One hears of the struggle and work of women's activists. But what about the men in their lives? What is their role? Very often, the going for the husbands is not smooth either. For, not only do they have to battle their own prejudices but also the conservative attitudes prevalent in the hinterland of rural India.
This is what Raghunath Takwale and Subhash Jagtap, both married to women associated with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have to say: "It is difficult to swim against the tide. One has to put up with snide remarks and comments. In fact it is taken as an affront to one's masculinity to let
one's wife step out into the public space."
And when these women take on powerful vested interests in the community, the going only gets tougher. Be it a corrupt sarpanch (elected head of local body), a moneylender or owner of a fair price shop indulging in malpractices, the first salvo men tend to launch against these women is insinuations about their character or comments that their husbands are "weaklings" who cannot "control their women".
These and other 'men's issues' came up at a recent program organized under the aegis of Swayamsiddha, (a project of women's empowerment by BAIF Development Research Foundation). Discussions were also held on the process by which women's activists (most of whom had never entered public spaces alone) not only did community work, but also came to occupy center stage.
The participants were drawn from the organizations associated with the project in Maharashtra, while the audience comprised of Swayamsiddha project members from other states such as Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka. "The idea," said Seematinee Khot, co-ordinator of Swayamsiddha,
"was to forge an interaction between different field activists so that mutual learning takes place."
For many women who are associated with NGOs working on public health issues, attending outstation training programs made things more difficult. Digamber Salve recalled how other men would constantly ask him how he had allowed his wife to go out of the village and interact with other men - "The insinuation was that she would have (extra-marital) relationships."
In Subhash Jagtap's case, it was his own brother who was the first to voice objections. He advised Subhash to "Chain her feet or she will just go out of control". When Subash stood by his wife and she started taking up community development issues, the opposition became more vocal and strident. Against this backdrop it comes as little surprise then that the very husbands who now stand by their wives were reluctant initially. In fact both Raghunath Takwale (a farmer) and Subash Jagtap (a state government employee) were against their wives going out to work.
Nirmala Jagtap said that her otherwise soft-spoken husband came down vehemently on her desire to work with the Foundation for Research in Community Health. "The organization held a meeting in the village and when they asked if anyone was interested in working with them I said 'yes' without asking my husband. When I told him later, he was upset. He asked, 'Who will do the housework and look after the children?' I said I would manage and I went ahead even though I knew he was not happy." So what brought about a change in her husband's attitude? According to Subhash, after Nirmala attended a few training programs on health, he noticed that the general hygiene and sanitation at home improved. "The children were not falling ill as frequently as they used to earlier. And I realized that we were also able to save money."
Takwale's first reaction, when his wife, Baby, wanted to work, was also typical: 'Who will work in the field and take care of the house?' His concern at that time, he said, was mainly economic. "If she was not working on the land, I would have to hire an extra hand and pay Rs 20 a day. And I did not even know the organization, its work, and the people working in it." However, he too changed his mind when the atmosphere at home changed rapidly for better. Quips Baby, "In fact, what made him really happy with my membership of the women's group was that they (women) would help me in the field whenever there was a crisis."
Though a majority of the women have to fight their way through, there are also women like Susheela Hukire, Vimala Sable, Shakuntala Salve and Surekha Lande who have had their husband's unstinting support. Both Hukire and Sable were encouraged by their husbands to join Hallo Medical Foundation
when it started working in their area.
In Shakuntala Salve's case it was her husband, Digamber Salve, who propelled her to move out of the confines of home. "I was very skeptical of the women's credit and savings society in our village and wanted to have nothing to do with it. I went at the insistence of my husband and have not looked back since," she said. Shakuntala now runs a small industrial that which makes spices and herbal products.
Surekha Lande was supported not only by husband but her mother-in-law as well. "It is a great help when you get your family's support because then you can channelize all your energies in your work," observes Hukire.
Even for women who have their husbands' support, the path is not always smooth. Because it wasn't just the work sphere that called for a change; the process brought about changes in attitudes too - whether it was the refusal of the women to adhere to segregation during menstruation, or their demand that men should help with household chores or the decision to stop observing a series of fasts throughout the year. All the men admitted that it took them quite some time to accept the rational arguments put forth by their wives against meaningless rituals.
"There are times when there is silent resentment, but we have learned to deal with it," said a woman participant. The other women nodded in agreement and the men looked a trifle uncomfortable. The one of the husbands spoke up: "Yes, I agree that in spite of supporting our wives we do express resentment at times, especially when they get too busy outside. But then, it is tough for us, too. And we are trying to change."
"Our aim," Khot says, "was to see how far we (organizations) are in tune with community aspirations. We also wanted to bring forth the role of leaders. All the participants were also connected to us in some way so we wanted this exposure for them too. Their experiences were not just enlightening; they learned from each other. We had asked organizations to send two couples each - one where the husband is considered supportive, and another where he is not - so that they would take the message back to the men in their community. Influencing men was also one of the objectives."