Udaipur, Rajasthan, India
Back when I was a child, very few people wanted their daughters to go to school
When I was very young, I could already see the difference in treatment between girls and boys. Nowadays many people want their daughters to study. Back when I was a child, very few people wanted their daughters to study.
Personally, I always wanted to study. As a child, I read a lot of stories about inspiring women, and that made me question everything !
Besides, I saw the kind of life my mother and aunts had, and the lives of all the women around me. None of them were literate, they all got married very early and faced a lot of domestic violence from their in-laws and their husbands. They didn’t revolt because they didn’t have any economic independence. They were not decision makers, and they had no opportunity.
I have seen many women in this situation. So, very early on, I knew that I never wanted to go down this road.
“My parents stayed together because getting divorced is not easy in India”
My father, he wasn’t the traditional type of man that we knew, he wasn’t a feudal man, a patriarchal man. He allowed me to go to school like my brother, and even to wear pants, even though at that time there were no girls wearing pants at school !
I remember that there was this children’s radio program that I loved to listen to, and I told my father I wanted to be on the program. Later, he took me and my brother on his bicycle to the radio station, so we could be on the show ! And we were ! That’s the kind of man he was. But then, he started drinking, and everything changed.
Gender-based violence is very common in India. Husbands are very violent. I saw it with my mom. I had a lot of respect for my father – he recently passed. He was a really good father, and he was a really good man. Yet, he was an alcoholic, so when he drank, my parents would argue, and sometimes he’d hit my mother. Sometimes, I witnessed it. I was in 9th grade when my mother decided that she had enough of it. She took me and my siblings, went on the train tracks and waited for the train to kill us. We stayed there all night. But, then she thought that she had the chance to live her life, but not her children. So she changed her mind. The next day we all came back home. My parents stayed together because getting divorced is not easy in India. Plus, my mother was not literate, but she was very independent and dignified. She was doing small jobs to get some money for the household.
Years later, when my siblings and I were older, we confronted our father. He listened to us. From then on, I became the mediator between my parents.
I was 15 years old and my family arranged my engagement. They wanted me to get married within two months, they had fixed everything
I could go to school until 5th grade. Then, my grandparents wanted me to drop out. They thought that 5th grade was enough. My mother and I argued, and I was eventually allowed to continue studying until 8th grade. Then, after further arguments, I managed to pass 10th grade. It was harder for me to convince them to let me study, because in my community, girls have very early marriages, as early as 13-years old. When I finished 10th grade, I was 15-years old, and my family arranged my engagement. They wanted me to get married within two months. They had fixed everything.
I was very surprised, it was the biggest surprise of my life. I fought that decision, I cried, I told them that it was not what I wanted, but they didn’t bother listening to me.
In villages, it is hard to fight traditions, perhaps it can be easier in big cities, but not where I am from… Besides, I am the eldest of my siblings, and after I kept refusing to get married my mother told me that if I did not obey and broke the engagement, no one will ever marry my siblings. That is our culture in India, and it’s a very big problem.
One of my brothers, who’s almost my age, supported my decision and said that if nobody would marry them, it would be ok for him.
What made me succeed was my siblings’ support. It gave me strength. But also, I am a very bold person. If I don’t like something, then I say it clearly. So, because of my siblings’ support, because of my boldness and because of my analysis about the violence, I gained strength to change things.
I wanted to break the cycle
I saw a lot of violence in my mother’s life, and in the lives of women living near us. That violence gave me strength to try to change things. If I had accepted things, I would have been included in that same circle of violence myself. And then it would have been my sister and then other women after me. I wanted to break the cycle.
I started to talk with many women I could see who were victims of violence. I saw women who were working as cleaning ladies, being beaten up by the family they were working for, and then by their husbands, and I saw that they were taking their young daughters to work with them. I thought that this would never stop. I asked them instead if I could teach their daughters. We used to go on my rooftop and study together, so they wouldn’t have to go with their mother to work. At that time, I was only 16-years old.
I wanted to lead this fight in my life, to change things not just in my own life. I started studying again, and I graduated from high school. During all that time, the same struggle about my marriage was going on at home.
A woman’s life is a continuous hurdle race!
Then, I went to college. To support myself, I was juggling three different jobs. I was spending most of my time outside of home because when I stayed, they were arguing more about the engagement. But, in India when a girl says, “No” to a marriage, people gossip about her having an affair. So people were saying that about me ! But I was just working so much ! Some even followed me. So I was avoiding taking care of my appearance, because I thought, if a boy notices me, if he fancies me, and if someone finds out then it will be a big problem with my family. I am a very colorful and lively person, but at that time I was not like that at all! It was too dangerous for me.
I don’t think that I was any different or special from the other girls. I just tried, and I succeeded. Lots of girls try, but they don’t succeed.
My mother is proud of me now, even if it is still difficult for her to see me that bold. It took a long time, but eventually my family accepted that I took a different path.
In a woman’s life, every time we overcome a hurdle, a second comes along ! And then a third, and then again, and again! A woman’s life is a continuous hurdle race !
I’m still not married. They are still mentioning that. And I’m 40 ! I’m an exception in India. I feel pressured about this from my family but also from society. But, when someone asks me why I am still not married, I simply answer: “I’m happy. I’m flying with my own wings !”
All those women, they made me, Usha
My sister is married, one of my brothers is married, and we are searching for a bride for my younger brother. But, it’s difficult for them because of what I did. My mother and my family blame me for that. It was harder for them to find people to marry because I had broken that engagement.
Standing up for yourself is very difficult because it has a lot of implications, that’s why many people don’t do it. But that’s my fight. If you don’t do it for yourself, if you don’t do it in your family, then how can you ask other people to do it ? I am facing many challenges, but I managed to change things, not just for me but women in my family. Now the girls in my family don’t have early marriages anymore. I took a stand.
I made that transformation, and now I think I can help others. I had a vision, a dream, and I managed to make a change. And I was on my own. Now I am very committed to girls’ and women’s rights because of my own story. And the stories of the women of my family, my mother, my aunts, etc. All those women, they made me, Usha.
I created my own organization
Years passed, and I worked for a few NGOs, but none of them were working with young girls. So I created my own organization.
We work mainly with marginalized communities, we work in several villages of Rajasthan. Recently, we’ve opened a helpline and a support center for girls and women in Udaipur. We do outreach activities in schools and colleges, mostly about gender-based violence, we inform girls of the help they can get if they face violence. But, we also target boys and men. Because if you want to change the community’s mindset, if you want an equality-based society, then it’s very important to have a holistic approach and involve boys and men in the process.
We also promote outdoor games. Playing outside is a boys’ thing. But now girls can come out, in public, otherwise it’s like they’re hiding all the time. When they come together for outdoor sports, then they feel fearless, confident. But getting the parents to let the girls play outside is a very big struggle. Some girls want to join but their family members don’t allow them.
Boys are not survivors like women, they’re perpetrators
So we also work with boys. It is very difficult, because girls and women are survivors, so they listen easily. But, boys are not survivors like women, they’re perpetrators, so it’s very difficult to engage them, to talk with them. And they don’t want to admit that. But we are not blaming anybody. We are blaming socialization, society. Boys and men are simply reproducing what they’ve learned from the community. We help them change their mindset. Then, when they understand, the choices they make are their own. If they want their life to be peaceful, happy and without any violence, they are now able to teach their children another way and be a role model for them.
Our aim is a violence-free society. We are working for girls’ education, for empowerment, against child marriage, and we do sports for empowerment. We try to create girls’ groups and boys’ groups to mobilize them and give them a sense of community.
We explain to them that they beat them because they have power
We also have workshops with men about non-violent behavior. We ask them how they could resolve a disagreement without violent behavior. They say things like, “I’m beating her because she doesn’t listen to me.” So we ask, “Oh, then is she beating you when you’re not listening?” We explain to them that they beat them because they have power, and she has no power. Because if she slaps you, then you will kick her out of home. So what she can do is go back to her parents, but they won’t accept her because in Indian society, married women should not return to their native home. They’ll kick her out as well! So she’ll return to you, because she has no support structure. That’s why she listens to you and sleeps next to you. There is no other reason. She doesn’t like you, she doesn’t love you. She simply has no other option. If she had an alternative she would be out. So sometimes the discussions are very hard ! We’re shaking them a bit. It’s like an iron in the fire, you let it in the fire and then, slowly slowly, it’s soft enough and you can bend it in any shape you like !
My wish is that one day, girls and women can fly with their own wings wherever they want to go. I wish no one would cut their wings and get in their way.
Usha’s organization is called Vikalp Sansthan. Their focus is to end gender based violence against women and to create a violence free and justice based society. They are also working on women’s empowerment and ending child marriage. We encourage you to find all the information and discover how you can help by visiting Vikalp’s website.