18 Jul 2016

India's big issues - a student speaks out

From Here Now, 3:30 pm on 18 July 2016

Recently in Kahna, Central India, RNZ's Lynn Freeman met a young Indian woman who shared her story. This is a contemporary young woman’s candid views of big issues in India - sexism, women’s safety, the caste system, single women, LGBT and more.

Kanha National Park in the Maikal range of Satpuras in Madhya Pradesh lies in the heart of the central Indian highlands.The national park's tiger reserve is declared one of the top wildlife areas in the world. However Lynn Freeman wasn't just there to see the tigers and the wildlife.

Seated on the ground in a tight circle in the centre of their village, women of rural Kanha create bundles and bundles of incense sticks. The thick grey putty is spread over a flat stone and rolled over thin bamboo rods with bare hands. It’s monotonous toil but the tiny income will help feed their families.

They’re being observed by three research students - two young men and a woman - from a university in Mumbai, along with another observer from New Zealand.

Lynn Freeman is accompanying Shreyasi Kumbhar, from Mumbai. Shreyasi’s a social science student researching the population health of women in rural areas.

Shreyasi tells Lynn that she and her colleagues were based at the Corbett Foundation headquarters in Kanha in April this year.  They were researching government-supported community work projects to see if they are achieving the stated goals of helping people learn how to manage their finances.

They were interviewing people involved in the micro-enterprise development schemes, like these women and other people working in areas like tourism.

Lynn takes the opportunity to ask Shreyasi to air her views on the big issues that affect Indian women, issues such as sexism, women’s safety, the caste system, single women, LGBT and more. They start with women's safety:

"Yes, safety is a really big issue here. For a woman I don't think she's safe anywhere in India. I don't feel safe, I never go out alone. It's unsafe for every girl.”

What about legislation? "It's all about attitude," Shreyasi tells Lynn, "You get laws, thousands of laws but men who have no respect for women is not going to give any respect [to the law]. If you change the thinking only then the status of women can change."

The tragic gang rape in Delhi of physiotherapy intern Jyoti Singh that caused widespread global protest and changed legislation in India was still not enough to shake a culturally embedded misogyny.

There's frustration in Shreyasi's reply; "What is the use of making a woman a prime minister if they are not given the respect they deserve? I hope this [change] comes through our generation, or the next."

What about women who remain single?

Shreyasi explains that stigma is hard to counter. "In India it's not common to have single women. The whole society talks about her. "Isn't she capable of getting married? Why is she single? She's 30, she should be capable of getting married and having kids."

What about love marriages?

"In rural villages, with an arranged marriage, they are not allowed to have a love marriage. If a couple runs away, if they are found out they are just [honour-]killed."

What about protests against the caste systems and LGBT?

"For me [caste] doesn't matter [and] LGBT, but for the older people they can't understand it. We were protesting for LGBT marriages to be legalised in India so people can live together freely, but the government is still resisting."

When asked when the day might come for change in India, Shreyasi tells Lynn she is hopeful. "The day might come, but not so early, maybe it will take some time."

And if you're interested in finding out more about Shreyasi and her colleagues; Aniruddha Dhamorikar, Dikesh Chowdhary, Narendra Rahangdale, Dr.Umesh Namdev, Santosh Yadav, Raj Shaw and Kishor Patel, they study at this college.