We are delighted to bring you this article written by Christine Snow, of BAFTS’ supplier Kerala Crafts, about the plight of women and girls in India, to focus our minds leading up to Fairtrade Fortnight 27 February-12 March.
It is estimated that more than 85% of females in India are regarded as non-workers, thereby totally financially dependent on others. Since women tend to live longer, and in the main stay at home, they are an easy target for abuse of all kinds. So for many women life is hard and unfair.
Discrimination of females starts in the womb. Though the results of scans revealing the gender of the child is forbidden, so as not to encourage abortion, this is often ignored. There are many contributing factors as to why parents do not desire daughters, but the key factor is the provision of a dowry on the occasion of a daughter’s marriage.
When I first visited Kerala, I was often asked the question ‘What children do you have?’ and my answer of ‘3 daughters’, brought expressions of pity which said it all. This ‘downer’ on girls is often carried into childhood. Whereas boys will be offered the best food as they are seen to be more deserving (bringing the benefits from their schooling into a wage-earning job), girls often receive inadequate nutrition as they will eventually be another family’s responsibility once they are married.
A woman’s place is traditionally seen to be in the home. Educating a girl is broadly seen as a waste of time, when she could be working or carrying out domestic duties instead. Encouragingly, there are social sector programmes eg ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ (Education for Everyone) which actively promotes education for girls to equalise educational opportunities and eliminate gender disparities, but these initiatives will take time to have a lasting effect.
Everywhere one turns in India, it’s women you will see hard at work – on construction sites, in fields, sowing paddy, in vegetable and fruit markets, in factories and homes, working tirelessly. However, marriage, even a bad one, is seen as providing a certain amount of security and safety to women.
Kerala Crafts employs marginalised women and pays them a higher than average wage, which apart from all the benefits of fair-trade, also gives them some independence and a feeling of self-worth. Women now have many opportunities and a voice in everyday life, but India is still a male-dominated society. Working for Kerala Crafts offers women of all ages, castes and religions an ‘escape route’. It is an opportunity to work in a good environment where the quality of their workmanship is appreciated and is reflected in the wages paid. Just as importantly, they find a place to be themselves and share their problems.
The practice of hiding personal feelings pervades Indian culture where women frequently pretend everything is fine, where negativities are played down, so as to keep up a good image and standing for the acceptance of their family in society. Therefore, their true potential is often denied as they are taught to ‘not own’ themselves.
Poor families on low wages, means poor standards of living. They cannot afford education for their children and so the children are required to work to help with family finances. A mother’s illiteracy and lack of education has a direct negative effect on her children. With limited education mothers are less likely to adopt health-promoting opportunities such as child immunisation. Malnutrition is inevitable with little money for nourishing food, and statistics show increased baby/child mortality amongst this group.
Child homelessness is a tragic symptom of a range of often interlinked causes. Children may end up on the streets as they may have no choice. India is home to the world’s largest population of street children. UNICEF estimates that there are some 11 million children living on the streets at any one time. They are abandoned, orphaned or disowned by their parents. They may choose to live on the streets because of abuse, mistreatment or neglect or because their homes do not or cannot provide them with basic necessities.
Other factors include famine, natural and man-made disasters and displacement due to armed conflict. With the continued growth of the Indian economy, migration of families to urban areas in search of a better life has also contributed to this problem, as has overcrowding in these urban areas. The result is that street children live in extremely dangerous and horrific conditions.
They are usually malnourished with limited to no access to medical treatment. On the street they receive no education. India has the highest number of ‘out of school’ children in the world, and some 39% of children do not make it past grade 5 (age 10). In the cities these children often turn to begging. In more rural areas they become child labourers on farms or alongside their parents in other agricultural labour.
Marginalised by society, some children turn to drug and alcohol abuse or crime, whilst others are forced into prostitution or are physically and sexually abused. Watching the film ‘Lion’ recently, a powerful and emotional true story, reminded me of some of our girls from the orphanage we support, one of whom was put on a train by her family and abandoned. Much of the work of Childline in India is working with children found on stations
S. was just 5 when she was left on a train by her stepmother, who was furious because the child’s employer complained about her! After long and tedious journeys on different trains and experiencing much trauma, she found herself on the station platform in Kochi. The railway police took her to Valsalya Bhavan (the orphanage we support), to be cared for and protected. That was in 2002, and she has now been adopted by a loving family in Hyderabad.
Another of our girls R. was sold to a family for Rs100 (£1.18) to work as a servant, but who was then sold on again for a higher price. She was forced to work in the family house, but was locked in a dog kennel when the family went out. Yet another is B. whose sister became pregnant by their father (now in prison), but has now turned her life around, thanks to the orphanage. The deep traumas that many of the girls have experienced, makes living a ‘normal’ life very difficult. These personal stories are not the exception, they are the norm. All the girls have similar stories in their past – often too painful to speak of.
Fortunately the love and nurturing at the orphanage goes some way to creating a stable childhood for the girls. They have opportunities that they would never have experienced if they had stayed within their family. When I visit, it is a joy to see them joining in with the extra-curricular activities, such as dance, gardening, sport and outings as well as the basics of education, homework and a share in the chores. This is equipping them to be self-reliant when they leave the relative safety of the orphanage.
By supporting mothers through fair-trade employment, it enables children to receive an education – the key to step out of poverty. Mums can afford to send their children to school and avoid intergenerational cycles of poverty that exploits children, and thus enables improved long-term prospects for their children. Fairtrade values people and communities, opening up access to education, medical services and a higher quality of life.
The greatest way fairtrade can make an impact is through consumers. Consumers yield a unique power to reduce exploitation around the world. So when consumers demand ‘free from’ child labour and exploitation, companies will listen.
Kerala Crafts is not lining the pockets of big corporations or sweat shops. It’s providing a fair wage for people who need it most, mainly small women’s co-operatives and the suppliers in the Kudumbashree schemes. Kerala Crafts relies entirely on volunteers to manage it, and the small profit is sent back to support community projects and the orphanage.
For more information on the orphanage please see http://www.keralacrafts.co.uk/valsalya-bhavan.html
- What price do you put on having running water available to you, rather than spending your day walking back and forth to public taps?
2. How much would it be worth to know your children can go to school for free?
- How much would you pay to know you can get a hot meal at your place of work and free school meals are available for your children if needed?
- How much would you pay to be able to have an ongoing job with all its benefits?
- How much would you pay to visit your doctor or hospital free of charge?
- How much is it worth to have a sufficient supply of electricity?
Empowering women to better the world
Buying fair-trade can help to change whole communities, generations and futures!