India is one of the fastest growing economies of the world but despite these developments; there is a wide gap between rural and urban India with respect to technology, living condition, economic empowerment, and most importantly women rights. More than 77% population of India resides in its rural parts making it one of the world’s largest rural establishment and also most diverse in terms of spoken languages, ethnicity and culture.
While documenting stories of women across India, I saw the dichotomy of these two Indias.. The contrast is astonishing. While baby girls are given away, sold, or even killed in parts of rural India, urban women are gradually seizing power and asking for their rights. While things are changing in bigger cities, rural India is still far behind, where discrimination against women is largely whitewashed using the label of ‘Indian culture’. When it comes to modernization of thought and freedom of choice and speech, the progress in this part has been minimal.
As a woman, I have experienced the uncertainties firsthand, through my own life and my mother’s struggles. After losing my father, when I was only four, I saw her single handedly fight for the most basic of rights and dignities in order to provide her children with a decent living. Standing next to her; through her fight for our survival, I have lived in constant fear for our safety and in a way lost my childhood. As a girl, growing up in a small town, I struggled to both ‘stand out’ as well as ‘fit in’ the stereotypical moulds of Indian culture.
The urban world I inhabit now is, however, completely oblivious to the rural world of India. Though they intersect at several levels, it is alarming, how little these two worlds interact and there is a need to connect these two worlds. While I feel an ingrained need to tell my story through stories of many Indian women, I also want to bridge this gap through my long-term project ‘Women of India’. I want to provide the stories with a platform; an outlet that recognizes the plight of these women and allows the mainstream to identify with the fringes, which may hopefully lead to a change.
These stories are largely neglected in mainstream media and even if it surfaces occasionally it has a skewed perspective of presenting the story from a male point of view. For instance while covering the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha; I realized the whole farmer suicide issue was viewed from the perspective of the male member of the family but it is important to tell the stories of widows who are left behind with the huge debt and responsibility of their children. Similarly in Punjab, the issue of female drug addicts is largely neglected and layered with stigma and barely 5% female drug addicts get appropriate treatment.
I strongly believe that the gender issues in rural India, which are largely different from urban India and western world are not highlighted and addressed appropriately. Being a young woman from India, I feel I have this duty towards the future generations that these subdued voices get heard and they receive an equal rights to education and expression Through this project I intend to bring out stories of daily lives of these women, the stories of struggle, stories of victory, stories of breaking norms, and expose them to the modern India and the modern world.
Japiyammal, 34, sells dry fish to make living for her family. She also received a notice to vacate her home. After 50 years, government suddenly seems to have woken up from its deep slumber and has recognized the tourism potential, Dhanushkodi has to offer. The fishing community here relies on traditional methods of reading the winds, stars and direction of waves. Without any formal training on modern techniques of fishing and unavailability of any GPS or Wireless devices, it is very hard for Japiyammal and other fishing community, to leave their land and learn the new ways of fishing elsewhere.
Shakila Husain, 75, weaves to make money for her living in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh. Her own son pushed her out of her home and she now lives alone close to her work place. Belonging from a conservative Muslim society, it was difficult for her to step out from her home and work, but she refused to go to an old age home and is now the senior most member of ‘Women weaver’ society. She encourages women from her community to educate their daughters and allow them to work; so that they never have to depend on anyone.
Sangeeta, 38, widow of Ashok lives with her two sons, in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. Her younger son is a sickle cell anemia patient and dropped out of school to support the family. Once known for its cotton or ‘white gold’ production, Vidarbha now is notoriously known as the suicide belt of India. The region has been going through severe drought for the last ten years leading to almost 8,000 farmer suicide cases. So when a crisis-hit farmer kills himself, these widows are pushed further into more debt and are forced to take jobs as laborers on other farms to sustain.
Vaishnavi was only 5 when her father committed suicide. She now stays in a hostel in a relatively bigger village, as her mother can’t afford to pay for her daily travel to school. While she misses being at home, she is determined to become a doctor and provide free health services to her village. The younger generation is now distancing itself from agriculture after witnessing the pain of their fathers. With no crop insurance or a minimum support price, the farmers do not get a fair price for their crop, which piles up their debt year after year.
Sarita, 30, was only 17 when she got married to Praveen and now she has two kids. Praveen died just 7 months ago, which is the most recent case of farmer suicide. To take care of her children, she is now looking forward to start a small business of sewing clothes. While the local NGO tries to help the women and train them to make an alternate living; the Government has turned a blind eye towards the plight of these women. In most of the cases, the Government doesn’t acknowledge the suicide cases and labels them as family disputes.
Rural women usually cover their faces in a saree (the traditional long piece of clothing), a custom in many parts of India, following the conservative way of living. But it was exhilarating to witness a friendly swimming competition among these rural women in a ‘women-only’ section on the Ghats of Narmada River, Madhya Pradesh. Nestled away from their normal lives, they were oblivious to the outside world, for the time being and are seen flaunting their swimming skills to each other. time being and are seen flaunting their swimming skills to each other.
Krappa, 34, is a part of a nomadic family of approximately 10 members traveling together to sell iron stoves in Rajasthan. Without a permanent dwelling, the nomads live a meager life, creating makeshift homes and using woodstock for cooking. Women are given the responsibility of cooking for the family, while men talk to the customers. The smoke coming from traditional stoves is extremely harmful. Almost one million deaths occur annually in India due to household air pollution and most affected by this practice are women and children.
Anandi, 22 works along with her parents in salt-pan fields of Mithapur, Gujarat. Most workers here in the saltpans haven’t been able to escape this work for generations. While the contractor and companies earn millions, the wages have remained abysmally low for them. The laborers are not provided with any protection gears to cover their feet and hands. Working in extreme environments, these workers are prone to severe occupational hazard contracting fatal diseases. There is a saying here that if you are a saltpan worker, you have three ways to die: first gangrene, second TB or third blindness.
The seasonal migrants from Madhya Pradesh come to sugarcane farms of Gujarat at the end of the monsoon season, leaving their poorly irrigated land. In the sugarcane farms of Somnath, Gujarat, one element that stands out is the dark smoke coming out of the chimneys. While women work day in and day out to produce sugar, they are continually exposed to the smoke and pollution. All they can afford is a headscarf to save their hair from flakes and man’s shirt to save them from the heat. While profits continue to increase for owners, it’s the migrants that remain impoverished.
Sheela, 21, lives in a makeshift house by the sugarcane farm in Somnath, Gujarat. Migrants are compelled to live in sub-human conditions on work sites, which lack basic amenities and sanitation facilities. Most of these women submit their documents to the owner at the beginning of the season, which leaves them helpless and forces them to work throughout the season despite all odds. Women and child migrants form a vulnerable group facing serious lack of security without any identification and insurance. Women in particular face high risks of trafficking and various forms of exploitation, including forced prostitution.
Deepti Asthana is an independent photographer, born in 1986, in Uttar Pradesh, India. An engineer by training, Deepti was introduced to photography in 2012. She developed her passion for photography and explored different facets of it along with her day job, as an IT engineer. In 2016, she took the leap of faith and started to work as an independent photographer. Deepti wants to tell her story, through stories of Indian women settled in small towns and villages to highlight the gender issues in this part of India, which is largely different from urban India and the western world.
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