“In all my travels around the world, I’ve seen that women have had to work harder than men”

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Savita Sonavane, President, Pune Mahila Milan
Savita Sonavane, President, Pune Mahila Milan

Q.1 You underwent a lot of trauma as a child, losing your mother early on and growing up in poverty. What was the worst that you saw?
Savita: I was seven when my mother died, and the responsibility of my two younger brothers fell on me. I was in Class 1 or 2then, but it was a matter of survival, so I had to drop out of school to work. A year or two later, we moved to another town, Kolhapur, where my father found a job as a watchman, in a company situated in the middle of a jungle. He would lock us up in a room for long hours, fearing our safety. But the nightmarish times were when father would get drunk every day and beat us up with sticks and stones. Sometimes, the blows would land on the head and we would go to sleep, wake up and move on as though nothing had happened. Our neighbours said he would kill us at this rate, and one of them even gave us some money to run away. One night, my brothers and I left for the Pune railway station. But that ended in tragedy. I still don’t know how it happened, but we lost my youngest sibling at the station. We came back home stricken with fear and grief, and never found him after that night.I got married at 14 because my aunt feared that our father could abandon us any time. I met my husband at the scrap yard that my father and brother would go to, to eke out a living.

Raju: I grew up without parents, too. I saw Sonavane with her father and talked to him about marriage. We were each other’s support systems.

Q.2 Did things improve after marriage? Was there a new set of difficulties?
Savita: After marriage, we moved to a small place in Wadarwadi, Pune. I didn’t even know how to run a household, I hadn’t learnt anything from my mother. All we had was a tin bucket, an oil vessel and a few plastic utensils. My husband used to earn a daily wage of Rs 4. After having my daughter, at 15, I started working as a domestic worker in homes. An old lady in one such house told me she was a domestic worker too once, at my age. Her story and struggle inspired me to work towards having a house of my own. But there was another twist. My husband was working in a bhangar (scrap dealing) shop, where he took the blame for his employer’s illegal activities and was sent to jail. I had to sell everything we had at home to get money to bail him out. Two days after his release, we were kicked out of the house. We spent the whole night on the footpath, with our daughter and all our belongings. Next day, someone told us about a place called Parvati. We worked hard to collect the Rs 150-200 that was needed to make a small hut of bamboos there. That was our first house.

Q.3 In the middle of all this, how did you manage to send your children to school?
Savita: I always wanted my children to be educated, and independent, because I think if I was educated, I wouldn’t have had to struggle as much as I did. When our eldest daughter was old enough to go to a Baal Waadi, our finances were in doldrums. I sold a lot of our utensils for the money, without my husband’s consent. We quarrelled over it, but I was firm that my daughter’s education mattered more than material things.

Q.4 How did you become the vice-president of the Mahila Milan group in your area?
In Parvati, our house was on top of a cliff, where there was no water, electricity or proper roads. We had to walk down to a canal to get water for drinking and washing. When the MLA of our area came to the slum, I told him about our problems. Speaking up with a person of authority made me confident. When I found that there were others, too, facing the same issues, I decided to find a solution. A few of us went to the Nagar Sevak to ask for a water connection for our community. The Nagar Sevak called us for a meeting. He asked us to form a Mahila Milan – a people’s movement that facilitates credit and savings schemes for women – in our locality, and wanted me to lead it.

Q.5 Was it easy to get the work done after that? Tell us the journey to get the water problem fixed.
It wasn’t easy, because there were many other things that needed to be in order before we could tackle the water issue. The 15 of us had to participate in the Mahila Milan savings scheme by contributing Rs 1 to 2 on a daily basis. Six months later, when a representative of the organisation came to meet us, we talked about the water problem. He said he could only guide us; we would have to do the job ourselves. He asked us to write our problems down and seek permission from the corporation commissioner and the warden. We told him that if we could write, we wouldn’t have had this problem in the first place. After meeting the commissioner, we had to get our ration cards made and submit tax receipts. Finally, they asked us to survey the area to locate ideal spaces for installing the taps. We conducted a precise socio-economic survey for all the houses and showed it to the government officials who were impressed with the accuracy of our data. At long last, they installed the water pipeline for our taps. We felt victorious and happy.

Q.6 Did work ever come in the way of running a family, or vice-versa?
Ganesh: I certainly think mother takes up more work than she needs to. But when she is home, she makes an effort to spend time with us. I would be more than happy to marry someone who works like my mother does.

Raju:  I have complete faith in my wife. I’m sure people say all kinds of things behind our backs, but it doesn’t matter to me. Sometimes, when she is travelling to other parts of the world, I do tend to get a little worried, but that’s just natural. I have seen how she works with her people.

Savita: I think I can mix the two. My daughter has started working in the organisation with me now. I am not literate, so she helps me with data collection, reporting, and writing meeting reports. I started out as a leader of my community. Then I was elected as the Mahila Milan head of Pune, which took me all over the world to see similar projects and communities. I have been all around Maharashtra and other cities in India, as well as Thailand, Cambodia, South Africa, Canada, China and Brazil. In all my travels, I have seen that women across the world have the same struggles. They end up working more than the men.

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