Six days a week, around 9.30 in the morning, Aradhana Vishwakarma tucks her red velvet purse, a mobile phone and a steel tiffin box into a small polythene bag. Clutching the bag, the petite young woman strides up to the corner where she waits for her friend, Meenakshi Sonkar, who comes cycling from Churawanpur, a village adjoining Baksha in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district.
Together, the two women – both 22 years old – walk upto the highway, find a safe spot to park the cycle, and then hitch a tempo ride to Shambhuganj, five kms away. They do what many young women in their villages want to do but can’t: they work in a factory and earn money.
The women of Baksha village are constantly at work. They cook for their families, clean the house, wash the clothes, milk the cows, sow the fields, harvest the crops – and get paid nothing.
While the Dalit women who work in other people’s farms earn wages for their labour, it is a pittance: Rs 100 for a day of work. In contrast, the men in their families travel out of the village to work on construction sites, earning between Rs 250 to Rs 400 a day.
“We would like to go out,” said Sudaama Devi, a woman in her thirties. “But if we do, people will say we have been kept. Unka raakhe hai.”
What if they went along with the men of their family?
“That won’t change a thing,” she laughed. “And someone needs to stay to take care of the ghar dwaar and garu [home and cows].”
Only the desperate can afford to let women step out of the village to work, it seems – for instance, Musahar women accompany their male relatives to live and work in brick kilns. At the bottom of the village’s social hierarchy, the extremely impoverished Musahars are looked down upon by even other Dalits.
For all other women, the only jobs considered respectable are government ones where they have to deal with other women and children – as teachers, anganwadi workers and auxiliary nurses and midwives. Attractive government salaries make it easier to break social taboos. But the same jobs in the private sector are not worth the risk.
After she graduated from college in 2015, Dimple Chaurasia was offered a teaching job in a private school. The money was good – Rs 1,500 per month. And the school was within walking distance.
Dimple’s mother supported her but her brothers put their foot down. “Direct bole, jaa apne sasure, jaun kahe so karun, yahan naahi karu ba.” They said go to your marital home, work if they let you, but you can’t work here, recounted Sangeeta Chaurasia, Dimple’s cousin.
Sounding apologetic, Dimple’s mother said she tried to intervene on behalf of her daughter, but her sons taunted her: “Inhe mann bhadhawa.”
“Mann badhawa” means encouraging someone to do what they want. Reshmi, another of Dimple’s cousins, whose brother Vikas is a worker of the Bharatiya Janata Party, burst out in exasperation. “I am older than he is,” she said, “but if I ever say anything at home, he goes to mummy and says ‘mann bhadhawa, aur mann bhadhawa’. Who encourages him to stay out all night? Just because he is a boy, he can do what he wants.”
Taking a break from household chores, soaking in the sun on charpoys laid out in the space between their closely clustered homes, two generations of Chaurasia women expressed angst over their unrealised potential. “Itna padh padh ke kauno naukari paayin,” said Dimple’s mother. After all the education, our daughters did not get any jobs.
The only one who got a chance to bring home a salary was Sangeeta, who taught for a year at a private school for a monthly salary of Rs 1,000. But her teaching career ended as soon as she got engaged.
Both Dimple and Sangeeta were married off in 2015. Both are back home with baby bumps. Dimple has also brought back the laptop she had taken to her marital home in Azamgarh district.
In 2013, when she was wrapping up her first year in BA, the newly elected Samajwadi Party government distributed laptops in colleges – Akhilesh Yadav was making good his election promise of 15 lakh laptops for students who had cleared high school and intermediate exams.
The laptop has served the Chaurasia family’s entertainment needs well. “Cassette bhar ke dekhte hai, picture bharwaa diye hai, gaana yahin sab aur kya,” said Dimple. We watch movies and listen to songs that have either been downloaded or are available on CDs.
The most popular videos are those from the weddings of Dimple and Sangeeta.
Dimple grumbled: “Computer sikhte to kuch karte. I would have done more with it, had I taken computer lessons. But I got married and could do nothing.” The irony is that the laptop came fitted with educational software by Intel, which included lessons on how to use computers. In all these years, Dimple never discovered it, and no one pointed it out to her.
“Humare husband aathwi tak padhe hai wo kya jaanege. Paan lagaate hai,” she said. My husband has studied upto class eight, he doesn’t know any better. He sells paan.
It is common in the village for young women to be married to men with lower educational qualifications. Justifying this, Dimple explained, “Ladkon ke upar zimmedaari aa jaata hai isliye nahi padh paate.” The boys shoulder the responsibility of providing for the family and are forced to discontinue their studies. Sangeeta shot back: “It’s not like we don’t have any responsibilities. We are expected to finish the household work before we are allowed to go to study.”
Young women might not be allowed to take up jobs but their families are keen on getting them to finish college. Evidently, a degree increases their value on the marriage market.
Shashibala Shukla’s daughter Khushboo completed her graduation last year and got engaged in November. The family will be paying Rs 2 lakh as dowry, which is low by the prevailing standards, her mother claimed. “They were generous,” she said of Khusbhoo’s future-in-laws. “The father-in-law is a teacher, the brother-in-law is a teacher, the sister-in-law is a teacher, and they plan to get Khusbhoo a teaching job too.” While a BA degree brings down the dowry rates, getting young women to study further is risky, Shashibala added. They need to be paired with doctors and engineers, who expect higher dowries.
Confined to domesticity, the women of Baksha, old and young, have a common refrain: “Koi factory khul jaaye.” They have heard of small-scale cottage industries that run in villages, and piece-rate work that can be done at home. If only someone could give them such work. It is humiliating, they say, that they have to depend on the men for the smallest of cash requirements. “To even charge our mobiles for Rs 10, we need to plead,” said Dimple’s mother.
There are strict rules around access to mobile phones. Until she was married, Dimple did not have a mobile phone. Sangeeta’s husband gifted her one at the time of their engagement. Her younger unmarried sister, Sarita, relies on her mother’s phone, and is still not allowed unsupervised calls.
“She does not give me the phone when my friends calls,” said Sarita, of her mother. “Naukari kya karenge jab haath mein mobile nahi rahega? Isliye Akhilesh to vote karna hai.” How will we work if we don’t own mobiles? That’s why we need to vote for Akhilesh.
Last October, to burnish his image as a modern, youthful leader, Akhilesh Yadav opened the registration of the Samajwadi Smartphone Yojana – those above the age of 18, with a high-school certificate, and an annual family income of less than Rs 6 lakh, were eligible.
All the young women in the Chaurasia family rushed to apply. As did other young women and men in Baksha. Across the state, by the first week of December, more than one crore applications had been received.
Sarita’s application was rejected. She is not yet 18. She is too young to vote.
But Aradhana Vishwakarma isn’t – she has applied for the smartphone and plans to vote for Akhilesh. “Mere vote unhi ke naam hai,” she said. My vote is for him. “After all, Akhilesh has done good work. I might not have got the laptop, but I got Rs 20,000 as Kanya Vidya Dhan,” she said, referring to the state government’s scholarship scheme for meritorious girl students.
It isn’t Aradhana’s choice, but the fact that she is exercising choice, that is remarkable.
In 2014, the female voter turnout in Uttar Pradesh was 57.42%, which is nearly as high as the male voter turnout at 59.13%. For the forthcoming elections, of the 14.12 crore eligible voters, 6.44 crore are women.
But nearly half the state’s vote is not entirely autonomous.
The older women in Baksha say they vote for whoever the men in their families ask them to. “We don’t step out, we stay at home, what will we know of the outside world,” said Parveena Bano. “The men tell us which button to press, we press that button, and come back.” Soni Chaurasia, Sangeeta’s mother, said, “Many women get so stressed, mistakenly they press the wrong button.”
But young women are now quietly defying the rules.
In the last panchayat elections, Dimple’s in-laws asked her to vote for their neighbour. “He was from our caste,” she said. She did not particularly like him and ended up voting for a Yadav. “I could see that he was winning,” she explained, “and I wanted to vote for the winner.”
She hasn’t disclosed to her family that she broke rank.
Aradhana said education has given young women the confidence to think for themselves. In college, she studied Psychology, apart from Home Science, the subject still in vogue for female students. But what really shaped her was her training with the National Cadet Corps. It inspired her to think of a career in the armed forces. She took up the job as a supervisor in an agarbatti factory because she needs the money – Rs 4,000 a month – to prepare for the Staff Selection Commission. “Kyunki mummy papa utne achche nahi hai na, ghar dwar to dekh hi rahi ho,” she said. Because my parents aren’t well-off, as you can see.
Not many in the village know Aradhana holds a job. The family keeps mostly to itself. Her father works as a halwai in Jalandhar in Punjab, while her mother, Sushma Devi, tends to their two bighas of land. “I got this land from my father because I did not have a brother,” Sushma said. Like elsewhere in India, women in Baksha are farmers but not landowners. Showing the patch of land, on which wheat, arhar dal and vegetables had been planted, she said, with a smile, “It is small but enough for my son.” It didn’t occur to her that women with brothers – like her daughters Aradhana and Komal – too had inheritance rights.
They might not be able to inherit land yet, but the young women of Baksha are looking forward to having smartphones of their own.
On its part, the Samajwadi Party has targetted women voters by promising free pressure cookers in its manifesto. Vikas, the BJP worker, claimed this was the Samajwadi Party’s way of underlining the limited reach of the LPG cylinders that the central government had distributed. “They are going around saying cookers work on both cylinders and stoves.”
“But who wants pressure cookers?” said Sarita, impatiently. “The girls want smartphones.”
Over the next few weeks leading up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, Scroll.in’s ‘A Village Votes’ series will bring readers glimpses of how the residents of Baksha, a village of 2,500 people in the eastern part of the state, are making up their minds about who to support.
The previous parts of the series can be read here.