Indian women are voting more than ever before. In many states, their turnout is now higher than that of men. But political discussions in the country rarely feature women – even in the media.
What are women thinking on the eve of the 2019 election?
Aarefa Johari and Nayantara Narayanan travel to find out in Half the Vote, a series that brings you the stories and perspectives of women – only women – on life and politics.
Five months ago, Pooja Mehra lay in a government hospital bed in Dausa, Rajasthan, screaming in labour pain. There was no public health centre in or around her Bhateri village in Jaipur district, so she had to travel 13 km to Dausa town for her delivery.
“The first thing the hospital staff asked while admitting me was, ‘what is your caste?’” she said. She belongs to the Bairwa community, one of Rajasthan’s largest Scheduled Castes.
The delivery was a blur of excruciating pain and hours after her son, Ishank, was born, she was still crying in agony. Her vaginal tissue had suffered severe tearing, but the doctors had not done anything about it.
“The doctors were either Gujjars or Meenas and they kept attending to patients from their own castes first,” Pooja Mehra, 24, said. “Even the nurses did not bother to give me water or any other service.”
Feeling helpless, her family dipped into their savings and took Pooja Mehra to Jaipur, 60 km away, where she finally received stitches at a municipal hospital. “Even then I could not walk properly for weeks,” she said. “I took four months to recover.”
Through the recovery period, Pooja Mehra nursed her infant, helped with housework and studied for her final year Bachelor of Arts exam. She plans to get a Bachelor of Education degree and become a teacher.
Pooja Mehra has not invested much hope in this general election, but she does have two demands from whoever takes power at the end of it. “The government should do something to improve the Dausa hospital, so that no one has to go through hell like I did,” she said. “And they should do something about water. Our village is struggling without enough water.”
Village with an infamous past
Pooja Mehra’s village may appear unassuming but it has an infamous past. Twenty seven years ago, Bhanwari Devi, a grassroots social worker from the lower Kumhar caste, was gangraped in Bhateri by upper caste Gujjar men when she tried to prevent a child marriage in their family.
During her long fight for justice, Bhanwari Devi was humiliated, discredited and socially boycotted. Her alleged rapists were acquitted in 1995, with a district court claiming that elderly men could not have participated in the rape, and that upper caste men would not rape lower caste women for reasons of purity.
In the 24 years since, the Rajasthan High Court has held just one hearing of her appeal.
But Bhanwari Devi’s case was a turning point for women’s rights in India, pushing the Supreme Court to recognise and define sexual harassment at workplace for the first time. The court’s 1997 Vishakha guidelines made it mandatory for all workplaces to institute measures to prevent sexual harassment and redress complaints, laying the foundation for the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act of 2013.
Nearly three decades since Bhanwari Devi’s rape, caste divisions in Bhateri and its surrounding villages are palpable in the way people respond when the incident is mentioned.
A group of Gujjar women sitting outside a large house winced at the mention of Bhanwari Devi’s name and muttered, almost inaudibly, “We don’t know whether anything actually happened to her or not.”
In the neighbouring Kaneti village, Manisha Meena, 20, from the Meena community, which is listed among the Scheduled Tribes, said she got to hear about Bhanwari Devi’s case while growing up, but did not know “who is right and who is wrong”.
Women in Pooja Mehra’s family are more open to talking about Bhanwari Devi. “We don’t want something like that to happen in our village again,” said her sister-in-law Suman Mehra, 20. “Bhanwari Devi was trying to end child marriage and it no longer happens here now. Women in Bhateri have progressed a lot.”
‘I really need that police job’
While it’s unclear if child marriage has actually been abandoned in and around Bhateri, women’s progress is apparent in the confidence and ambition of young women such as Suman Mehra and Manisha Meena.
Suman Mehra, like her sister-in-law, is studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree and aims to become a government schoolteacher. “My father has told all his daughters that we should study as much as we want and marry whenever we want,” added Suman Mehra, whose father is a farmer. Other people in the village do say that I should get married but everyone wants their daughters to study in college these days.”
Suman Mehra is proudest of her second sister-in-law, a BA second year student who was recently shortlisted by Bhanwari Devi to be her assistant. “Bhanwari Devi needs someone who knows computers to help her with her social work and my bhabhi is currently travelling with her to Indore for an event,” she said.
In Kaneti, Manisha Meena and her cousin Rekha Meena have grander ambitions: they are training to join the police and cannot wait to get a secure job with either the Delhi police or the Rajasthan police. “The physical training is difficult but I love the police uniform and I love the jazba that comes with it,” said Rekha Meena, using the Hindi word for passion. “There are four girls in our village training for the police.”
The Meenas stay in a Dausa hostel while they train but had returned home in April to help their families harvest wheat. In the village, they constantly face pressure to get married but they use their training as a shield. “I keep telling people I will marry after I finish my training,” said Manisha Meena. “But I really need that police job afterwards, or else my in-laws will ask me to do housework.”
‘Not Modi’s fault it hasn’t rained’
For the Meenas and the Mehras, politics is a frequent subject of family conversation, and Suman Mehra, Manisha Meena and Rekha Meena are excited about casting their first ever votes in the fifth phase of polling on May 6. All of them claim that the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the best choice.
“My family was upset with Modi at the time of demonetisation but not anymore,” said Manisha Meena. “Thanks to Modi, we got Swachh Bharat toilets and free Jio phones.”
She was referring to a 2018 Rajasthan government scheme to sell Reliance Industries’ Jio phones for Rs 95 to women with “Bhamashah” cards. These cards, given to women under the state’s 2008 Bhamashah programme, enable direct transfer of welfare benefits to help empower women within their households. The phone Manisha Meena received is now being used by her older brother.
For Manisha Meena and Rekha Meena, water shortage is the only serious problem they want the government to focus on after the election. Their region has not had a good monsoon for at least three years and water reserves in the Bisalpur dam, from where Jaipur district gets most of its water, have been shrinking since 2017.
“It is not Modi’s fault that it has not rained well, but the government only sends a few tankers to our village once in three days,” said Rekha Meena. “It is just not enough for drinking and household use.”
Supplying potable water through tankers is typically the state government’s job, but like the Meenas, Suman Mehra too believes it is a problem that only Modi, as prime minister, will be able to address.
“My parents have always voted for the Congress but my brother says Modi has done a lot of good work for the country,” she said, faltering as she tried to articulate the nature of the Modi government’s good work. “I support Modi mainly because my brother supports him.”
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