Friday, March 15, 2019

The rise of the widow

Text & Photos: Linda Roemer
Seven years ago, Afsana and her husband decided to kill themselves. Her husband died. Afsana survived. This is when her life as a widow began.
India has recorded the highest number of widows in the entire world. The desert state Rajasthan in particular has a strong patriarchal culture, an environment in which widows are generally suppressed and discriminated against at all levels. Marriage is still of great importance for families living in India - it is regarded as a lifetime commitment.
Before Afsana’s marriage, she had lived a happy life. But once she got married and moved to her husband’s house, it is where things started getting worse. Her mother-in-law and her brother-in-law abused her verbally and physically daily, without her husband standing up for her. Financial problems burdened the family. The three children needed to go to school, yet their educational needs were overshadowed by other necessities that had a clear priority. It was one night in 2012 where Afsana and her husband felt that they could no longer carry all this weight on their shoulders. The doctors could only save Afsana – and the label ‘widow’ has been ingrained into her identity ever since.
The traumatic experience of losing a husband is increased by the cultural and social restrictions and suppressive rules placed on an Indian woman after her husband’s death. Once married, Indian women are supposed to live in their husbands' multi-generational family homes for the rest of their lives and it is seen as not acceptable for the widows to move out of this home after his death or to remarry, which exposes many to exploitation. In general, regardless of the religion, an Indian widow is often considered as a carrier of bad luck and the cause of her husband’s death, and in some extremely conservative places in the rural area, they are being discriminated to an extent that people keep their distance from them or even clear the road as soon as they see the widow. Therefore, most widows in India are excluded from any interaction in social spaces - private and public - and are abused mentally, but also financially, by the communities they live in, as well as the in-law family. In the past, widows in India have faced multiple discriminatory legal barriers, as it is hard for them to obtain inheritances, land or even get access to their passports. The great majority of Indian widows is illiterate, meaning that they cannot read and write. The high illiteracy rate results from the fact that many got married in their childhood, which eventually led to the end of their education. Because most of them lack sufficient education, financial resources and self-esteem, widows in India generally avoid pressing charges when they are being abused or in any other way mistreated.
Afsana was left alone with taking care of her children and doing the housework with only very limited financial support both from her own and the in-law family. Yet her brother-in-law encouraged her to go to the women’s centre at Sambhali Trust, hoping that she’d be learning skills that could be of help for the family’s survival. Afsana learned a new important skill – sewing and embroidery. Her work had been so good that after one year she was gifted with her own sewing machine and a paid job at the Sambhali Graduate Sewing Centre. Afsana loves to create room decoration, silk trees and stars – symbols of growth and light. Afsana’s parents in-law were pressing to get rid of her daughter by marrying her off. Friends at the sewing centre have encouraged her to stand up against her mother-in-law and brother-in-law, against their on-going devaluing comments and harsh actions. Afsana now knows how to say “no” to them. She now lives in a different room, and cooks her own food for herself and her children. Not only her friends were proud to hear that Afsana has gained the confidence to fight for herself, it is also Afsana who has now learned that her voice should no longer be suffocated, neither in her family nor in the wider society.
Afsana works in the Graduate Sewing Centre. The job allows her to be financially independent.

Parveen shares a similar story. The 32-year-old woman, who lives in a Muslim slum in central Jodhpur, lost her husband five years ago due to cancer. Ever since, she has had to borrow money from her neighbours and friends, as her parents-in-law refuse to support her in any way. She hardly sees the doctor for her worsening problems with anemia, as she cannot afford to pay the medical fees. Parveen’s in-law family want her to make money so that they’d no longer have to pay for their son’s and Parveen’s two children’s needs – and if she needed any help, she would need to continue asking her neighbours and friends or consult her own parents, who live far away and have very limited resources themselves. Ever since Parveen’s husband’s death, she has to suffer mental abuse coming from her in-laws on a daily basis – they see her as completely useless in the household, thus sent her to study at Sambhali Trust. In one month, Parveen will graduate from the centre, meaning that she will be gifted with her own sewing machine. This will enable her to start her own tailoring business and continue creating clothes for herself and her children at home.

Parveen will soon be gifted with a sewing machine

“Sambhali Trust is my whole life”, says another woman with the name Parveen. An illness was responsible for her husband’s death in 2011. Before she joined the Fatima Empowerment Centre of Sambhali Trust two years later, she did not know how to hold the needle that she would need for the piece of embroidery she was going to work on. Now she is the supervisor in the Sambhali Trust Graduate Sewing Centre, making sure that all products made by the graduates are finished on time with exceptional quality. She assigns tasks to the graduates and helps them when problems arise. “Before I joined Sambhali Trust, I was living at my husband’s house. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law were always fighting with me. They used bad words all the time. Not only against me, but also against my three children”, explains Parveen. “My parents-in-law did not support me in any way, and they did not grant me any rights for our property”. In the rare times that Parveen was angry with her children, the mother-in-law told them that their mother didn’t care about them, that she never wanted them, that she just wanted to find a new husband – which was not true. “They blamed me for my husband’s illness, and eventually, for his death. I thought that this is my destiny now”.

Parveen finally decided to move back to her own parents’ house in 2013, after two years of living with her in-laws. It was also that time when she heard about Sambhali Trust. Anju Choudhary and Vimlesh Solaki, both Sambhali staff, were investigating the area Parveen was living in – a Muslim slum in Jodhpur. 120 ladies immediately signed up for joining the newly opened Fatima Empowerment Centre. “I didn’t have any skills. I had never been educated”. Parveen was eager to start learning. It was not an easy start at Fatima Empowerment Centre. “I slowly learned sewing and embroidery, but when we had this big order of bracelets, I made a major mistake. All the 305 bracelets that I had been doing had the wrong measurements and wrong stitches”. But Parveen continued, and after a year, she graduated from the centre, being gifted with her own sewing machine. She wanted to open her own tailoring shop, but the profit from that would never be sufficient for a single mother of three children. So she joined the Graduate Sewing Centre of Sambhali Trust, where she was making a good income. “Yet, when I wanted to pay the tuition fee for my children, I needed to borrow the money. It was 600 Rupees. Somehow, I lost the money. I cried a lot, desperately trying to find it on the streets that I had been walking on. I couldn’t find it. I knew I would need to make three more elephants at the Sewing Centre to have these 600 Rupees back. The father of three children living in the Sheerni Boarding Home of Sambhali Trust saw me looking for the money, and he told Sambhali Trust about my needs. A few days later, I was offered the job at the supervisor at the Sewing Centre. It would give me 3,500 Rupees extra per month.” Parveen was not sure whether she could handle the big responsibility that comes along with the job of the supervisor. But she did find a way to work with it – very successfully.

Sambhali Trust now also sponsors her three children’s education. Recently, her youngest boy suffered an eye injury and needed to be sent to a clinic in Ahmedabad, which Sambhali Trust offered to pay for. “Everyone around me is supportive. My father and my brother’s wives are still giving their bad comments sometimes, but I have the love and support from my mother, my children, my neighbours and the Sambhali Trust family”.  Parveen loves to spend time with her friends at the Graduate Sewing Centre. Kavita, the manager of the Sewing Centre, explains that all women working in the centre have similar stories to Parveen. “All of them have pain in their hearts, but they keep wearing smiles on their faces”. Parveen loves producing elephants as well as Christmas decoration. “My children, now 8, 13 and 14 years old, know they have to study hard. It is what Sambhali Trust is offering to our family. If Sambhali is not helping us anymore, we don’t get education anymore. They all have dreams they are willing to fight for – jobs as a doctor or police man”.

Parveen is the supervisor at the Graduate Sewing Centre. Her children's education is funded by Sambhali Trust.

Prem is a cook at Sheerni Boarding Home in the eastern parts of Jodhpur. She’s been working at the boarding home for two months now. Her husband died of a heart attack. Through working at the boarding home, she takes care of the meals of 25 children, therefore actively contributing to their well-being and health. Her sister helped her to get the job at the boarding home, since the family had many burdens to carry. Her sister was sure that Prem would feel comfortable doing that kind of job. “She was right. From the very beginning, all the children welcomed me. The job allows me to not only take back something for myself, it also allows me to give something very meaningful to others”. Prem is like a mother for these 25 children, who all come from the desert area around Jodhpur. “Whenever I leave the boarding home, the children ask me: ‘mother, where are you going?’”. Although she states that her mother-in-law and her husband’s brother are generally supportive, she now sleeps in the boarding home, an environment full of laughter and love.
Prem is like a mother to the 25 children living in the Sheerni Boarding Home

Sunita lost her husband last year on International Women's Day, also due to a heart attack. After that, she could no longer go to Shakti Empowerment Centre for five months - the centre that her husband had always encouraged her to go to. Since she had been one of the most experienced students at the centre, and her parents-in-law are unable to make an income, she was given training at the Graduate Sewing Centre for two weeks to learn all the skills necessary for being a sewing teacher. Sunita started her job as the sewing teacher at Shakti Empowerment Centre in March 2019, feeling grateful she is now able to contribute to her family's well-being financially. Her three children - two sons and one daughter - all go to school, sponsored by Sambhali Trust. Manju, the English teacher at Shakti Empowerment Centre, is glad to have Sunita's creative support. Sunita is Hindu. The religious Sanskrit text Manusmriti, which is of great importance for Hindu societies, positions the husband as the leader in the relationship, in which the wife has to show constant devotion to her husband, also after his death. As colour is linked to the sexual state of people in Hindu societies, widows are expected to completely get rid of the colour red, which is regarded as the colour of desire. On top of that, Hindu widows have to stick to more regulations that are written in the Manusmriti: It is stated that widows should be shunned from any participation in community life. Sunita, however, is lucky to be treated better than the majority of other Hindu widows. Her parents-in-law support her and treat her well, and Sunita is an essential member of the Sambhali family.

Sunita (left) and Manju (right) in Shakti Empowerment Centre. Sunita is the creative head of the centre.

Then there was another woman in the Graduate Sewing Centre of Sambhali Trust, Sairayabhanu. She was a widow, but never stopped listening to her own needs and feelings – she remarried after her husband’s death, something which is seen as an absolute taboo. All of these women are examples that it is worth it to try break down the walls that society had been building up for so many years, it is worth it to challenge the norms that had been pushing those down who in reality have the ability to rise the highest.

Afsana marching with the Sambhali family at International Women's Day 2019

Saturday, March 09, 2019

International Women's Day 2019

Text: Linda Roemer & statements of Roxanne, Linda K., Thomas
Photos: Linda Roemer & Dale Klippenstein

In line with this year’s theme for International Women's Day “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change”, all our women, girls, staff and volunteers came together to call for change and raise awareness in breaking the walls of gender inequality. We marched to show the world that girls and women are powerful and strong, have courage and determination and all the rights to grow in their lives just as much as men do. All of us have proved that our voices should no longer be silenced and that our achievements should always be recognized.

"Women are still underrepresented in power and decision-making, all over the world. Rajasthan, where we are, belongs to the most conservative and patriarchal states of India. Many girls do not go to school and the numbers of child marriages are high - we have heard stories where girls around Jodhpur are married off just at the age of 2! Women in Rajasthan are also among those who have the lowest literacy rates, are likely to be aborted as children, have very limited access to good health care, and frequently face all types of violence. International Women's Day casts light on such inequality, but even more so I have come to realize it is to celebrate the beauty, strength & the resilience of women. The Women's Day March has been the most powerful experience of my work with Sambhali so far, and it was incredibly uplifting to capture the women's and girls' determination as well as the sense of community that we had all felt. It was beautiful to see, having heard many of their background stories, how much the girls and women have grown through the work done by Sambhali Trust and how this has contributed to unlocking their power. If we don’t start talking about the freedom, capabilities and dignity of women & girls, we won’t come far in changing the stigmatising and repressive social norms and attitudes that are present in this world - this is why I think International Women's Day is of such great importance." - Linda Roemer

"Celebrating International Women‘s Day in India was an amazing experience! I was so lucky to spend the day here for the second time and once again, I have never felt that powerful than while we were all marching in the evening of the 7th. The preparation for that day was a big deal and my students were so excited for everything. Shouting slogans in Hindi like “Nari Shakti Zindabad“ (“long lives the power of women“) as one team left their marks on people. The march symbolizes that not only girls and women, but everybody has to work together to achieve equality. We raised awareness and got other people’s attention. I am always smiling when I think about it." - Roxanne

"What a wonderful experience it was to be a part of this march!  Women of all ages marching together and taking up space, disrupting traffic, making noise and collectively showing our strength. It’s so meaningful and necessary here where women are so marginalized." - Linda Klippenstein

"As a french volunteer coming to India, the march for women’s empowerment was something really powerful to me. I know about the struggles of women in France, but here, in India, especially in Rajasthan, the situation is a lot worse. When I was at the march, I was just impressed by the strength of all the girls walking together, wearing pink sari, chanting the same slogan with the same heart. Everybody was watching us, by curiosity or interest, but it was unbelievable to see that we had an impact on the streets of Jodhpur. I think it is important for women to have day like this to increase our confidence and hope for gender equality." - Thomas

What women empowerment means to the Sambhali women & girls from the centres and boarding homes, we will showcase in our upcoming blog posts. 

Happy International Women's Day 2019!

Friday, January 18, 2019

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics at Sambhali Trust

Text: Linda Roemer
Photos: Linda Roemer & Nicole Karpus

The number of women in science and technology is growing, yet men continue to dominate in this field, especially at the upper levels in these professions. That's why 11 members of the Society of Women Engineers recently came to Jodhpur to conduct science workshops for the women and children in our empowerment centres for a duration of two weeks. The organization based in the United States aims to make use of women's full potential in careers such as engineers and leaders.

Besides playing maths games, our women and children built towers made of straws and constructed paper airplanes as well as kites - a definite prove that women can indeed be successful in science!

I asked Ricka, Jessie, Celina and Meghan from the Society of Women Engineers about their intentions, expectations and lessons learned at the end of their work with Sambhali Trust.

How did you come up with the idea of implementing STEM at Sambhali Trust?

Meghan: We thought going abroad would be a good opportunity because we do not have much international outreach. Sambhali Trust stood out to me because we wanted to do something about women’s empowerment and women’s education – and it fit our objectives and goals very clearly. Women empowerment is very strongly supported in the Society of Women Engineers.

Jessie: The reason I joined the Society of Women Engineers is because I wanted to be part of a community that empowered women. STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is such a male-dominated field, so having a community that empowers each other was very important to me.

Ricka: Connecting STEM and women empowerment on a global scale is something very important indeed. I thought to myself: How can we go and help other women, in other countries, who also feel that there is a problem with women representation in STEM?

Did you have any expectations on how it would be, specifically concerning the women at Sambhali Trust, with regards to their interest and capabilities in science?

Ricka: We didn’t know a lot before coming here, and this helped us keep an open mind. We didn’t know what it is like for them, but we were open to learning how they live, how they work, what their interests are, and what they want from us. They all have different goals in life. I wouldn’t say that all of them are super interested in going into science, but they all have dreams which they are fighting for.


Overall, what kind of workshops did you implement with the women and children?

Ricka: We built towers out of straws and tape with the women – we divided them in smaller groups and turned it into a small competition. With the younger ones, we built paper airplanes and kites. We also practiced the different shapes with the kids – which basically is something that you need every day. We wanted to show to all of them: Hey, there is science around us. Also, very important are the skills that you use. Many of them are planning to be a doctor, or a policewoman – where you still have to use a lot of the skills that were important in our STEM workshops: Teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, planning and designing.

Celina: I was doing the workshop at the Fatima empowerment centre, and I was amazed about how quickly everyone got into it. Everyone was participating and had a lot of fun supporting each other in solving the tasks. It is good to show that there is an option, that women can go into science, that we can go this path.

Jessie: What I loved the most was their passion for learning. That’s the one thing we all have in common: We all want to learn. And sometimes, being in a different country, gives you a bigger picture of what types of opportunities there are – and Sambhali Trust gives opportunities to them, it opens new doors for them.


If you were to come to India with the Society of Women Engineers again, would you do things differently? Do you have more ideas of what you would like to bring across to them in the future?

Celina: Now we have a better idea of what we have here, the basis. We can plan more thoroughly and have more time now to come up with a few more activities that could be helpful.

Ricka: Now that we know what their specific interests and skills are, we can plan more to help them reach their goals.

What did you learn from your work with Sambhali Trust?

Jessie: I just want to thank Sambhali Trust, for giving us the opportunity to come here. It is not only that they are learning from us, we are also learning from them. Being part of the work of Sambhali Trust was very eye-opening. We in America take education for granted sometimes – and there are so many people out there who do not have the chance to pursue a higher education. It has given me so much to think about, what I should be grateful for. Also, there is a lot of media discussion about the negativity of India, and we are able to bring back the positive sides of it, and thus have a positive impact on our country as well.

Ricka: We came here to teach them, and share what we know with them. But in a lot of ways, we were actually learning a lot from them too. It is a two-way exchange for sure. I hope that they are taking the STEM problem solving and teamwork with them to wherever they want to go in life.