Hope in Simple Packages

By Sneha Chrispal

Sneha Chrispal returned to her home country of India to undertake research towards her PhD with the Department of Management and Marketing. Her experience is one that revealed another side of Indian society, and showed her the depth of what her research could achieve.

I didn’t grow up in a traditional Indian home. I am a privileged Indian woman. Privileged that I had an education. Privileged that I was not thrown in the garbage when I was a born. Privileged that I was allowed to live and see the world. However, like many women in India, I faced the reality that no matter how “privileged” or “progressive” you are, you still don’t have access to the same opportunities that men do.

Women wearing scarves
Women of the village.

Growing up, I was constantly exposed to stories of violence against women, whether it was on the news or within my own social circles. I continuously wrestled with why violence against women persisted and how people could organise against it. Pursuing my PhD at the University of Melbourne in the Department of Management and Marketing allowed me to study this conundrum in a remote village in India. One might wonder, “what does this have to do with management?” The study of management does not concern itself solely with coordination efforts in formal organisations to achieve traditional business objectives, but also with informal organising efforts, promoting unity of action among a diverse set of actors around common goals of social change, such as challenging gendered oppression.

Outsiders often go to an Indian village with a utopian sense of it. However, beneath the rustic beauty lies the ugliness of the female plight. It is a place where child marriages, female foeticide, and violence against women are prevalent. In this same village, Satta is practiced, where two or more family members are married to members of another family. For example, an uncle is married to a woman, and his 2-year-old niece is engaged to be married to the woman’s nephew. Further, the caste system is still dominant in this place, where in equality is entrenched and manifested in the clothes and housing people have access to, as defined by their caste.

Woman Cooking
A woman cooking.

I spent the summer there in peak, 48-degree weather. I lived in a safe haven created by a woman, Sheela*, who has dedicated her whole life to helping women who face violence. Sleeping outside under the stars on a “charpai” or cot, experiencing a sand storm and the rain after a 2-year drought, and sitting on the floor to have my meals were just a few of the experiences I had. What really stole my heart, was the way the Sheela and other volunteers worked with the village children. These were children that often saw tremendous abuse at home and were socialised in the same way. However, through gender sensitivity trainings and dedication, they hope to change their mindset.

As I conducted my research and heard the stories of these women, I felt a range of emotions, and found that writing poetry helped me process. I often wondered why these women endured this violence and kept going back to these men? However, after a few interviews and conversations, I realised that often they did not have a choice, and that justice in that area had a different meaning. It was in the small victories and hope that they found their comfort. The poem below was one that I wrote after a particularly hard conversation, where Janaki*, a widowed woman’s daughter was murdered by her in-laws. Janaki was forced to take back the case because of the pressure of the caste and society and was given $1000 dollars for her daughter’s death. Seeing my frustration, Sheela said the widow’s victory was in that the society that once ostracized her, begged her to take her case back. Furthermore, these empowered women help other women in the village who face the same atrocities. Sheela says even if she isn’t around, she leaves her imprints through these women to help change mindsets and society.

A woman's bangle and tattoo.

Under the Molten Sun
Under the molten sun my skin prickles and burns
But nothing compares to the fury inside that churns
Why is it that she stopped fighting?
When they took the life of her daughter.
Does caste and creed trump a daughter’s life?
Or, was it that she was a widow and not a wife?
$1000, that’s all it took
Is life only worth that much, to never allow this murder reach the judge’s book?
Under the molten sun I cry, I weep.
Then an angel says, “a calm heart you must keep”
The widow’s victory was not in justice from the system,
But the 50 hands folded, begging for mercy,
From a widow, a woman, the usual victim.

Going to this village was life changing. It wasn’t just unearthing the sources of gender violence, but also the understanding that empowerment, happiness and hope comes from the small things. The contentment and love in the eyes of these women and children truly taught me strength in the eye of a storm.

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of these individuals