Girl Power

Posted Nov 26, 2010 by 5 Comments

I sat reading a book on the bed as Kanta prepared dinner in the other room.  Vikrand, her son, watched cartoons on their tiny TV.

It all seemed rather normal and mundane.  The room didn’t stand out as all that remarkable. It sure didn’t seem like the birthplace of a revolution.

But it was…

——

Fiesty and strong-willed Kanta. The men of Madipur don’t know what to do with her.

Last week I had the chance to spend the night with the family of Kanta Bhirao.  Kanta lives with her husband and son in a tiny, two room apartment in Madipur, an impoverished community on the west side of New Delhi composed primarily of Dalits (Untouchables).

Late in the afternoon, after arriving at her home, Kanta told me her story over a cup of chai…

Madipur, home to many impoverished Dalits.

Kanta, 47, became an enthusiastic activist with the Communist Party when she was 16. Over time, this feisty and strong-willed women developed quite a reputation in Madipur and built connections with many powerful people.

Two years ago, however, after the deaths of her brother and father-in-law, she was left caring for her family alone.  Drained of energy and of finances, she made a fortuitous connection with Sunil Sardar and heard about Truthseekers International for the first time.

After sitting through one of Truthseekers’ satsungs (worship services), Kanta decided to dedicate her life to Jesus.  She began using her influence to start her own satsung services in Madipur and has been spreading the message of Truthseekers in her community ever since.

Today, her satsungs are becoming the talk of the town.  Every Thursday about 40 women cram into her bedroom to hear her revolutionary message of reconciliation.

But Kanta is facing an uphill struggle.  Women in Kanta’s world are treated as second-class citizens.  They are devalued.  They are oppressed.

And unless they are liberated from this oppression, the fate of women in India will never change…

A drummer leading a wedding processional. If only all weddings here were truly happy affairs…

An Unspeakable Oppression

Hearing about women being oppressed is hardly surprising in today’s world.  Women around the world face everything from patriarchal societies to human trafficking to plain old sexism.

And India is no exception to the rule. In fact, in many ways it’s quite a bit worse.  For millennia, millions of women in India have been treated like cattle, like property, like slaves… You can pretty much pick your analogy.

Because women are seen as less valuable than men, female feticide, the abortion of unborn female babies, is a rampant problem in this country. So much so that India is one of the few countries with more men than women in its population.

Many girls, especially in lower income communities, do not get an education.  Less than 50% of women in India can read and write.  Indian women are at the bottom of a society already rife with injustice, and there is little being done to alleviate their oppression.

For a long time these ideas were nothing more than concepts to me… just statistics on a page.  But then I spent 24 hours in Madipur, and it all came into focus…

Two of Kanta’s women gluing beads onto pieces of plastic. Baby, the woman on the right, lost her husband several years ago, an unspeakably tragic event for a woman already viewed as worthless by society.

Common Themes

In the morning, Kanta took me around to meet some of the women she has been leading.  We walked from house to house, hearing stories that began to sound more and more familiar as the day went on.

As we drank chai in home after home, a handful of themes began to emerge.

First of all, many of the men in Madipur are deadbeats.  Although they work and bring in a meager income, they often spend it all on alcohol and gamble it away. Their wives are left with the responsibility of making enough money to feed and clothe their children.

Every single woman I met in the community spends their free moments doing mind-numbingly menial tasks.  When they aren’t cooking or washing dishes, the women are stitching beads onto leather for shoes, gluing fake jewels on pieces of silver plastic, embroidering pieces of fabric… anything to bring in a few rupees.

Often they enlist the help of their children.  The family of one woman I met, for example, spends all day gluing jewels.  After more than 10 hours of work each day, the family brings in 50 rupees. That’s about $1.

Divorce

Another common theme I discovered is that there isn’t much divorce in Madipur.  This came as a bit of a surprise.  I would have thought that divorce would be common in a place where women were so oppressed.

But in India, as I have come to understand, women have no power to divorce their husbands.  Society just doesn’t allow it.  And why would men divorce their wives?  They have someone to cook and clean for them.  It wouldn’t make sense.

Instead of divorce, there is a lot of domestic violence.  Women, often living far away from their family and friends because of an arranged marriage, must suffer silently and alone.

The Dowry

The last theme I discovered absolutely blew my mind.

After lunch on my second day in Madipur, Kanta took me to the home of a woman who was engaged to be married.  Surrounded by her mother, sisters and cousins, the bride-to-be was helping her family count and organize the dowry.

On two coffee tables in the small house were rows of neatly pressed shirts and fabric, and on the bed were bowls full of necklaces, bracelets and a nice watch.

“You should marry an Indian woman,” Kanta said to me, “so you’ll get a lot of nice things!”

“Wait, you mean so that she would get nice things, right?” I asked.

“No…” Kanta said, a bit confused.

Kanta’s home, birthplace of a revolution.

Then it dawned on me.

“You mean the bride’s family has to pay the dowry to the groom?” I asked.

“Yes.”

The truth hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been confusing dowry with bride price. In India, a bride’s family must provide a fortune in gifts to the groom’s family – paying them, in essence, for taking their daughter off of their hands.

Kanta went on to explain that families often go deep into debt to marry off their daughters.

All of a sudden it became clear to me.  Boys bring jobs and prosperity.  Girls bring debt and hardship. It doesn’t really come as much of a surprise anymore that male babies have more value here.

A Revolution

Story after story.  Tragedy after tragedy.  When I finally got in an auto rickshaw headed back to Delhi, my mind was spinning.

As Kanta’s revolution grows, there is hope for the next generation!

As I rode, I thought back over each of the stories of the women I had met.  I thought about their situation and the apparent hopelessness they face every day.  But then I thought about Kanta’s work and it began to strike me as far more significant than it had appeared at first glance.

Kanta isn’t just gathering some friends for a weekly Bible study.  She isn’t having some nice ladies over for tea.

Kanta is starting a revolution.

These humble women, sweating and uncomfortable in a tiny room, are hearing a message of liberation week after week. They are learning about their true value in the kingdom of God… and it is starting to have an effect.

How do I know?  Because their husbands are ticked.

Their wives are coming home with strange ideas in their heads.  They are starting to insist that their own daughters be educated.  They are starting to complain when their husbands don’t contribute to the family.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.  It may be many years before these women receive all the rights they deserve, but it can happen. Thanks to the tireless work of strong women like Kanta, the women of Madipur have a chance.

There may not be guns or flags or barricades, but because of Truthseekers something is stirring in Madipur…

A revolution of women has begun.

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Next Steps
    • Kanta is now on staff with Truthseekers. Want to be a part of this revolution? You can directly support her work by contributing financially to Truthseekers (click here). Don’t forget to put “Women’s Outreach” in the memo line!
    • Do you want to meet Kanta yourself? Do you want to see her revolution first-hand? Consider taking a short term trip to New Delhi! Click here for more info.
    • Pick up a copy of Untouchables by Narendra Jadhav to get an insider’s glimpse into the role of women in Indian society.
    • Pray for Kanta and the women she is influencing. Pray for continued strength as they face mountains of opposition and pray that their husbands would begin to recognize their value!
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Melissa R said... 

    Reply

    November 26th, 2010 at 10:22 am  

    Fantastic Barry! This reminds me of a great book that you might like: Half the Sky. Can’t remember the authors at the moment. But it’s about women turning oppression into opportunity around the world. It’s inspiring…. Like your writing!

  2. Linda P said... 

    Reply

    November 26th, 2010 at 12:23 pm  

    Great article Barry! It reminded me of pictures I recently saw of young Indian women and girls making fireworks for Dawali – all were wearing masks because the powder they were using was toxic and explosive – a very menial yet extremely dangerous task. Thank you Kanta for standing up for injustices based solely on gender!

  3. tiab said... 

    Reply

    November 27th, 2010 at 11:36 pm  

    What a wonderful story of redemption. One woman can make a huge difference, when working with her Saviour!Thanks, I have loved your writings on this trip.
    Safe travels.

  4. Rob said... 

    Reply

    November 30th, 2010 at 2:05 pm  

    Great article. I wonder how I keep others down with my own way of controlling people & situations. Ouch.

  5. Nikhil Sablania said... 

    Reply

    September 27th, 2012 at 9:49 pm  

    Hi,

    Dear Barry,

    I am a filmmaker and student of Law. I have lived in Madipur and I am also writing a novel on my past experience in the area. I am also a Dalit. I am working on Dalit media for the past two years like videos, news, articles and publication. Please be in touch with me. 9013306236 sablanian@gmail.com

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