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23. January 2006

Auto Venpurusam © Elisabeth Kasbauer

cooperative Venpurusam ©Elisabeth Kasbauer

Amala ©Elisabeth Kasbauer

The 17year old Amala

Women driving ©Elisabeth Kasbauer

Rajendran ©Elisabeth Kasbauer

The fishermen Rajendran on his boat.

Muniamma ©Elisabeth Kasbauer


Indian girls ©Elisabeth Kasbauer

India - I simply want to be myself, that is my life dream!

This is the story of a trip and a Project report from Chennai and Mamallapuram in the South of India.

Elisabeth Kasbauer, a member of the Women without Borders team, was in December 2005 in India to document our project “Connecting Women and Children for Hope!” In numerous interviews she recorded the life stories of the people and also continued the projects of the organization.

As part of the mission to India, Women without Borders also took the first step for our new project, Take your Future into your own Hands!" and laid the groundwork for our innovative project—a swimming training course to be held at the beginning of February, “Women Swimming into the Future!

This is her account of a much-revealing trip:

On the first day, on my way to the towns Venpurusam and Kokilimedu on the Eastern Indian Koromandelcoast, I met two women on the street with their ‘auto rickshaws’ or 3 wheelers financed by the project. In the distance, the sky was a brilliant blue, and the palm trees swayed. The women looked proud and happy. The men in the car looked at them a mixture of incredulity and pride on their faces. “Now, you must also give them some jeans and t-shirts”, said one of them, “so that one day the women can also drive us”.

Eleven women have already received their driving licenses, nine more are being trained at the moment, and we hope that in the days to come, there will be many more. The enthusiasm is boundless and highly contagious.

At the end of November, a special health session related to eye-care took place. Throughout my stay, 36 women and men received their first pair of glasses from Women without Borders. As they took their glasses, their faces lit up with joy, and with great eagerness they tried them on. It is a long time since I have seen such gratitude and happiness!

The women have organized their own cooperatives, numbering about 60 in both villages. In this initiative, they lease their nets, the ones that WwB has provided, to the fishermen. Every day, as dawn breaks, the fishermen drive their cars, filled with the day’s catch to the bustling marketplace. And the earnings, 1/6 of the overall turnover, go into a ‘tin can’ especially for this purpose. For these women, traditionally dependent on their men folk, the leasing of the nets is the first small step on the road to financial independence. The revenues go into buying new nets, reparations and gasoline. Eagerly, the women talk about their hopes and dreams—to buy their own cooling boxes and even to open their own business.

“... our daughters should be strong and have full power...“

I go from house to house. In every house there are warm smiles, and a steaming cup of coffee or tea. Some offer me fresh coconut water, its cool taste refreshes me. They are eager to speak to me, but the men hover suspiciously around. To deter the men from sitting next to us during the interview is not an easy task. Tawamani, one of my companions, helped me a lot in keeping the husbands, fathers and brothers away during the time of the interviews.

Listening to them is a disturbing experience. Many of them are unhappy. Their lives are run by others—their husbands, and often, their parents in law. Most have given up their dreams to live an independent life. They are 25, 30 or 40 years old and they already have placed all their hopes, desires and dreams on their children.
Women here marry young, not by their own free will, but in traditional arranged marriages, where their parents choose the groom. Long before they have a chance to stand on their own feet, they move from one kind of domination to the next..
Life before marriage is wonderful. But after the marriage everything turns problematic and complicated. For example, my mother in law, she is a big problem for me. Life is not the same as it used to be. The men are dominant, that is not always easy for us. All these “do’s and don’ts”, how you should behave, how you should speak, or keep quite, etc., there are rules for everything”, tells me Lakshmi, who got married when she was 17.

For themselves, the “old” women wish nothing else, the word “dream” is foreign to them, they have never learned to dream. “Hopefully, the children will do well. They should have a good education, a beautiful house and earn enough money” and “our daughters should not get married so fast and so early as we did. We all suffer from this. Our daughters should be stronger and be very powerful.” Those are the kind of answers I got when asking about their dreams.

17-year-old Amala biggest dream in life is simple: “I simply want to be myself”. And she hopes to start her own business. She was the only woman here I heard this from. The younger generation also wants to live their own lives—to have free time, to choose their girlfriends, to follow their own hobbies— little dreams that most of us in the West take for granted. And above all, they want education. Few women here have been to school after they were 10. Some try to attend night school, but it is difficult. They are exhausted after working the whole day taking care of the house.
They [her parents] interrupted my school, because they wanted me to marry soon. I would have loved to continue studying. I have to work a lot, simply because it is so, because I am a girl. The whole day I have to work, work, work – I cook for the whole family, clean, wash, I am responsible for taking care of the house.”

Empowerment through car driving

Many young women have been trained to drive a car. To drive a car here means having a taste of freedom, to break away from the drudgery of home life. Convincing the parents allow their daughters to learn to drive was not easy, but for those 17 and 18 year olds who know how to drive, it means the chance to see their girlfriends who do not have much time left with so much work. Sometimes, they take a trip together.
For the older women, the car has a different value, one that is more utilitarian. After so many years of trudging over kilometers, their heads laden with heavy baskets of fish, they have a chance to cover the miles in comfort. “Since we have the cars, our lives have become much easier. Our life conditions have improved enormously. As soon as I drive to the city with the fish, my husband takes care of the children“, says a happy 26-year-old Lakshmi, as her three children crowd around her.

„Women are our best half“

Rajendran is a fisherman. While we sit on a boat, the sea breeze twirling the sand on the beach, he tells me that women are the best half of men. Women and men are partners and he finds our project very good. While he feels that strong women can also help men achieve a lot, he recognizes that there are traditional divisions of labor. For him to cook or look after the home is unthinkable. “My wife cannot take the boat to fish,” he says, to emphasize his point.
He drinks alcohol once in a while, but only on special occasions. “What sometimes causes me trouble, are my moral values”, says Rajendran. “Things that I perceive as important are not easily accepted by others. Surely, we all have financial and other type of problems, but I just cannot understand why so many people are so selfish and do not consider nor respect others. That frustrates me often.” He is annoyed at men who drink and abuse their wives, even beating them on occasion, a sad part of the lives of fishermen here. This worries him. “It does not make any sense to talk to these men, they do not understand it and think that it is unfriendly to talk about it, they think that this is a private thing.”

Muniamma is an old lady and someone who has a special status in the village. Domestic abuse under the influence of drink is all too common here. Yet, she does what she can. When she learns that an husband has misbehaved with his wife, she raises her voice, and berates the men. They listen to her out of respect, but “that should be normal” she says.

„Before, I just took life how it came...“

Kuppulatshmi, whose family struggles to make ends meet by catching crabs along the seashore, tells me how life has changed. After the tsunami, everything is different. Now, nobody makes any plan for the future. The gigantic wave showed how flimsy human dreams and human structures can be. And there are so many things more that make life unpredictable for the fisher folk here. The incessant rain, cyclones, angry seas, and hanging like a dark cloud over everything, the fear of another tsunami. “Before, I just took life how it came. But since the Tsunami came, we do not know anymore what is going to happen next. Everything which is written somewhere, either academic or philosophical, it does not matter what it is, does not count anymore. We try to talk to each other and convince us that life goes on, but in reality it does not work. This interior fear dominates our lives. It is like if something from another world existed; everything can happen at any time. We became very mistrustful.” (Muniamma)

I felt really flattered when Kuppulatshmi tells me us that Women without Borders are like ‘manna’ from heaven. We are simply there, we have time, we listen, we sit down with them where they need us : the cooperatives, the cars, the health centres, the trainings for self-defence oriented towards young people, there are so many things that WWB does. “Although all of you have enough money and things, that one needs, you have such a big heart that you always want to share with us and broaden your work. Besides you all live so many kilometres away from here… That is really unbelievable for us, almost like angels.”

When I left, I left with so many images: smiling proud women gathered around their nets, young women driving a car into freedom. I am fascinated by their easy camaraderie, the way they encourage and empower each other. They talk about the simple things that make life worth living. As I get ready to leave, I overhear one woman sharing a problem with her husband, another is proud that she has learnt to drive a car, another talks about business with her neighbour….

Together they face the future.


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