The women I've met in India these past six months are the strongest and the most beautiful women I've ever seen in my life. Currently volunteering in India, I had the chance to teach English to fifteen brilliant and amazing women from the Dalit community.
I've chosen to work with Sambhali Trust, a local NGO based in Jodhpur (Rajasthan), since 2006. Each year, thousand lives are impacted thanks to Sambhali and its founder, Mr. Govind Singh Rathore. I'm lucky to be part of this amazing initiative with numerous volunteers coming from Western countries and also within India, to give some love, kindness and attention to women from the Dalit community. Our aim is to provide them vocational trainings in sewing and embroidery; English and math courses; self-defence lessons and creative workshops. We want them to be proud of their work and independent. This is only possible if someone believes and trusts in them; self-esteem requires attention from others. This is why our work is also about giving them the opportunity to be happy, safe and blooming in a confident place, at least for three hours in the day.
"Why have they been engaged or married at fifteen? Why did they leave school so young? Why is more time and money spent on their weddings than on their education?"
Everyday, I go to an 'Empowerment Centre', where almost thirty girls attend the classes. I teach English to a group of eight women between fourteen to twenty-eight years. Everyday, I can see how much they struggle to learn a different alphabet and a new language, since many of them have never been to school, or left before they were fifteen. Nevertheless, I have never seen such eagerness to study and to exchange. They always try to read the most they can and they always practice their writing, but they also ask me plenty of questions about where I come from, the differences between my culture and theirs, about what I think of India, about my religion... They take every opportunity to question absolutely everything, pushing me into very complex thoughts and reflexions sometimes. These three hours truly represents a time for exchange and discussion for them and for me as well; it is the main reason of me being in India because when I teach English, I feel that I also show them another way of life, of thinking and of behaving. I don't know if I give them hope and optimism. Yet, I expect it will enable them to broaden their minds and to question themselves.
I am extremely proud to see that no matter what, my students always try to learn and understand more. I would have never imagined how rewarding it is to acknowledge their progress. It is true they encounter many difficulties, but they are very smart, curious and clever ladies, who give the best of them. I have a huge admiration for them, because they take the effort to come to Sambhali to attend courses, which gives them even more work, despite having an exhausting life to begin with, something I could never cope with.
"There are many exceptional people in India--unfortunately, they were born a woman."
Most of them are housewives (or are bound to be) who wake up at five in the morning, get ready, arrange breakfast for the whole family (and we are not talking about only four or five people), prepare their children to go to school, clean the house, do the cooking, take care of their mother-in-law, handle everyday life issues, pick up children at school, make dinner, and go to bed after everyone making sure everything is alright. Everyday, they do this over and over again. One of my students told me one day "Me, no sleep!". This is what I know from their routine, and I know it is only the tip of the iceberg; I can see that the reality is even harder. The truth is many of them are probably underfed or malnourished. I know that some face violence from relatives on a daily basis, and most have to bear sexual harassment and abuse. It goes without saying that these women's day-to-day existence is tough and exhausting. Nevertheless, they still find time to come to the 'Empowerment Centre' and they are always laughing, smiling, happy, joyful and polite. They look like they will never give up; they are always glad to be there and cheer me up every time I'm feeling down.
They will not be famous, no one will remember their names, but they are the true everyday life heroines. They are the strongest and the most beautiful women I've ever met. India should be proud that these wonderful human beings are part of it.
However, every day I wonder: why do none of these women have a job? Why have they been engaged or married at fifteen? Why did they leave school so young? Why is more time and money spent on their weddings than on their education? Why don't they have an easier access to latrines? Why do they cover their face and stop laughing and talking when a man comes into the room? Is it forbidden to look happy if there is a man around?
I don't know how many women live like that in India, but I witness that my students suffer from a situation they have not chosen or want. As a woman, I cannot accept this suffering and pain, and I deeply share their distress even if it is happening thousands of kilometres from my home country. As long as someone suffers from being part of the "beau sexe", I will suffer as well. I truly think every human being should feel concerned by the fate of the others, and the fact that we are Indian or American, Chinese, French, Spanish, African must not be a reason for us to avoid the responsibility we have regarding the future of humanity.
There are many exceptional people in India--unfortunately, they were born a woman. They could give so much, but their fate is sealed at birth. How long will we have to wait to let them fulfil their potential?
About the author : Camille Zennaro is a Sambhali Trust volunteer. She is studying International Public Management in Paris.