Girls in Uttarakhand aspire to live freely

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Girls in Uttarakhand aspire to live freely

Monday, 11 July 2022 | Dipsikha devi

Girls in Uttarakhand aspire to live freely

Unequal distribution of household chores impacts girls. A thousand responsibilities virtually kill their aspirations

Thak chuki hun, Thoda Aaram Chahiye,” (I am tired, I need rest) are the opening lines of the poem written by Chandni Parihar. She is just a 21-year-old girl who feels exhausted by the discrimination she has to face in her society. A resident of remote Jakhera village in Garur block of Bageshwar district in Uttarakhand, Chandni has been fighting to complete her education.

Chandni was the first girl from her village to score 65 per cent in Class 10. She wanted to pursue science, but due to the unavailability of this stream in the village schools, she could not fulfill her dreams. “I wanted to move out of my village to do higher secondary in science, but my parents objected as they were against idea of spending money by sending me to a school far off from the village,” she said.

Chandni was able to finish her 12th, but more difficulties awaited her. “Soon after finishing school, I had to put up a huge fight to get admission to a college. My parents and extended family members wanted me to focus on housework... They agreed to distance learning after looking at how adamant I was... However, they approved it by making me swear to get married after I graduated from college. Now, I am about to finish my college this year and I dread as the days pass by,” she said.

Her brother, on the other hand, who is currently in the 12th standard, has full support from their parents. He was asked which stream he would prefer to take. In fact, the parents wanted to send him out of the village, as there was no good faculty in the nearby school.

Chandni made the best use of the opportunities available to her in college. Soon, she aspired to join the Indian Army and simultaneously played football. She could not follow her dreams despite being a state-level footballer. “Once, I went to the jungle to mow the grass. I despised doing it but had to go as people considered it our ‘responsibility’. I didn’t realise that I was on the edge of a hill and slipped,” she lamented.

The accident took place during the day, and the villagers and her parents found her in the evening. The back injury caused by this unfortunate incident has shut all doors for Chandni as she can no longer play football and apply for the Indian Army. The villagers consider it problematic when girls step out of the houses without any purpose, but it is completely fine for them to send the adolescent girls to the jungle and risk their lives while mowing grass. Chandni believes the true meaning of freedom is to live without judgment and to at least get a basic education without having to fight so hard for it.

“The struggle is real and keeps getting harder as we grow old,” another 21-year-old girl, Geeta Kumari, said. A resident of Lamchula village in same district, Geeta is a powerhouse of energy. As she climbs steep mountainous path to junior school where she works as an informal assistant, she tells how despite having great potential, families do not allow girls to get educated.

“I could complete my studies till Class 12 (intercollege) as it took me around 45 minutes on foot to reach nearest school. Other girls had to walk for over one hour to reach school on time. Others residing in faraway villages would drop out mid-year considering the distance and the treacherous route they were required to take even during extreme weather,” said Geeta.

Parents cite different reasons for not supporting their girls’ education. For some, the worry is safety, while others believe that instead of spending hours traveling to school, girls are better off learning household chores. That is what they are born for.

Parents’ regressive thinking is supported by the state’s failure to establish strong infrastructure in far flung areas. After completing her Class 12, Geeta couldn’t pursue higher education despite having great interest and enthusiasm. The degree college is in Bageshwar city–around 25 km from Garur block.

“Reaching Garur is another challenge as the frequency of available private taxi services is quite low. My parents did not see any benefit in the struggle,” she said, adding that she has been given the responsibility to take care of her house and farms. On the other hand, her brothers recently got selected to serve in the Indian armed forces.

Unequal distribution of household chores impacts girls’ opportunities, and it gets difficult for them to even think for themselves. Burdened with a thousand responsibilities, their aspirations fall to pieces. According to a Unicef report released in 2016, girls between the ages of 5 and 14 spend 40 per cent more time on household chores than boys their age. This sets a stage for creating and confirming the gendered roles of girls and building a certain outlook that limits their potential in life.

Asha Kumari, 18, another girl from Lamchula is never to be seen at home. She is either in the fields or in the jungle gathering fodder. When at home, she, along with her mother, cooks, cleans and takes care of other household chores. “I would prefer to continue my college full time, but it’s far away, so that’s not an option.”

During Covid-19, the pressure of household chores burdened the girls even more in these isolated villages. While boys had all the time to indulge in sports, take up various activities of their interest, girls were sent to mow the grass in the jungle for their livestock.

If there was one smartphone in the house, it was given to boys to attend online classes. It is only when elections are around, political leaders have woken up after a struggle of two years to distribute free mobile, tablet scheme for students.

The lockdown was harsh specifically for girls. The little time they used to spend walking to school, sharing their lives with their friends, was snatched by the lockdown, said Archana Bahuguna, the head of Space for Nurturing Creativity, a model community and alternative residential learning centre situated in Khumera village in Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand.

Having experience of leading several projects focusing on children, Archana emphasised how the absence of vocational centres in villages affects girls. “It is not unknown that taking care of families is considered a ‘duty’ of girls and women,” Archana said.

Not sharing the load of household chores by most men can be seen everywhere in the country. However, in rural areas with rigid cultural and gendered norms, coupled with lack of opportunities, often cut the wings of girls.

Even if some parents want to support their daughters, extreme poverty inhibits them from doing so. “I want to join the Indian Army,” says Manisha Kapkoti, a bright 15-year-old girl from Gairkhet, Kapkot block in Uttarakhand. However, she added, there is no coaching centre for the National Defence Academy here and my parents do not have the resources to support me to pursue coaching outside my village.”

There are several other girls who have dreams—dreams of having a computer centre in their village, a smart phone to attend classes online, a proper transportation service, access to school, freedom to wear whatever they want, time for themselves. Hope one day, they have it all.

The author is a development worker from Delhi (Charkha Features)

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