Big things come in small packages and 26-year-old Neelam Maurya personifies this adage. At barely 5ft tall, Neelam looks like a schoolgirl in a sari. I met Neelam, an ASHA bahu, at a Join My Village gender sensitization training for ASHA, Anganwadi workers and Auxilliary Nurse Midwives in the Nindoora block of Barabanki. The idea was to make the ASHA workers and others sensitive toward gender discrimination so they can further the message in their villages. During the discussion, participants said all girls in cities had easy access to education; it was the village girls who were lagging behind.
“This is not true. Not all girls in cities are allowed to study and I am a proof of that” said Neelam.
And then she went on to share her story.
Neelam grew up in Madiaon, Lucknow, with nine other siblings, where her father works in a secretariat for a monthly salary of Rs 38,000. By normal standards, this would put him in the category of educated middle class. Unfortunately, this was farthest from the truth. Despite living in the state capital, Neelam’s father was dead against the education of his three daughters and only allowed them to study till class 8. And that too because their maternal grandmother had his eldest daughter educated till class 8, on her own.
However, spirited Neelam refused to relent and fought her family to study for an additional year, till class 9. But this extra education cost her dear. Soon after completing class 9, 15-year-old Neelam was married to a class 10 dropout, 22 years older than her, and packed off to a village in Barabanki.
Bent but not broken, Neelam came up with a plan. Aware of the dangers of teenage births, she refused to have her first child before the age of 20. And soon after the birth of her first son, Neelam became an ASHA. And with the meager remuneration she got as an ASHA worker, she resumed her studies.
It’s been nine years since she got married and since then Neelam has had three children including a 13-month-old daughter. This year, Neelam finally managed to complete her class 10 and will soon apply for class 11.
In addition to that, this gutsy lady has also enrolled herself in computer classes and walks for 6 kilometres, from her village in the sweltering heat to attend classes, every day.
And she does all this without much support from her husband. He does not mind her pursuing an education as long as she pays for it herself.
“He won’t let me study if he has to pay for it. That is why I started earning to fund my education,” says Neelam.
A simple query about her married life draws a silent, knowing smile. “You can understand what it must be like,” is all I can manage from her.
Then how does she manage to keep herself going? “I want to study for my kids, especially my daughter’s future,” says Neelam.
Her eyes reflect her struggles but they light up when she discusses her work as an ASHA bahu and her association with CARE through Join My Village’s Maternal Health project.
“My life has lit up since joining ASHA. The training at CARE made me determined to ensure that my daughter gets all her rights, even if it means going to court for them. I have told my husband about my decision,” she adds.
Such a bold statement from a rural woman was bound to draw stinging response from her colleagues.
“Your husband will beat you and throw you out. Your son won’t be bothered and your daughter will be at her in-laws to worry for you,” said another ASHA at the training. More taunts and jeers followed.
For a second even I wondered if Neelam could actually go through with such a big claim. After all, it is not easy for women, especially in villages, to run around courtrooms.
But I had clearly underestimated this feisty woman. Neelam calmly said, “My upbringing of my sons will ensure that they do not feel as though they have been wronged. They will willingly give their sister her rights. And even if I go by what you all are saying, I will make myself self-reliant enough to not expect my children to take care of me.”
With one simple reply, Neelam silenced all her detractors. “Three girls from my village who had given up their studies resumed after seeing me. Even my husband’s behavior changed after I told him about what I learned at these gender trainings.”
Training over, Neelam packs her stuff to walk back the 2 kilometres to her village. Just before leaving, she tells me, “I can’t change what happened with me but my daughter will not go through the same thing. She will study, become financially independent and become a successful individual.”
A meeting with Neelam left both me and the trainer, Rashmi, with hope and a very positive feeling. In a room full of doubtful women, Neelam’s confidence and courage stood out. I can see a role model in her.
CARE’s efforts in gender sensitization have yielded results. We helped one Neelam usher in a change and she will inspire the rise of many more Neelams.