I’ve got the children to tend The clothes to mend The floor to mop The food to shop Then the chicken to fry The baby to dry I got company to feed The garden to weed I’ve got shirts to press The tots to dress The cane to be cut I gotta clean up this hut Then see about the sick And the cotton to pick.
— Maya Angelou
It is an image of resilience: women bending over rice fields, women bending over to lift sacks, bending over to tend children, bending over to draw water from wells, bending over a patch of embroidery, bending over all the time. A woman’s work is never done. The most vivid image of village women is that of a woman as a daily wage farm labour, or on a family plot, legs straight, her body forming a V as hour after hour she is bent over double, hoeing, sowing, weeding, day in and day out, under clear skies and hot sun. Sometimes this work is done with a baby on her back and the only rest might be when the infant cries in hunger and mother finds a place at the edge of the field to nurse her child. She can be in her field as early as 5.30 am and she will work until mid-day when the sun, high in the sky and burning hot, is too harsh to work under. The image of women producers is reaped millions of times throughout the vast terrain.
From early dawn she is up and around, working about house, taking care of the family and the whims of her husband, she will then head to the field to work when the sun, high in the sky and burning hot, is too harsh to work under. Back home in the evening, it is back to cooking and more chores. Even a single chapati, the Indian flat bread, has behind it a chain of drudgery that has not changed in thousands of years. To make chapati, a woman needs water, which is often several miles away by foot. She also needs wheat, which she must harvest by scythe, under a blazing sun, in a back-breaking bent-forward motion, and then grind by hand. To cook the bread she needs fuel, either firewood, which she collects herself, or cow-dung cakes, which she makes herself. To get the dung she must feed the cow, and to feed the cow she must walk several miles to collect suitable grasses (this assumes that the family is lucky enough to even have a cow; many do not). The bread is at last prepared over a small mud stove built into the dirt floor of her hut. While she cooks, she breast feeds one child and watches three others. If she fails in any of these tasks, or performs them too slowly, her husband often feels it is his prerogative to beat her.
These women match their male folk in everything — hard work, initiative, patience and adjustment. Men will help with seasonal tasks; clearing the land, for example, ploughing the fields particularly if the plough is drawn by cattle. At the economically lower end of the strata, women are saddled with husbands who only drink and help produce children, but they still work from dust to dawn, providing succour to their families, including a drinking allowance to errant husbands. And yet invariably the woman considers her husband a god.
It is the women who produce secondary crops, gather food and firewood, process, store and prepare family food and fetch water for the family. From walking to collecting water and firewood to ploughing fields, from premature deliveries to malnutrition, women are taking the first direct hit of ecological imbalances and climate change.
Years of servitude have taken a heavy toll of them. Yet the Indian village woman bears no grudges, no animus. She is pliant and adaptable, just like the clay that her fellow women knead as potters and give myriad shapes and forms to. Bury her and she is steadfast as the earth. Burn her and she will ride the flames. The only bonus she expects is, love, compassion and understanding. Fortunately, the world is now awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.
This is her condition in the age of women empowerment, in an age when local self-governments have already granted her 33 per cent reservation and when a debate for special reservation in national politics is storming all platforms. Probably, the basic ill is that her empowerment itself has been viewed narrowly. Practical implementation has been lost in its voluble cacophony. Financial empowerment gave her the freedom to step out of the house and work. But not for her own freedom or pleasure. Only to add to the family income or decrease her husband’s and other male member’s share of work on the farm.
Where Indian woman has moved out from the kitchen, she has been shackled by other obstructions such as inheritances laws for agricultural