By Charu Bahri
Friday, November 23, 2007
Tribal women in India's Rajasthan state abide by some ancient customs, but scrap others. One woman explains how she stopped giving her newborns alcohol and dreams of buying a buffalo. Fourth in a series on the changing role of women in India.
MOUNT ABU, India (WOMENSENEWS)--Fuli still follows many of the customs of the Garasia, one of numerous tribal communities in the state of Rajasthan.
Her marriage is one example.
Garasias follow Dapa, a marriage tradition in which the groom's family pays a bride price. But since many Garasia can't afford this custom, a groom's family often kidnaps a bride.
Fuli, who is known by her first name like many of the women here, saw her own marriage begin like that.
But the 40-year-old mother of four--whose weather-beaten face speaks of the harsh sweltering Indian desert summers she has lived through--has also broken with customary practices.
Take, for instance, drinking alcohol during childbirth. During her first delivery in 1984 she went along with the practice. She thought it reduced the pain and went along with community elders who told her it was a kind of merriment.
But then came the death of one of her newborns. A village auxiliary nurse and midwife told her that another customary ritual, called janamghuti, in which newborns are given alcohol, was to blame.
So for the delivery of all her subsequent children Fuli gave up alcohol altogether.
"The experience sensitized me," she says simply.
Even though the Garasias are eligible for land set aside for their use as a government-designated tribe, her family did not always know its ownership rights.
Fuli, for instance, says that since her family possesses no land of their own they work as farm labor or for daily wages at construction sites.
Until recently, Fuli would exhaust herself by working 10 to 12 hours a day as a farm hand or industrial laborer. After that she often kept working, collecting dry sticks for firewood or picking berries from the forests near Achpura, her village. She would leave her younger children in the care of older siblings.
Last year, however, Fuli's employment--along with that of about 12 other women--began to improve.
In March 2006, she began learning to sew through a local development project run by the Toronto-based People Bridge Charitable Foundation and its local partner the Global Hospital, based at Mount Abu in Sirohi, a district of Rajasthan state.
Similar projects--each serving between 12 and 25 women--are underway in three other villages.
Organizers estimate that each project to teach women a profitable trade costs $800 and $1,000.
The trades--sewing, clay sculpture or bead ornament-making--are chosen with an eye to winning the approval of Garasia men, who traditionally expect women to carry out work at their behest, such as cutting grass to use as fodder for livestock, collecting wood to use as fuel from forests, taking care of their children, managing housework and supplementing the family income by working as casual laborers.
Often, the men do not want the women to become too involved with income-generating programs run by nongovernmental groups or any outside groups that are not part of the village. Men discourage women from venturing too far to work, or to work alone alongside a male.
In Fuli's project, organizers addressed the sensitivity toward contact with outsiders by hiring a well-known tailor from an adjacent village to teach the women. The tailor also agreed to pass along extra work when he had it, anticipating the two wedding seasons, which customarily run from October to mid-December and then from mid-January to March.
Fuli used to earn about $1.50 a day by working as a laborer at a site she reached only by walking many miles. Now she earns more than that in an hour; between $1.80 and $2.50 on good days, and around $1 on the rest.
At first she went to the village that served as a hub for sewing machines; later the project gave her a machine to use at home. She says the tailor pays on time, so instead of having to walk a long way to reach farms or industrial sites for day laborers, she is now working from home.
Along with the other women, Fuli wants to learn more. She wants to learn cutting, how to sew fashionable clothes and to put away more money.
"I'd like to save up enough to buy a buffalo," she says.
Owning a buffalo would mean she can give each member of her family a glass of milk every day and sell the rest to the local market.
"I'd be launching myself into a new business, as a small-scale milk producer," she says. "With time, hopefully, the number of livestock I own will increase."
As a tribe, the Garasias have attracted medical attention recently for the health disparities affecting them, such as higher rates of genetically inherited diseases like sickle cell anemia, cleft anomalies and higher-than-average rates of maternal mortality.
Beneath these statistics are conditions that health workers link to gender roles. Garasia women are traditionally kept out of important community decisions and elders discourage or forbid schooling for girls past the eighth grade. While few boys pursue much more education than that, the Garasia don't impose any direct limits on them.
Only two or three of every 100 Garasia girls make it to fifth grade. For all practical purposes, they are all illiterate.
Fuli cannot read either, but her daughter--who studied up to the eighth-grade limit--taught her how to sign her name.
Recently she applied for a bank account on behalf of a self-help group for Garasia women. When it came to signing the application, she says it felt better to sign her name rather than leaving a thumb print that would have announced her low level of education.
Charu Bahri writes for a number of Indian and international magazines and portals. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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