The Hard Life Of Pahadi Women

Village women are the backbone of life in the mountains here. They single-handedly take care of their families, fields and animals. They cut and carry heavy loads of fodder and wood from the forests each day. They haul buckets and jerry cans of water from common hand-pumps or “dhaaras” uphill to their homes.

There’s a well-known saying – “Surya Asth Aur Garhwal Mast” or Garhwal makes merry as soon as it’s sundown, referring to the rampant alcoholism in this area. Add to that, a lack of income opportunities and education in a severely patriarchal setup. This leaves women vulnerable, dependent and insecure. Though they are the ones looking after their families, they have little access to jobs and little say in any decision-making in their homes.

24-year-old Rekha* is a simple village girl who has had little schooling. She’s been married for 6 or 7 years, of which she has spent only a few months with her husband who works in Delhi. When they first got married, she went with him to Delhi but he’d drink and beat her up so badly that his brother brought her back to their village to live with her in-laws. She’s been living with her brother- and sister-in-law since.

She’s had no job before she came to work with us, so she’s essentially been a free maid, who is fed and clothed by her sister-in-law and comes and goes at her behest. The other day, I asked her if her husband calls and speaks to her. She said no. “Do you call him?” “I don’t have his phone number.”

Village women here seldom have an identity of their own. Before they’re married, they’re dependent on their parents and afterwards on their husbands. There is inequality in terms of education, employment and power. They spend their entire lives taking care of their families and cattle and working at home and on the fields. But often their contribution remains invisible.

Sita* is an older, more reserved lady with a gentle voice and immense sadness in her eyes. She’s had a tough life. She never went to school and was married off to an older man when she was just a teenager. Like most of the other men here, her husband doesn’t have a regular job and drinks up most of what he earns. She’s always done odd jobs at construction sites and on other people’s fields to earn what little she can from here and there.

There are limited employment opportunities for men (let’s forget women!) in these mountains. This leaves them with unstable and irregular work options such as working as unskilled labour, running roadside shops or tea stalls. Or, ultimately they’re forced to migrate to cities to work in hotels and factories.

For almost 3 years, Vibha* worked as our house help and also did a few hours of Himalayan Haat work each day. She was able to match her husband’s salary. However, soon her husband and mother-in-law started complaining that she was going to and coming back from work as men do! Even though they needed her financial contribution, they failed to rally around her.

Eventually, her husband made her leave her job on the pretext that her teenage boys were getting rowdy and she needed to stay home to keep an eye on them. We couldn’t change her mind. She only comes on and off for Himalayan Haat work now.

Women are brought up on models of selflessness, self-denial and sacrifice. If a woman manages to get work, she may not get the support of her husband and in-laws and will most probably succumb to their demands and expectations.

Rita* is one of the newest ladies to join us. Her husband, both when sober and especially when drunk, was extremely violent. He not only beat her but also her father and brothers. She’s moved to this part of Uttarakhand with her 10-year-old daughter looking to make a new start. However, she’s one of the few women who have taken the difficult but brave decision to walk out of an abusive marriage.

Alcohol – The Garhwali Curse. While women are busy trekking up mountains or breaking their backs in their fields, men (those with jobs) spend their day at work or playing cards with the other idle men in their village. As the day turns into dusk, the booze bottles begin to come out. Alcoholism is the bane of our community. Living with alcoholic and abusive husbands is one of the greatest challenges that these women have to face. They have learned to live with it.

Beta Chahiye.Recently, a grim news study reported that no girl child was born in 16 villages in Uttarakhand in the last 6 months! One can read between the lines of what that means. 

The obsession with having a son is certainly pronounced in these hills. We’ve already written about how women will have baby after baby until a son is born. Large families of 3 or 4 girls followed by a boy are the norm. It’s certainly not easy for parents to provide for such large families but social pressure dictates otherwise. That’s not all. The healthcare in the hills is dismal. The closest district government hospital in Pauri has no monitors or functioning ICU. To get decent treatment, you’ll have to travel down at least 4 to 5 hours to the plains. Expectant women and babies are especially vulnerable.

So much needs to change and stories of abuse and neglect are commonplace here. In the last few years that we have been working with village ladies, we have been able to share many stories of hope and change.

Stories of how Parvati has been able to become financially independent at the ripe old age of 50. Or, how Sonam was able to reverse her family’s decision to migrate to the plains by sustaining her family with her Himalayan Haat income. How Babita has been able to educate her daughters past school – one is a trained beautician and another is studying to be a nurse – instead of marrying them off right after high school as most other village folks do.

But these stories of small victories are just a drop in the ocean. It will take building a like-minded community of women who are regularly encouraged, are aware of their rights and have access to finances to change the status quo. 

While some women have found a silver lining there are still many who have no way out. We hope that the little we are able to do at Himalayan Haat has a ripple effect.

*Names changed. This blog post has our personal views and observations.