Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wives, washers, and winners: Women in India

Most everyone has heard of the violent rape that occurred in Delhi a month and a half ago. You probably know the specific details, so I won't say more. What happened is so disgusting. The other night I was having dinner with two guy friends and my roommate. We ended up talking about the murder, and of course we discussed the outrage among women here. But one of them also said, interestingly, that because the country has reacted so strongly, men are also feeling the outrage as well.

That would be a new thing here. Women--particularly those in smaller cities or villages--are stuck in the 15th century here. The men are too.

The other night I spent the night at Pinky’s house. I witnessed the classic female stereotype: the women in the family cleaned, washed, and cooked. In the morning, Pinky’s little sister straightened up their temple and made the beds, Pinky swept the house, they both made breakfast for everyone, the mom got the boys ready for school and took them to school, and when the mom returned, she washed clothes and starting cooking the chicken for lunch and dinner… Anyway, you get the picture. Even though Pinky and her sister go to school, they seem to be training to be housewives. Sometimes I feel that they are going to school for nothing.

Pinky’s family is an example of a traditional, religious, Indian family. The females accept it, don't seem bothered by it, and even say they love this part of their life. But maybe that’s just a fa├žade. There is still some more investigating to be done.

Women in India have come along way. But Indian female history is long and arduous. Most of this history has to do with religion and the roles that religion forces them to perform, such as the usual cleaning, cooking, taking care of the kids, and staying in the house all day to please the husbands parents. 

Aside from religion, the general culture here also forces women to behave a particular way. For instance, as I have said before, girls usually live with their families until they are married. They don't move out and get an apartment before marriage. What ends up happening is that every day they go home to clean and cook for their families. Frankly, this makes it easier for me to have guy friends here because all the women have to go home. 

Some friends from Mumbai.
Of course, I live in Guwahati, which is hardly big city in its attitudes. When I went to Mumbai earlier this year, I was hanging with a totally different crowd. On display were different females who wear whatever they want, do whatever they want, and have a lot more freedom in choosing their futures. They hang out with friends, spend the night at one another's houses, and simply behave like Western teenagers. But even in Mumbai, where thoughts and culture tend to be more “modern,” there are still negative women stereotypes to behold. One day, a boy and his father were driving me back to where I was staying. A car driven by a female made a stupid move by pulling out in front of them, and the boy said, “Of course it’s a woman driving the car.” The father said, “They should be banned from the road.”

I immediately said, “Excuse me!”

No matter how “modern” you are when it comes to how Indian women should be treated, every family, modern or not, cares deeply about a woman's marriage and that only adds to the proble. I am speaking mostly of Hindu families here because Guwahati has lots of Hindus and few Muslims. Last week I went to a very fancy Rajahstani wedding. Held in Guwahati because the male's family currently lives here, both families were originally from Rajahstan. I am very close to the sister of the bride, who talked to me confidentially about this arranged marriage. Her sister cried for hours the night before the ceremony as it sunk in that she would forever spend her life with this man and live with his family. What happens is that as soon as a woman marries, she leaves her family and moves in with her husband and his parents. Even though this particular woman chose to have an arranged marriage, it was still hard for her to accept. (Pictures from the wedding can be found at the bottom of this page).

At the wedding, the first half of the ceremony (the whole thing was like three hours long) focused on the groom's and the bride’s parents. It called for the bride’s parents to hand over their daughter to the groom and his family. At the end, the family physically gave their daughter’s hand to the groom. It was like she was then someone else's property.

Pinky and her friends tell me that once they get married they will immediately move in with their in-laws. Most wives here have major problems getting along with their mother-in-laws. And unfortunately, for various reasons, the wives always end up spending more time with their mother-in-laws than their husbands. The family dynamics get all weird. One Indian nurse who works at the Operation Smile center told me she has not seen her family at all since she married her husband. They did not approve of the marriage and that caused a break in her relationship with them. However, she loved him and loved his family. Because she knew she was going to live with her husband’s family for the rest of her life, she chose to move across the country and live with a family that she really enjoyed. Her family did not even come to the wedding. And to put the icing on the cake, her husband works and lives on the other side of the country, so it's completely messed up.

This is all to say, the Delhi rape is a sign of old and new. Things are screwed up on many levels. Men still feel they have power over women, but the country is protesting and speaking up about this like never before as if to say it is time for women to be treated equally and fairly. That is a sign of progress.

My past week:

On another note… Before I came to India, my college guidance counselor, Mrs. Veibranz, was totally behind my coming here for a year. But she told me I was going to have a low moment and I was going to have to fight my way through it. Hey Mrs. Veibranz—you were right. I just had that moment. I have been really sick for about a week and alone in my apartment because my roommates were away. I am better now (thanks to Ellinor, an anesthesiologist from Sweden, who lives in my apartment building). While I was sick and in bed, I downloaded almost all of the academy award movies. It has been a lifelong dream for me to watch the Oscar best picture nominees before the Oscars. So at least there was the silver lining that I got to do that. In fact, I still have more movies to go. So far my favorite is "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Gap years allow you to do more than you ever expected!

Sending smiles from India,

Below are photos of women that have been taken since I got here: 

Orphans in Silchar, India who spent their days taking care of the littler kids. 

It is important to note that women are always beautifully dressed in India.

Pictures from the beautiful wedding I attended last week:

Her dress was soooo heavy! 

The groom's mother is in the middle. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Love in a bath

At Pratyasha we partner with a group of orphanages in Guwahati run by an organization called Snelyahla. They provide a lot of help to us in the slums of Lakhotokia, where we do a lot of our work. They often bus 30 or so girls from Lakhotokia to one of their orphanages. And then they let us use their facilities. We spend the day teaching the girls about hygiene, nutrition, and health care. We also play with the girls, bathe them, feed them a massive lunch, and otherwise just have a fun girls day.

Last Saturday, Pratyasha hosted a "Girls' Street Kids Day." It was a blast.

The day began with the bus ride. Kristin and I rode on the bus with the girls to the orphanage for about 45 minutes, but I could have stayed in that bus for the rest of my life—girls crawling all over you, sitting in your lap, falling asleep in your arms, giving you kisses on the cheek, and singing loudly in your ear.
The bus ready to go to the orphanage. 
So excited! 
Best bus ride of our lives.  
When we got to the orphanage, the girls ran straight to the playground, darting around, fighting over who got the swings and who got the seesaw. Of course, we had to remind them to share. After an hour of playing, we finally got them settled down. Then we taught them the proper way to wash their hands and brush their teeth. Pretty soon it was shower time! It is so cute. The little girls just strip off their clothes and open their arms as if to say, “IT’S SHOWER TIME, BATHE ME!!!!!!!” They cannot wait to get wet, soapy and clean. The older girls go in a private bathroom and shower themselves.

Play, play, play, play, play...
Listening to Kristin teach hand washing and tooth brushing.
Teaching hand washing. 
I was having so much fun washing the girls’ hair and scrubbing their dirty feet that I did not notice my own hands. After the last girl was squeaky clean I looked at my palms and fingers and they were totally black. Every line in my hand was black with dirt and soot and every under fingernail was filled with grime.
Scrub a dub dub! 

Long story short, if we able to transform the girls from dirty to clean, well after their showers they went to play on the playground again and were immediately covered in dust again. Oh well, I thought. It’s all about having fun anyway.

After the shower, each girl got to put on a new clean outfit that was donated from Operation Smile Sweden nurses. (Thank you!). The girls are quite picky about which clothes they get… they want to look fashionable. But I think they were all happy in the end. Then, we ate a massive lunch, which included rice, dal, potatoes, and chicken. (Of course before eating, we practiced washing our hands.) With our stomachs full, we painted our nails, played a lot, and passed out more healthcare kits.
All clean in her new clothes. Ready to go!

Beautiful girl. 
Lunch time! 
Lunch time!

Lining up (which is rare) to receive a health care kit.

The bus ride home was so sweet. Girls were falling asleep left and right. I am telling you, it was an exhausting day.
A long day proven by a nap on Kristin's lap. 
The day before this street kids day, I got very sick from drinking bad water. Frankly, I woke up Saturday morning feeling like a truck had hit me. I did not know if I would be able to spend all day controlling and playing with a pack of rowdy girls. But the moment they saw me walking to the bus, and the moment they all jumped off the bus to come give me a hug, it did not matter how I felt because they made me feel all happy and joyful inside.

On Sunday, when we went to do our usual feeding in Lakhtokia, the girls were so proud that they were washing their hands exactly as we had showed them. Some of them even started singing Bollywood songs because we told them to sing a whole song to time hand washing. The girls were all wearing their new outfits. Even though they had just seen us the day before, they were as excited to see us as
 hey would be on any given Sunday.

Sending smiles from India,

Group photo from girls day out! 

Sunday feeding. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Simply Surviving

The other day, the patient recruitment director, Runa, asked if I wanted to follow along to some important meetings out in the districts. As I have mentioned before, we get a constant flow of patients thanks to partnerships with the Assam government and the NRHM (National Rural Health Mission) that the patient recruitment team has worked hard to develop. Without these partnerships, we could not find the cleft patients that live in the smallest villages of Assam. A program within NRHM, known as ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists), trains women from villages to be the face of public health within these small communities. GC4 finds most of the patients—and keeps in contact with most of the patients—through these ASHAs. (Some breaking news: the Guwahati Comprehensive Cleft Care Centre has developed a new partnership with Megahlya, a nearby state. This way, we are reaching more of northeast India.)

On Thursday, I ventured to Morigaon, a two-hour drive from Guwahati. Runa had two meetings with the top members of the district council. This district ranks as one of the five poorest districts in India. As a result, Columbia University has given the district a large grant to improve its health system and education system. Also, the Indian government has developed a system in which young, ambitious, educated Indians who have done well on their international relations, political science, economics and a lot of other exams get placed in poor districts as deputy commissioners to develop education, health and other infrastructures. We went to Morigaon to meet with the deputy commissioner (district head): Shri Solanki Vishal Vasant.

Guwahati to Morigaon
On the drive to Morigaon, we ran into a traffic jam. 
I felt like I was meeting the prime minister, but on a larger scale. Runa told me that I had to always say “sir,” sit up straight and be very polite. He was young (maybe 26), determined and ambitious. He agreed to help us in several ways. Most importantly, he said he was committed to making his district “the first cleft free district” in Assam. When Runa and I walked out of the meeting, we screamed and jumped up and down. Not many district heads agree to help us like this. District heads are district heads for different reasons, some only for political or financial reasons. He also gave us other non-profits to meet with in the area that would be able to help us find more patients. It was really interesting to see the business and behind the scenes of GC4.

She is pictured wearing the pink scarf in front of her organization.

While there, we also went to a small non-profit run by an older woman. She teaches unemployed women how to weave so they can make money. She works really hard as she has very little help (so if anyone is looking for a volunteer opportunity, here is one!). Listening to how she has grown her NGO in such a rural and poor area was interesting to hear. She developed relationships with the district council and other important people and took it from there. Honestly, I think she is a rockstar.

After our “business meetings” were finished, Runa and I went to a fair. In this district there is one big tribe. Some live in the hills and some live in the plains. Both meet up in this big field to trade. They camp out for a couple of days, create a “hotel” for themselves, and then begin their business. It is so interesting to see how they decide if one item is equal enough to trade with another item. How they decide, I cannot figure out, but a lot of thought goes into it. This tribe even has a king. It seems to live in the 15th century.
The "hotel" they have set up for themselves on the fair grounds. 
Their new homes for the exciting fair. 

Biggest pieces of ginger I have ever seen. Getting ready to trade!

More of the "hotel" for the week.

A cozy room for a family of nine.
One thing for sure: these people had never seen a foreigner before. Word had gotten around that a foreigner was there, and important members of the tribe presented me with their tribe's traditional scarf. They wanted to show me everything and explain why they do this. People here are always so welcoming. I asked why they still do this week of trading and they said they do it to show respect to the king. Because the fair was just beginning, buses of people from the other villages were being shipped in. It was like a Mardi Gras parade of village people, riding on the tops of buses and trucks. It was such a huge fair and seemed to be a big tourist attraction for other Indians.

Fair grounds. 
Fair grounds. 
People selling beautiful furniture at the fair, next to the rice field. 
You can probably tell, but what do I find so interesting about going into the districts? You see the simplest of the simple. Some of the shacks you pass by are little more than a piece of plywood in the middle of the rice fields. To go anywhere these villagers must trod through the wet rice fields. Their lives are comprised of basically working food and shelter. That’s it. You see families working in mustard seed fields, rice fields, tea fields, from the moment the sun rises until the last bit of light. You see kids lifting heavy farming tools to make money in the hopes that one day they can sit and relax. You see strong women, emotionally and physically, doing intense work alongside other men. They work for what they need to survive. Simple, man. Maybe we should all try it one day.

I often wonder if these people like this life or if they know any other way of living. Maybe that will be my next adventure to try and figure out.

Sending smiles and simplicity from India,

Various pictures from my trip to the Marigaon:

Dried fish

A common scene: a shack in the middle of a rice field.