Print Edition - 2017-09-27  |  The Collegian

Poverty and gender inequality: Realities from a homestay

Sep 27, 2017-

Living in South Asian countries one can write a lot about poverty and gender inequalities since it is everywhere, but experiencing it through a homestay is a completely different story. A stereotypical homestay in most cases is a touristic escapade but in my educational homestay it turned out to be a great eye-opener and exceptional experience of poverty and gender inequality prevalent in our society. 

I participated in a three-week encounter India programme offered by United World College (UWC), India. The programme is for high school students from all across the world and aims at challenging the assumptions they have about India. We learnt about the development complexities facing the world’s largest democracy and positive ways to approach them. Also, we travelled to interesting places around the country to learn about the historical, social and cultural context. Additionally, we had a chance to experience life in rural India through homestays and farming. 

A 24-hour homestay with a poor family, in the Harshi village of Pune, gave me an unparalleled experience. I was in a house which didn’t even have proper floor or walls, having beds or fans was out of question, altogether. Despite this, Meena Behen, the lady in the house warmly welcomed me inside and offered me chai (tea). Her husband and daughter both had a mental disorder so she was the one taking care of the entire house with her nephew. She only spoke Marathi, which I didn’t quite understand, but we still managed to communicate with each other. Her nephew knew a bit of Hindi, so he helped in between. With conversations, I discovered that it was hard for them to make their living but she had some land so they could produce some food for themselves, despite very low yields. 

While talking and explaining about herself, she was also cooking dinner on firewood. The dinner was probably a bit special that day—daal, roti, rice, cabbage, and a local vegetable. I was delighted to get a rare chance to eat food cooked on firewood, and that process itself was an appetiser for me. The food was mouth-watering and delicious. She fed me a lot and I ate much more than my usual diet allowed. I was already full but she kept insisting me, with a lot of affection, to eat more. Just at that time, I also thought of offering a bite to her. With some hesitation, I gave a bite to her. 

She smiled with surprise and showered me with unending blessings. Also, I asked her if she was happy living in this house and having to farm (very labour intensive work in this region). She tried replying in Hindi, with a smile on her face. I understood partially what she said and understood the rest by her gesture. She was happy with whatever she had. She was clear that there was no point being unhappy because that wouldn’t change things. This reminded me to be happy with what I have, and consider myself lucky that at least I have what I have. 

After some more eye-opening talks about her difficult life, she told me that due to lack of space and facilities in her house, she had made arrangements for my sleep in her neighbour’s house. I wanted to stay in her house only, but wouldn’t insist. I was deeply touched that her acute poverty did not deter her from welcoming and offering delicious food to me as well as arranging a better place to sleep for me. That’s the reality of a poor household, they have to find ways and means everyday beyond their resources and capacities. 

Her neighbour, Shantha, welcomed me with a smile. Her house was much bigger with a tiled floor, painted walls, and fans. This was a joint family with 13 members including five very curious, cute children. They were also hosting another participant, Yutaro, a Japanese, from our programme. Everything seemed really good, but little did I know that some heartbreaking stories were going to unfold the next morning. 

Next morning, I went back to Meena’s place but discovered that due to some urgent work she needed to go the city. Therefore, I said a thankful goodbye to her and returned to Shantha maoshi’s (aunt) place. 

After breakfast, we headed to her farm. On the way, I asked about her work and life. After some reluctance, she opened up and shared about herself. Listening to her, I realised how much pain is hidden behind her smile. During the small but deep conversations we had, she told me that she wanted her son to be educated in a good school so he wouldn’t need to farm in such harsh conditions. Unfortunately, her husband only sends him to a government school nearby, which is equivalent to not going to school. Despite her desire of a good school for her son, she feels helpless. She also shared about the difficulties she faced at the time of the birth of her son. Her husband’s family didn’t care for her at all. Shantha’s parents somehow managed to pay for the hefty hospital bills but were short of 2,000 rupees and requested her husband’s family for help. Despite being well off, they refused and said, “We don’t care, let the mother and child die. We’re not going to give a penny!” She was bleeding and the doctors didn’t start 

the treatment until the money was deposited. Somehow they managed the money needed for the treatment and her son was born. Now, even though her husband’s family has started loving and taking care of the child, she still has bitter feelings for them and probably cannot ever forget the incident. 

With tears in her eyes, she narrated that she has to deal with an alcoholic husband and abusive mother-in-law. Even after all this, she continues to work with a smile on her face for the sake of her son.

These two cases were contrast to each other. As one expects a rich family to be happy and the poor family to be sad but it’s not always the case. This experience was certainly inspiring, unique and unforgettable!

My reflection is: As a society, we should pay special attention to such women-headed poor households who probably are illiterate about the benefits offered by government programmes for the poor. There is also a need to raise awareness, not only amongst women but also amongst men to treat women as an equal member of the family and society. As long as we do not address poverty and gender inequality issues as a society, no matter how much economic growth we achieve, we will not be able to develop a sustainable and equitable nation.

 

- Shreyas Agrawal

Agrawal is a high school student at The British School

Published: 27-09-2017 09:47

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