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Dispatches from disadvantage: Indian women living on the margins speak up


'If a relative comes to the house, they say: "Why is she like this?" ' Socialstarclub.com under a Creative Commons Licence

In the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, India, eight women talk to On Our Radar trainee citizen journalists about the double oppression they experience as females and as subjects of stigma in their communities. 

Do you experience discrimination because of your disability?


Whenever a disabled woman or girl goes out of her house or into the market, other people see her in a weird way. This makes the girl feel uncomfortable. For example, if a relative comes to the house, they say: ‘Why is she like this? What sin has she committed that has made her like this? Has she been cursed?’ They ask questions like: ‘How long has she had this illness for? Are you allowing her to study? How many years has she studied for?’; They also ask if she will get married: ‘Are you getting her married? How is she going to get married if she is like this? Will she ever get a good job?

What is life like for you in your community?

Sarla Devi

My husband died and I didn’t know what disease he was suffering from. After this happened, I went to my parents’ house. As soon as my parents and my community found out that I was HIV positive, they thought badly of me. They decided to reject me and told me that my utensils and meals would be kept separate from the rest of the family, so that the disease did not spread to them. What was I supposed to do? I have two young daughters; I am currently living with them and looking after their welfare.

What challenges do you face being a wheelchair user?


My first problem is that I cannot get out of the house easily as there is no ramp. My second problem is that I can only use the wheelchair until I reach the front of the house; I cannot go onto the main road. The traffic on the road is a huge problem, I have to be accompanied by my brother, otherwise I cannot go.

What is the status of single mothers in society?

Shakuntala Devi

Not good. My husband left me and my case is currently running in court. When I went to court, even the clerk of the court didn’t give me respect. Whenever I look at my two daughters, I am reminded of myself and my freedom at their age. Whatever happened to me should never happen to my daughters.

Have you been able to find work as a wheelchair user?

Gajro Devi

I have been disabled since I was 10-years-old. I do sewing work and I teach other girls how to sew. I teach them whatever I know and it passes my time. I find it difficult to move around so I cannot do any other work. Even sewing is difficult to deal with nowadays, because I am ill. I get a disability allowance of 500 rupees [about $8.20], which is not sufficient for me because I cannot buy my medicines using the money. 

My parents are poor, they could not provide money for my treatment. Now, it is very difficult to treat my condition. I find it difficult to go to the doctor – how am I supposed to go? I don’t have the money to hire a vehicle. I need to take someone to the doctor with me, but even that has become difficult because it’s not easy to take another person along. People are ashamed to take us around because of our disability. I have heard both positive and negative comments from people. Some people want to help us, whereas others don’t.

If we had our own money we could use it for our benefit. Where can we get money from? The 500 rupees I get monthly is not enough. I earn my livelihood with great difficulty through sewing work and teaching sewing to young girls. This is how I take care of my welfare.

As a survivor of domestic abuse, what has the reaction been from your family and community?

Kanchana Devi

I got married in 2008. I have a son who is five years old. My husband starting beating me after we had been married only a few days. I thought that my husband would apologize so I forgave him several times. He took me to Ludhiana [a city in the Indian state of Punjab]; he started hitting me there too. He was so evil that he did not let me register in the Panchayat [a system of local self-governance].

I tried my best to go back to my parents. However, he did not let me go. Once, he hit me a lot so I told him that I had to return to my parents. He finally took me to my parents’ house and left me there. He never came back to fetch me so I registered a case at the court so he would pay some maintenance money to me and I requested a protection order from him. He only came to court when I had my son.

I do sewing work and I take care of my expenses with great difficulty. When my son was one or two months old, I faced many hardships in life. However, I feel that I have to live and move on.

I applied for a ration card with the Panchayat. Unfortunately, they said that I had to register from where my in-laws live, which is in Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh. When my child and I registered with the Panchayat, I started working for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Grant Scheme.

I face many problems but I know that I have to earn my own bread. I also work as a maid in people’s houses and do sewing work. I get by with this income, but I still don’t have a proper place to live. My wish is to build a house for me and my son. I want to take care of my son on my own.

What are your experiences of living with a disability?


I am from Chamotu. I have completed Plus Two [secondary school education necessary to go to college]. I am currently doing sewing and embroidery work.

I found out about my disease [Muscular Dystrophy] when I was 15-years-old. I am fully aware of my condition now but I am not unhappy about it. I am never angry with anyone and speak to everyone affectionately. My main problem is that I have difficulty climbing stairs. When my mother is with me I can manage it easily. When I am on my own, I need someone’s help to get onto the bus. If I am unable to get the bus, I have to arrange for a vehicle. I do my work with joy and I am always cheerful. However, it is important to remember that there are others like me; even they must be facing problems like me. We have to think about what can be done to help others who are going through the same condition that I am. I want to do other kinds of work than crochet and sewing work.

People in the village say that I am a helpless girl. However, I do not like this word and it doesn’t affect me any more. I am currently receiving help from Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development (CORD). I work there and I get enough money so I have no worries. I am currently earning my livelihood through the work that I am doing.

What are your struggles in 2014?

Sushma Kumari

My husband drinks and beats me. I have three children. He has been doing this for the past 22 years. Last year, he burnt down the house, so now we have nothing left. We have become beggars. I was able to get my elder daughter married with the help of people. I have also arranged the marriage of my second daughter. We thought that we should get the second daughter married as she is now 19 -years -old. My sisters-in-law have bailed my husband out of jail. I am currently under threat from them. I am desperate and in a terrible situation.

The Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development (CORD) is a social and educational organization that serves citizens of rural India. The women who have shared their stories have been supported by its projects in Himachal Pradesh state that focus on disability awareness and women’s rights.

The interviews were conducted by On our Radar citizen journalists Premo Devi, Nav Jyoti Gupta, Neelam Kumari and Balbir Guleria. Read ‘School can make girls into women, not FGM’ where New Internationalist also collaborates with Radar. 

This article is timed to coincide with our feminism issue.

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