We are surrounded by isms. I had always thought that I was immune to at least one of them – aegism. And then I was proved wrong. And I guess I fell for some other stereotypes too!
I was on an assignment facilitating development of Child Protection Policies for a host of faith based organisations across multiple states in India. This had taken me to a location straddling the borders of New Delhi and Haryana. It was an interesting group of participants encompassing various domains, levels , backgrounds, experience and educational qualifications. The age range was 17 to more than 60 years. All this was intentional since we hoped to initiate a dialogue on child protection which could travel beyond the usual senior management and head office fixations. It did make my life difficult as I had to ensure that the entire training was in Hindi and participatory, that there were no power points and that people could move collectively as we drafted the organisational policy together.
This varied and very interesting group of participants included women from the local communities who supported self help group and livelihood related initiatives. One of them – fondly called chachi (aunty; the term is used for father’s younger brother’s wife) – was definitely in the 60-70 year range. She was the oldest participant. And she proved to be the most enthusiastic one!
Some of the younger participants (positioned at office and community locations) were quite active, particularly in the group work sessions. I had expected that. But the consistent interest of chachi blew me away. She would push other participants to focus on the task at hand in all the group work exercises. She possibly took down almost every word I spoke!
On the first day, she had been hesitant in asking me when she didn’t understand anything. Though I encouraged her, she chose to turn to the participants sitting next to her. By days two and three, she was making her opinions abundantly clear including when she was feeling sleepy! She definitely made our daily feedback sessions more lively and real.
I have always believed that each individual has strengths and capacities and can contribute. But during the workshop, my surprise at her participation made me realise that I had possibly started with a somewhat limited perception of who she was, what she could be interested in and what she could do. By day four, I stood corrected. And humbled.
Salma and Asif talked about their struggles with poverty, of making ends meet. Whenever one spoke, the other would listen respectfully and nod. An assignment on documenting case studies of young women survivors of trafficking had taken me to their home in rural West Bengal. We wanted to see how these women who had chosen to return to their families (and their families had wanted them to), were doing. Terre des Hommes Foundation, Lausanne (India Office), Sanlaap and a group of local community based organisation were my guides in this fragile and complicated universe.
A few years ago, Salma had got trafficked. The family had not approved of her relationship with the older and married Asif. Her brother hit her. Headstrong Salma, still a teenager then, ran away. She eventually found herself in a brothel thousands of kilometres away from home.
The system did work for her as she was eventually rescued and restored to her family. Salma stayed away from Arif after her return. But he met her and persuaded her to marry him. Arif knew what had happened. He was tormented by guilt and wanted to offer her a fresh start. Initially, both the families had mixed feelings about the marriage. The birth of their son made it easier. (Arif and his first wife did not have any children). Gradually, family and social acceptance grew. Each day brought new challenges, but Salma had found her safe space.
The experience of meeting Salma and Arif has stuck with me mainly because it made me rethink moral positions and what can/should be considered right or wrong. Arif, older and married, chose to initiate a relationship with the teenager Salma. Surely, that was wrong. Her family objected – any family would. An act of violence (brother hitting her – cannot condone that) triggered a chain of events that none of them had foreseen. Arif, to his credit, chose to stand by her when she returned. He married her when she was considered ‘tainted’ and doomed to an uncertain future. Did this redeem him?
And what about his first wife? I didn’t get to meet her. But I also learnt that the household was essentially run with the money that she earned as a domestic worker. (Arif had a childhood attack of polio which affected his right foot. He has never had a steady source of income.) How did the first wife feel when she came to know about his relationship with Salma and when he later brought her home? And when the two had a child? Didn’t Arif do wrong by her in all this? But then, I return to what got me there. A survivor building her life again with the man she trusts and what is now right for her.