India Study Tour, 2012: Reflections - Day Five


India Study Tour, 2012: Reflections - Day Five

Posted on February 13, 2012 by Rabbi Elyse Frishman


A Day with the Touchables and the Untouchables

We drove four hours to Muzaffapur, a dense small city 150 kilometers from Nepal.

Along the way, rural villages nestled by the road. Thathced huts, colorful blankets hung on lines, water buffalo and cows lying around yards, munching from round troughs of straw. The villages were spotless: no trash to be seen. Poverty, but clean.

When we paused in traffic along these rural roads – yes, traffic of bicycles and vespas and trucks bearing burdens, people gazed up at us in wonder. And always, the moment you smile, they smile, too. Radiant, warm, welcoming. And of course, so curious.

No westerners have ever “visited” there. As our huge orange bus navigated the narrow roads, people gazed at us in wonder. We couldn’t’ have been more conspicuous on a “secret” mission.

Although AJWS has funded Parcham for 2 years, no representative had yet visited; the founder Namishan would travel to more central locations.

What’s the difference between sex work and trafficking? Trafficking kidnaps women for the sex trade. Sex workers aren’t kidnapped; there are a variety of reasons why they enter the sex trade. Most do so because it’s the only means available for earning a decent living: you can earn 2 dollars a day in a 12 hour work shift away from your children in sickening factory; or 12 dollars a day for a brief night shift, with your children in the “house.” (Think 200 square feet).

It still sounds terrible: your children around? But your wages earn their education, their way out.

Namishan is the daughter of a sex worker. Whenever there was a police raid – a few times a year – she’d grab a book and read so they wouldn’t think she was “one of them” and be arrested. Her friends wouldn’t visit her home.

But there was a female district magistrate who took a liking to her and encouraged her to learn crochet work so she could earn a living. A year later at age 16 she went to live with her grandmother in another village; a leadership program was sponsored there and she enrolled. So it began: she started to understand the meaning of empowerment. Over time, she learned about legal advice, English, micro-level planning, community-based organizing. She learned how to fight for one’s rights, rights already decreed by Indian law but ignored because they were unknown to people.

She went home, and realized she needed to work with the women she knew so well: sex workers. They met secretly in one of the local Hindu Temples, because it was a safe place. A year later, her organization Parcham was growing into a ray of hope.

Night care for children so they can sleep elsewhere, kibbutz style. Health and medical support. And access to education, so during the day, you can learn to read and write, gain vocational training. And make your way out of the red light district.

But it’s not so simple. There aren’t pimps, but local gangs threaten and exhort. Once a sex worker you’re branded. Even when you leave, it’s hard to lose the image.

There’s the larger environment. Picture:

A worn wooden crate 4 feet by 4 feet set on a table. An old man sits cross-legged inside, all day, his wares hanging around him and spread in front of him. Perhaps one knee is cocked upwards. This is his store and he sits there quietly. Is this where he sleeps, too?

Barefoot men pulling decrepit rickshaws through the trash-strewn streets: some with 2 or 3 people, some filled with heavy merchandise being carted across the city. Merchandise: old propane tanks, aluminum containers piled high, bundles of straw to feed the cows and water buffalo.

In Bihar, there are 200,000 families linked to sex workers. Many of them have forced daughters into this trade in order to support themselves. Daughters are commodities.

True support isn’t telling someone what you can’t do, but offering all options and trusting that person’s choice. Whatever the choice, the person needs support. Parcham guides women non-judgmentally – women whom the rest of society condemns but seeks out in the dark.

We walked through the red light district, and were surprised at its sprawl through the neighborhoods: not a couple of streets of squalor, but many streets, some upper middle class. Accessible to all…

Parcham hides its office on the second floor, above the shops of a baker, grocer, and sex workers. Parcham doesn’t announce its presence. After all, Parcham potentially liberates these workers – and people want them there.

Are you sensing a pattern? women from all walks of life are challenged in India. Married, divorced, widowed, single, illiterate, educated, sex workers – discriminated against, victims of domestic violence, denied education and the skills to rise out of their poverty, thus perpetuating the cycle.

Learning What to Learn: The Untouchables

Back in Patna after dark, dusty and exhausted, we washed and went to dinner-- and another speaker. We groaned, but were soon absorbed by Archna, founder of Narmata. Again, the issue is gender and empowerment. There are four areas they work on, but the primary one is literacy. Womens’ literacy. India has pretty much disregarded this focus. It’s not enough to have information; without knowing how to read and write, it’s difficult to not only access information, but know how to apply it.

Narmata is convinced that literacy programs open every doorway of potential. They offer 3, 4 and 6 month semesters, and 20 day camps for women who can’t get more time. They teach reading, writing, and empowerment. They need to learn what to learn. Many of these women become teachers in their own villages.

Narmata works with the untouchable caste, the dalits, that strata of Hindu society that is segregated and discriminated against heavily. They are the most oppressed in the system, and not allowed to go to school.

Ironically, the dalits are also the freest to do what they want because they are invisible. While Brahmin women have arranged marriages, dalits are able to choose. So they are open to outreach. Narmata has worked with hundreds of women. There are centers in 50 villages, and 200 dalit women in leadership.

There’s now a weekly newsletter written by 12 women graduates, located in two cities and sent around the north.

Most important, perhaps, is the research Nartmata does. They break myths.  For example – and this is a hugely wonderful example:  India is very big on what it calls “self-help groups” (SHGs). These are collectives of 20-25 women who pool their money in a bank account in order to receive credit. Good idea, right? Narmata’s research  revealed that the small collectives weren’t really helping women gain much. The banks gave the credit to the husbands, who didn’t allow the women to do what they wanted.  And when women tried to increase the size of their collectives – an obvious way to strengthen credit lines -- the banks wouldn’t extend credit to groups over 25. It threatened the men. So the system wasn’t based in empowerment, but in credit. Narmata discovered this, publicized it, and lobbied on behalf of larger collectives.

A second example: micro-loan groups had also been encouraged. But Narmata’s research found that women were using their small savings to spend on themselves. Because when they invested in the bank, the men owned the credit that was really theirs. And the women couldn’t read their savings passbooks, so the banks cheated them. The system actually took power away from the women. 

The law is supposed to protect women from domestic violence. Each district appoints a protection officer. But these officers are political appointments, such as veterinarians looking to earn more money. Narmata lobbies for standards in appointment, including degrees in social work.

So what seem like obvious solutions from our western world aren’t always the case. Micro-loans for women, applied to the culture, fail. The solutions, as AJWS teaches over and again, must come from within the community. This is what AJWS supports.

So finally, as we get ready to fly to Mumbai (Bombay, actually; more on that next time!) and pause for Shabbat.