International Women’s Day fell on Sunday the 8th March this year, and presented a valuable opportunity for GRAVIS to promote women’s rights issues in the areas in which we work. The day kicked off with a large demonstration in Soorsagar, a mining community on the outskirts of Jodhpur. Hundreds of women joined in on a protest march which travelled through the area, demanding equal access to education, food and healthcare for women of the local community.
As a mining community, Soorsagar is home to a large population of migrant workers, who were forced to move from their original homes due to harsh environmental conditions which made dangerous minework their only option for employment. The Gram Panchayat heads, local authorities, are legally required to recognise residents and provide them with land, ration cards, job cards and ID. A reluctance to divide resources however means that this law in often ignored, and with no official social standing in the community the migrants have little power to protest.
Already handed a restricted role by traditional Indian society, women are particularly vulnerable and often find themselves without access to basic amenities. Without any form of documentation, these women cannot open bank accounts or own land, and so it is a common phenomenon for women to invest their earnings in jewellery which can be worn on the person and sold during times of need. Without a secure shelter, this put them at extreme risk of theft and violence, and additionally if the jewellery is stolen all assets are lost and the women are left bereft of savings and security.
Many of the women protesting were second or third generation migrants who have lived in the community for their entire lives, but are still not recognised by society. Children are often born at home, so their births are never formally registered, exacerbating the problem. The cycle of extreme poverty and low social standing normally makes it incredibly difficult for these women to protest and demand their rights, and so the protest march organised by GRAVIS provided these women with a voice for the first time.
After the march, Bija Devi, a woman from Bhat Banjara village, stood up in front of the crowd and shared her experience, stating that the lack of a school, electricity toilets and clean running water meant that over 50 years after Independence, her village still had no autonomy. Patasi Devi of Bheel village also testified that there was an absence of any school, government ration shop, or toilet in her village, and condemned the lack of registered houses or roads.
Speeches were also heard from Shakuntla Mehta, a Senior Advocate in the Rajasthan High Court, who counselled the women on right to food and education, and Mr Rajendra Kumar, Secretary of FIAN Rajasthan, who lectured briefly on the importance of education in the struggle for women’s empowerment. Vinod Kumar, a GRAVIS Program Coordinator, advised mine workers to get tested for the dangerous disease silicosis, which is often contracted by inhaling fumes and dust in the mines, and provided information about financial compensation schemes available from the government.
The assembly was rounded off by a brave speech from 4th Grader Keku Kumara, who called on the women gathered to send all girls to school, and asked them to sign an oath against child marriage.
The following day, the demands of the women were formalised and documented, and with the help of GRAVIS, around 25 of the women went to deliver a formal protest against their condition to the District Commissioner. By formalising their demand and vocalising the problem faced in the community, the government will be forced to investigate the violations committed by the Gram Panchayat heads and act on their findings. It is hoped that by enforcing stronger regulation of the law, more and more women from migrant communities will be given the opportunity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty, providing them with a place to live, social security, and an important voice in their community.