Women on a street in the city of Bangalore, this week in India.Andrea Rizzi
Sujara Thakore doesn't know how old she is, so she doesn't know at what age exactly she was married to an evil man. It was shortly after the first period, and she estimates that she would be 13 or 14 years old, according to what she says sitting in an armchair in the house in Bangalore where she lives, in India. Then began a hell of violence and abuse from which he managed to save himself, fleeing, despite many obstacles. He never wanted to remarry. Today, four decades later, she is a serene woman who cultivates the dream of building a house on a minimum plot of nine by 12 meters that she has bought with the savings accumulated with her work and, for some time, with her small business selling homemade jams.
One in 12 human beings is an Indian woman. That's nearly 700 million, about one-sixth of the world's roughly 4 billion women. Thakore is one of them. They could be even more so without the infamous scourge of femicide, which brought India's demographic balance to an unnatural ratio of 000 women for every 927,1 men in the 000 census. In 1991, the most recent, there was a rebound to 2011, still far from natural levels (940 million out of a total of 586,1 million). More recent partial data point to further improvement, but experts warn that a new census is necessary to have a clear picture (it is estimated that the total has now exceeded 210,1 million).
Selective abortions or outright the killing of newborns is only the first of a series of injustices they have been suffering. The data portray a dramatic situation, from the negligible rates of participation in the labor market – they are 23% of the labor force – or in politics – 13% of Parliament – to the data of the violence that hits them. India ranked 101st out of 114 countries analyzed with comprehensive data in the Gender Equality Index released this year by the UN. More than half a century after one of them, Indira Gandhi, became prime minister, the road to equality remains immense and tortuous.
Some things move. India's current economic and geopolitical boom represents an opportunity for its empowerment. This week, the Hindu-nationalist-inspired government led by Narendra Modi introduced a bill to reserve a third of seats in the lower house and state assemblies for women. It has been adopted. But, significantly, it will not be able to be implemented soon, but only after a new national census is completed.
The road ahead is arduous. Below are a handful of stories of women of different conditions and ages, a mosaic of lives that outline traits of a collective struggle for equality as great as a twelfth of humanity.
Sujata Thakore, in the house where she lives, in Bangalore.Andrea Rizzi
Sujara Thakore says he was born into a very poor family. Her father died soon after, and she starved as a child. He came to beg and eat cattle feed. When she was very young, she herded animals to be given two meals a day. Wrapped in a beautiful sari of green and blue tones, this woman owner of a special sparkle in her eyes threads that story of misery with serenity and smiles.
But misery was not his only tragedy. "When, after lowering my period, that boy's father came to get me married, I said I didn't want to, that I was too young, that I wasn't ready. I went later to talk to my mother and she supported me, but my uncles didn't," he says. The nuptials were consummated and the horror of the beatings of an alcoholic husband who did nothing but drink and beat him began.
A few months later he decided he had to run away from it. Again, he received no support from the men around him. The men of the village warned her that if she left her husband she would be banned in the village. Her brothers threatened her that they would beat the men of the family that owned the farm where she worked if they took her there. Remembering it, Thakore is moved.
Also moved, at the same moment, sitting next to him, is a man. His name is Anil, and he is one of the sons of the owners of that farm. He says that one morning, at that time, he found Sujara with his face distorted, next to the well. He thought she wanted to throw herself. She says no, but when asked what she was doing there, she couldn't answer anything other than "looking at the fish."
They welcomed her and saved her from that patriarchal and violent culture that was about to annihilate her. She worked as a maid for Anil's parents until they passed away. Now he still lives in their flat in Bangalore, where they moved in the eighties after transferring the farm. She learned to make jams in rural times, and now prepares and sells them in establishments in the city.
"My business is my joy," he says, again smiling. He talks about his dream of building a little house. He recalls that when he fled, he was unable to have contact with his family for 10 years. But then the ties resumed, and now she is the matriarch. His brothers also progressed. "I am alone, and living. I have friends. Indian women must have the courage not to accept certain situations and stand on their own legs."
Their progress is a reflection of some improvements. The economic progress of recent decades has managed to lift many people out of extreme poverty. But a study recently published by the UN indicates that 15% of the population, around 200 million people, remains in a situation of multidimensional poverty, calculated according to several socioeconomic parameters. Another suggests that a quarter of women of reproductive age are malnourished. On the other hand, violence is an incessant scourge. Data from 2021, the latest available, indicate that some 430,000 crimes against women were recorded, the highest figure since 2016.
As Sujara speaks, Anil listens sitting next to him. He refers to her as "my sister." So much so, that his family, the Thakore, gave him not only shelter, but also the surname.
Rani Desai (left) with her daughter Priya (right) and Dr. Ananya Siddaraniay at the Anahat Foundation Medical Centre in Bangalore.Andrea Rizzi
It is noon and a score of patients wait their turn in the waiting room of the small Anahat medical center, in the heart of Bangalore, a private initiative founded with donations that seeks to offer free health services to those who are not adequately served by public health and can not afford the private.
Rani Desai, 68, co-founder with her daughter Priya, 39, of the foundation that runs the center, says that, according to data collected on the ground, 70% of the inhabitants of poor neighborhoods do not have access to public health, although they are aware that it exists. "There is a mixture of reasons, lack of confidence, skepticism because they know that there is saturation, that there is a lack of means, or that even if they manage to see the doctor they will still not have medicines. Here we offer basic services, a medical consultation, we deliver medicines," he says.
The vast majority of patients you expect are women. The vivid colors of his saris counteract the gray of the clouds that are intuited in his thoughts. Rani and Priya explain that between 65% and 70% of the people served at the center are women. They have no clear explanation for this imbalance. Perhaps it influences that it is two women who lead the center, and that it is a woman, Ananya Siddaraniay, 27, the professional who goes through consultation. It seems, if anything, to be a sort of small-scale compensation for the large gender imbalance in public health care. A study published by the BMJ group that recorded care appointments at a New Delhi hospital in 2016 shows that two-thirds of them were for men.
Prior to setting up this initiative, Desai lived in Mumbai and worked for Biocon, a giant in the biotechnology sector. India is a global player in the pharmaceutical sector. But, as the 15,000 patients treated by Siddaraniay last year demonstrate, this does not mean that access to medicines is easy.
Desai says that most of the women who come to the center do not work, in line with the terrible statistics of female participation in the labor market in India, one of the most unequal countries in the world in access to employment.
Francis Rjayanathi, 40, is one of them. She has a daughter, stopped studying at 13 and is a housewife. Her husband is a driver. She suffers from diabetes. "Almost half of the patients have metabolic diseases," Desai says. "We have many cases of diabetes, of hypertension. Often, bad habits worsen the state of health of these people. For example, women are usually expected to prepare a hot dinner, but with the lifestyle of these households, with people accumulating several informal jobs, that often means that they eat very late and go straight to bed," she explains.
Desai points out that the monthly income of his patients' households is around 15,000/17,000 rupees per month (170/190 euros). Despite India's recent boom, she doesn't see much change. "It seems to me that although there is economic growth, it does not reach the social segment of these patients much. I don't see much cultural change either. In the mental health consultation that we have, there is a lot of evidence of domestic violence, addictions. Many of these people have lived in the same place for generations, consistent upward mobility is not detected," says Desai, who is undergoing treatment for cancer and yet remains there at the foot of the canyon at the medical center.
Kamini Sawhney, director of the MAP museum in Bangalore, in a room of the exhibition 'Visible/Invisible'. Andrea Rizzi
Students in a class at Basava High School in Bangalore are attentively one morning in September following explanations about Visible/Invisible. This exhibition has recently premiered the Museum of Art and Photography of the city and addresses the position of women in Indian society through their representation in art.
Kamini Sawhney, director of the museum, tells in her office the genesis of the idea. "We were planning our premiere in 2020, when the pandemic was hitting the world. I saw data showing that women's labour force participation had fallen to 20 per cent in India, lower than in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh; that many girls had dropped out of the education system. And I saw a study that, with multiple indicators, pointed to this country as the most insecure in the world. So we thought, why don't we address the gender issue? There is not enough talk about it, and I believe that museums should be spaces that catalyze change."
The title of the exhibition, says Sawhney, stems from the paradox of the extreme visibility of women in art – as objects of representation by male artists – "in the face of their invisibility in the public domain". She believes that some changes are taking place in India, but they are insufficient. "The woman is starting to find her voice, but she still doesn't find her space. There are still hierarchical structures and invisible barriers that reinforce socio-economic inequalities," he says.
The exhibition brings together some 130 works, many from the museum's collection, others commissioned. Among them is a sari with a woven inscription: "A wife's duty is to serve her husband," as Sawhney translates. "It's written twice, if one wasn't enough," he says.
Erasing that ancient legacy is a daunting challenge. Even so, the director declares herself optimistic about the prospects for change. "I have to be, I have to believe in women. In addition, the circulation of information that allows the digital revolution is an element in favor. The circulation of ideas is empowerment."
There, too, however, the road has obstacles. The press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders ranks India 161st out of 180.
Muslim women on a street in Bangalore.Andrea Rizzi
Among the dozens of women consulted for this report are also Muslims – an estimated 170 million people in India belong to this religion. Significantly, among them is a fear of openly expressing their opinions about the Hindu nationalist political project carried out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hand in hand with his party, the BJP.
Likewise, Hindu women who do not agree with Modi's thesis and recognize themselves more in the project of an inclusive and secular India embodied by the 1950 Constitution are also reluctant to express their opinions in public.
It is a clear reflection of the increasingly tense climate in the country. It is interesting to note how, in the testimonies collected, the framework of sectarian tension causes friction even within the same community, for example, with the tension between the hardliner and moderate segments of the Muslim community, leading to the tearing apart of families that cut ties for political reasons.
"I think extremists are monopolizing the discourse and many are getting swept away. I still think most of them are moderate, but they don't dare to speak up," says a Muslim woman living in Bangalore, who says she has Hindu friends who tell her, "Things will get bad, but my house will always be open for you."
Another, younger, points out that among her Hindu friends there are those who would not marry a Muslim woman in any way because they are worried about how this would be perceived. "Even if they don't share certain ideas, they don't dare to go against the dominant idea."
Minority women in an India ruled under the inspiration of Hindu nationalism face the risk of double discrimination. In recent years, India has been falling in international indices of democratic quality.
Usha Kapur, at her home in Bangalore.Andrea Rizzi
Usha Kapur was born in 1945 in Rawalpindi, in what is now Pakistan. His family moved to present-day India with the partition of the country. She says her father decided she would study medicine, and she did. She recalls that in her faculty about 40% were students, in a fairly remarkable gender balance, considering how things were in many parts of the world at that time.
After finishing her studies, she found work as a doctor in the Armed Forces. "I have never felt that because I was a woman I was discriminated against in the army," she says. But he says he believes that many men restrain themselves in certain public spheres, but then at home they behave differently. He also considers that there is a huge difference according to the prosperity of households. "In the less prosperous ones, they are treated very badly." From the height of her experience, she believes that "there is a certain progress, because there are more women with studies and who fight for their rights."
A few years ago, he celebrated with his classmates the 50th anniversary of his promotion of Medicine. He says most of them went abroad, especially to the United States and the United Kingdom, and that they are doing very well. She also emigrated: she worked for a year in Libya when she was already a mother, in a gesture that seems an affirmation of independence. But then he came back. Many others do not. India has, according to estimates compiled by the UN, the largest diaspora in the world, some 18 million migrants. They have a high degree of success. Among the young women with higher education interviewed for this report, the propensity to leave the country is also detected. The hemorrhage of talent is another challenge on India's long and tortuous road to equality.
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