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India: Beautiful country, but not for women

Jul 28, 2013

In the Ladakhi community of Jammu and Kashmir, women are not allowed to meet outsiders including doctors, even during their pregnancy, writes Saadia Azim.

Leh: Leh - a mere mention of this district high up in the Himalayas in the state of Jammu and Kashmir conjours up remarkable images of the mighty mountains, clear blue skies, colourful Tibetan prayer flags, and the locals in their distinctive attire. Leh is a must-visit destination for those who want to conquer treacherous peaks and show off their survival skills in harsh conditions with bare necessities. But what makes for an exciting holiday for some is the lived reality of those who call this challenging part of the world home.

Holiday-makers will be back in their comfortable homes soon enough, but women like Dawa Yangzom, who hails from the tiny village of Kharu – a few hours away from Leh town – don't have any option but to simply continue with their frugal existence. Everything from food to fuel demands hard work. Even access to basic healthcare is a tall order as doctors are in short supply and medical facilities few and far between.

Yangzom, employed as a contractual labourer with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), recently had a brush with death – she had a miscarriage a week short of her ninth month of pregnancy – her first. She was at home when she felt the sudden surge of excruciating pain. Unable to get timely medical attention she not only lost the child but had to battle for her own life as well. And then, within a few weeks, she was back at work, although she had barely regained her strength, because she was afraid of losing her job. At a work site near Leh she carries construction material used to build roads under the piercing sun, her face covered with a scarf.

Yangzom has a tough life. Not only does she bear the burden of keeping home fires burning, she is also expected to conform to age-old Ladakhi customs and beliefs. It was tradition that prevented the 25-year-old from regularly consulting a doctor during her preganancy, although the fact that there is no health centre either in her village or anywhere close by, didn’t help.

In the Ladakhi community, women are not allowed to meet outsiders during their pregnancy although Yangzom did defy the rule initially. "I had seen a doctor in Leh in the early days of my pregnancy but I had no complications then. However, as the delivery date neared the situation took a turn for the worse. I ended up losing my child," she reveals. During those dark days, she was wracked by feelings of self-doubt. "Maybe if I had followed tradition things would not have gone so wrong," she observes quietly. Of course, after everything was over her family elders had insisted that she be confined to the home. "I could not move out of the bed for nearly two weeks and had only local medicine men attending on me. But after that I had to join work or else I would have lost my job, which would have held dire consequences for the entire family," says the grief-stricken woman.

What Yangzom has gone through is not uncommon for women in these parts. Dsachan Chorol lost her baby in a similar manner five months back. As Chorol, another worker with the BRO, recalls those days her eyes cloud with pain, "I was in our village, Igoo, which is far from Leh. When I started having pains in the middle of the night, we were unable to get medical help and I lost the child." Chorol had been keen on seeing a physician earlier to confirm that all was well, but she had to "bow down to the practice of people stopping me from venturing out of the home". However, unlike Yangzom, she was unable to resume work soon after since she was just too ill to undertake the daily commute from her remote home to the construction site.

A recent Census shows that Leh, the major town of Ladakh region, has just 680 women per 1000 men. In fact, the entire region is said to have the lowest male-female ratio although the level of literacy has gone up from 25 per cent some 25 years back to 80 per cent now.

But clearly, women are at risk – of losing their lives, of losing their livelihood. In fact, the loss of income generating work only compounds their misery. According to R. Dolkar, Secretary of the Women's Alliance of Ladakh (WAL), a non government organisation that was established for the development of Ladakhi women, "Local men migrate to other states for work so that they can contribute to the running of the household during the summers and stock up for the punishing winter months." Left behind are the women, who strive to make things better for their families despite the fact that employment opportunities are hard to come by.

The BRO, which maintains roads that serve the border areas, is a popular employer. It hires women for clearing, cleaning and carrying material on site. They work in groups and even go back together to their far-flung homes. After all, there is safety in numbers and the company makes the long and arduous trip a little more bearable. Sometimes they get lucky and are given a drop in the official vehicle at a suitable point.

However, not everyone is physically capable of working on construction sites. The positions on offer are also very few. So what are the other avenues available? This was a dilemma that WAL faced when it first started work in 1991. Says Dolkar, 60, Secretary, WAL, "The big challenge for us was to find work for these women locally so that with the limited resources available they could manage their households."

Setting up handicraft cooperatives and agriculture training centres in villages emerged as the viable solution. The Alliance gives farming families the know-how to earn without having to leave the land, while support is lent to women with skills in spinning, weaving, dyeing and cooking. Explains Dolkar, "We provide them with the means to produce local handicrafts and other items under our women's empowerment and livelihood initiative. But our work doesn't stop here. We also double up as a networking channel, bringing women across the region together and connecting them with prospective buyers of their goods."

The Alliance, which has over 6,000 members, sells handicraft and woollen products from their headquarters in Leh, which serves as a 'market' for handmade goods such as caps, bags, Ladakhi jewellery, organic produce and seeds. The summer season is their busiest, although everything is available for purchase online as well. Particularly popular with foreign tourists are the Pashmina shawls, sourced directly from women who not only rear the special breed of goats but also weave the exquisite wraps right in their homes.

But while these endeavours have greatly empowered local women, their everyday reality is grim. A severe shortage of water and electricity ties them down, as do other infrastructural gaps like bad roads and poor health services. For instance, every time Yangzom needs to visit a doctor she has to plan well in advance and, at times, even take the day off. The nearest government hospital from her village is 45 kilometres away in Leh. The absence of any proper mode of public transport means that often she has to cover the entire distance on foot.

It is Chorol's husband, Dorjey, a soldier in the Indian Army for over a decade and a keen observer of the realities of Ladakhi society, who has the last word: "In the land of the lamas, it is the women who have taken on the responsibility of keeping the family going. Despite the hardships, despite the tough environmental challenges, despite the risk to their own lives."

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