unacceptable. Indeed, what could be crueller than to dangle the carrot of education with one hand and the stick of early marriage with the other? If the statistics are right, then almost one in every two girls in India will never know the options available if she finishes school and defers marriage. Instead, girls as young as 15 are being pulled out of school and married to men much older than them.
It is these girls, whose bodies are not yet ready to bear children, who are another statistic in the depressingly high maternal mortality rate in India. (In India, pregnancy — by no stretch of imagination a life-threatening disease — is the leading cause of death of women between the ages of 15 and 19). It is these adolescent girls who are vulnerable to contracting HIV because the men they are forced into marrying might be carriers. It is these young girls who are often victims of the worst forms of domestic violence.
We don’t hear much about this, or read about it, because we prefer not to acknowledge that this too is an Indian reality. That, among the many other lists on which India features, it is also among the top 15 countries in the world where early and forced marriages of girls take place.
So next year, summer will come around again. So will the IPL, one presumes, despite the spot-fixing. But will we begin to make a dent on this shameful back-story of millions of Indian girls being forced into a life they did not choose?