Sunday, 5 June 2016

Who to decide how many children a woman should have?

I look after publications at Apne Aap Women Worldwide (www.apneaap.org); but because I like to engage with people, every once in a while I go to our field at Najafgarh - where we work with a few freed/denotified tribe (DNT) communities who earn their livelihood as snake charmers, drum beaters, rag pickers, and a few who are trapped in inter-generational prostitution - as well as to the primary government school our organisation  has adopted in the area and conduct open mike sessions. That is interactions in a group where everybody is encouraged to speak on a topic, trying to draw out their opinions and ideas basically. So the topic could be anything that might be relevant to them. Like 'child marriage' (because this is the practice in these communities), the 'benefits of caste certificates' (because they are amongst the most marginalized and poor communities in the country who often fall under the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe category, but are not aware of it, do not have caste certificates and even if they did they wouldn't know what to do with these certificates).

At the open mike session in the community at Najafgarh recently
                               
Now the last time I visited the community, I thought let the open mike today be on the right of a woman to decide how many children she wants. And I had put quite a lot of thought behind this. In these communities, you will notice very young girls as mothers. It is very difficult to say if the girl is over 18 years of age because many do not know how old they are and they do not have birth certificates to prove their age. So there would always be this young girl, still looking like an adolescent, with a baby clinging to her breast, and one or two more hanging by her kurta. They know that I have a four year old daughter, many of them have met her. And they now tell me that it's time I plan my second baby. There's nothing wrong in that. Many people, especially women, have told me on buses, trains and aeroplanes that I should now plan a second baby before it was too late and I regretted for life. And it often came from complete strangers too. Nobody understood or accepted when I said I don't want a second baby. They would all look at me as if I am morally wrong in that and get into a long lecture on what injustice it would be to my daughter who would grow up without a sibling. When I tell them that I am teaching my daughter to form lasting bonds with people in her life, and also teaching her to choose and keep the relationships she wants to keep, I get blank stares. That's not how you talk to a four year old, they tell me.

Anyway, so the last time I visited the community, and I saw this frail young girl who has become a mother for the third time, my heart just bled. Motherhood, from experience, is a lot of hard work as much as enjoyment. But the enjoyment associated with it will go down if the experience becomes frustrating for the mother. So here you are, not able to provide food for your family, but you go on and give birth to a third child when there are already so many mouths to feed in that joint family! So as we all sat down together, I declared that I am very proud of my daughter who loves me a lot and has brought me such joy, but that I choose to not go for any more children. All of them gave me that look. That I was wrong. Next I said, with the resources that I have - money, time, energy - I can give only one child the kind of life I want to gift her. If any more child comes in at this stage, it will disturb the balance. It was then that I saw how the look in their eyes shifted. Like they understood. And then of course I told them that no one can dictate how many children a woman can have. It is her right and her decision entirely. My right, your right.

I am glad Kari Egge, a leader with the United Nations for over twenty years, and currently the founder of Half the World (that trains women to assume leadership roles at all levels), was with us during this visit. She told them that she was in her sixties, traveled the world, no one told her what to do with her life, when to do what, and that she has a 19 year old bright daughter who goes to college. A young woman with a 19 year old daughter looked at her with eyes wide open. And then the women spoke. They spoke about the dreams they have for their daughters and sons. And the daughters spoke of their own dreams. They want to become teachers, dancers, social workers. And the mothers expressed that their daughters shouldn't become mothers at an early age. But they also expressed the fear that it might be tough to fight the society when it comes to taking such decisions.

When Kari, in her sixties, told the women that she has just one child - a 19 year old daughter, the look in their eyes changed. 
                         
We can only hope that the conversations they have with us will one day teach them the strength to fight such customs and ideas. Like how conversations have taught me and Kari and so many other women who choose to live life on our own terms. Here I remember what Rachel Moran, prostitution survivor who played an important role in getting fair anti sex trafficking laws passed in her country Ireland (which decriminalizes the prostituted woman but criminalizes the pimp and customers), once told me. When as a teenager she found herself prostituted, for years after that she didn't know how to get out of it although she wanted to, because she wasn't having the kind of conversations that would tell her which was the way out. Likewise, at Najafgarh, we hope, that with the conversations the women are having with us, there will come a time when they will not only see the way out, but also learn to be strong to pursue empowered lives.

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