Rashi and Asha were sisters but they were also the best of friends. Though Rashi was two years older, they had done everything together – eat, play, go to school, fetch water for the house, cook, clean and take care of their Ma and Baba. Their parents had wanted boys who could take over farming from Baba but destiny had other plans. Ma had complications during Asha’s birth and couldn’t conceive again. Baba and Ma had regular fights after the two girls were born and Baba beat her from time to time for not giving him sons. He would get drunk, lament over his fate and in his rage and frustration, bring havoc. The girls couldn’t understand why their father was so angry. But they accepted it and went on with their lives till Rashi hit puberty.
Ma and Baba would now have to spend money for the puberty function where Rashi would be shown off as a woman. All the village folks would come and celebrate this occasion. Suitable grooms from their own village and neighboring ones would come to seek Rashi as their bride. That would lead to marriage expenses. Where would they get the money from? They were not well-off and Baba was only able to manage a small income with his small two acre farm.
Here, Asha couldn’t understand why Rashi couldn’t go to school. Her elder sister had told her that she was woman now and had to take care of the house. Asha was perplexed and angry, the best part about school was that the sisters could spend time together, play, go to the fields on the way back and just be carefree unlike in the house where they had to do a lot of work.
Rashi had explained to Asha that she would find other friends and asked her to talk to Lakshmi teacher, who was smart and kind. Rashi recounted how Lakshmi used to give Rashi these puzzles and how she loved solving them. And that her teacher had told her that she was really intelligent and should complete school. Now that she couldn’t meet Lakshmi, she wrote a letter explaining why she couldn’t come to school anymore and how life had quashed her desires of becoming like Lakshmi teacher.
Lakshmi was furious when she read the letter Rashi had sent through Asha. This was a common story in all the villages. Puberty was seen a phase after which girls were just meant to manage the house. When she came to the village from her town, she was appalled at how many bright girls had to drop out because of age-old beliefs that men and women had. She had tried her best to talk to about women doing more than just housework. That they could study and get small jobs like accounting, stitching or shop work but nobody heard her. They dismissed her saying she was trying to pollute their minds with her town mentality. They felt that if girls studies more, they would become vain and not take of their husbands and families and homes. After a couple of years of trying to change the mindset, Lakshmi had given up. She went on with her job of teaching 30 odd children from the village.
With anger, Lakshmi felt sadness. Rashi was one of the brightest students she had seen in her life and really believed that Rashi could even get a seat in the town college. So Lakshmi visited Ma and Baba and spoke to them. She praised Rashi and told them how intelligent she was and how she could go to college and even get a job. Baba rubbished it saying it wouldn’t serve any purpose – women were just meant to do chores at home and take care of the family. The man of the house is the one who earns. He asked Lakshmi to leave and told her not to come back again. He had already arranged for Rashi’s puberty function and he would make sure she gets a good groom.
Lakshmi couldn’t do much, their minds were closed. She had failed her brightest pupil. She made up her mind to apply for a transfer and go back to the town. She had come here thinking she could make a difference at grassroots level but it was not to be. People were just too rigid to listen. But before leaving she wrote a letter to Rashi telling her that she is there for Rashi in case she needed any kind of support ever and she could write to her at her town address.
The next week, at the puberty function, Baba fixed up Rashi’s wedding to Hariya’s son Bhuvan and what’s more, Hariya even agreed for Asha’s wedding to his younger son Teja. He even told Baba that he would foot half the expenses. Baba pounced at the opportunity and within a month both his daughters were married off.
Bhuvan was a decent man – smart, kind and respectful of people. But he couldn’t understand his father and brother. They were disrespectful to his mother and kept asking her to do household chores. His mother was ill but she still did all the housework and everything that Hariya and Teja asked her to do. Bhuvan would sometimes help her out but there was just too much work in the fields and he being the elder brother, had to do most of it. He couldn’t even go to school.
Thinking about his marriage and how his father and brother were disrespectful to people, he had spoken to them and convinced them that after marriage he and Rashi would stay in the small hut in the middle of the fields. Hariya had agreed but told him that he would do all the farming. Hariya had set up a small shop that he handed over to Teja to manage; he had gone to school unlike his brother Bhuvan and could count money.
After marriage, Rashi was surprised, even shocked that Bhuvan helped her out in the household chores. She tried to stop him saying she would take care of them but he wouldn’t listen. He would help her with all the heavy lifting and then go to the fields. Rashi even spoke to Asha after a few months on what the situation in her house was. Asha told her she managed the house single handedly, took care of the in-laws and Teja managed the shop. In passing, she also told her that Teja’s shop was going into a loss as there was a new shop that opened closeby which had better products.
Now Rashi couldn’t understand why Bhuvan was adamant on doing a woman’s chores whereas Teja was normal. She decided to write a letter to Lakshmi teacher explaining the situation and asking her for advice on how she persuade Bhuvan to not help in the house.
When Lakshmi read the letter, she was glad that Rashi was married to a man who seemed to respect women. She made a plan. She wrote to Rashi periodically telling her that it’s not just a woman’s job managing the house; that Bhuvan was right in helping her. She started sending her some simple books on farming and explaining to her about how modern techniques could help double the yield of the farms. Rashi being smart and intelligent, read these books and her teacher’s letters and started giving advice to Bhuvan.
Bhuvan decided to try some of the techniques and within a couple of years, many of the crops were doing much better and the yield started improving. Bhuvan was happy, he would help Rashi more in the house and Rashi realized that she could actually manage the farm with her new techniques. Together they would finish all chores at home and discuss how they could implement these new methods. They tried a few of these techniques; some failed but most succeeded with their hard work. Rashi employed a few people to carry out her actions and over a period of time, Bhuvan and Rashi had made their farm the best in the village. Bhuvan proudly told his friends that it was Rashi who had taught him these new techniques.
When Bhuvan heard Teja’s shop was in complete loss, he asked Rashi for advice. He knew that his wife would give simple tips to increase sales in the shop and advice on ways to sell better than the competitor’s shop. Rashi decided to talk to Teja directly.
When she explained the plan, Teja was astonished. Partner with the competitor? What kind of a plan was this? But Rashi patiently explained what she had in mind, how it would benefit both the shops and how even Asha could help out. Reluctantly, Teja agreed. Hariya argued that Asha should do only the chores in the house, Bhuvan pitched in saying he and Rashi would help out. Slowly but steadily, the two shops in partnership, began to do well. Asha started helping with the accounting and managing inventory.
Hariya and Teja had newfound respect for Asha and Rashi – they were really helping improve their family life and realized that there is no such thing as a woman’s job or a man’s job. Family life takes a turn for the better when both husband and wife help each other out. Teja also started helping Asha in the house. Ma and Baba were proud too; they realized that girls are as good as boys.
At her town-house, Lakshmi was ecstatic after she read Rashi’s latest letter. Rashi had proved to her that she was the smartest and most courageous student. She immediately applied for the same position at the village school and knew in her heart that this time around, she could really make a big difference to the lives of women in the village – along with Rashi.
Author’s Note: This is a very optimistic story. Most often that not, women don’t get any help in the house and are not allowed to do anything else other than chores at home – they don’t even have a voice. And this needs to change. Women need to be empowered and educated and made to believe in themselves so that they can also take decisions for the family. The Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) shows what can happen when boys and girls get together to confront social norms. The initiative backed by ICRW, was launched over a decade ago in Mumbai. It is a two year programme that changes young minds about everything – the age at which girls should get married, how men should help with housework and that women need to be educated to have a better quality of life. UN has also published global statistics which show when more women work, economies grow and children benefit when share of household income controlled by women increases.
Women’s empowerment is not just about the women, it’s also about the others that share lives with them – fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Let’s not make the women just work the house, encourage them to do more with their lives; let’s share the load.