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Mohini Giri: India's Voice for the Voiceless

Poster art for the film White Rainbows (2005).

Poster art for the film White Rainbows (2005).

NEW YORK, October 11, 2007 - Mohini Giri is a prominent women's rights activist in India. She has worked to rehabilitate war widows, to help women affected by militancy and violence in Kashmir; with destitute widows in Vrindavan and Kashi; child widows; earthquake and natural disaster victims, including survivors of the tsunami, and women rendered homeless due to communal strife and terrorism. She has received several honorary doctoral degrees from universities in India and abroad, as well as numerous awards and distinctions.

Dr. Giri was at the Asia Society in New York on October 11 to participate in a panel discussion following a screening of the film White Rainbow, which follows four women as they overcome the difficulties of widowhood in India. This interview was conducted prior to the event.

Can you tell us, Dr. Giri, about the work you do for the Guild of Service in India?

Yes, the Guild of Service is really a 100-year-old organization founded by a British lady during British rule in India. I started the north India branch in 1971. There has been no turning back, because the status of women was really very low then, and the developmental activities that were carried on were minimal. In a tradition-bound society where patriarchy rules, a woman’s voice is never heard, never seen, never looked upon, so woman was invisible. We have taken some strides since then; a kind of women’s movement became strong in India at that time, and many women’s groups came up from Calcutta, Madras, and other places, and we started building up capacities of women everywhere in the country so that we could have what we call a "voice for the voiceless." Atrocities against women were at the highest point then: dowry deaths, bride burning, rape, and sati, all these were rampant, absolutely.

Then we established these developmental centers everywhere. We have 18 branches in North India. We work with women who are elected members of the panchayat, widows, sex workers, other kinds of marginalized women. The total population of women is 49 per cent. Out of this 49 per cent, three per cent are either in mental asylums, or in jails or somewhere languishing like that, and another three per cent are sex workers. Eighteen percent are in agriculture, and the women in agriculture, they don’t have modern tools, they're toiling from morning till night. They eat the last, they sleep the last, and they don’t get any benefits from the whole thing. At four o'clock in the morning their work starts with milking the cows, etc. This is true of all of South Asia; it’s not peculiar to India.

So who is empowered? There are hardly any women who are really empowered. The one or two per cent empowered women that you can find, we think that they are empowered because they're rich, but money doesn’t make them empowered, because even they have to account for how they are spending each evening to their husbands, what they have done with their wealth. So there was no question of empowerment. Let me tell you, in these 30-40 years that I have been working, there has been a lot of difference. Now they're more articulate. Previously a woman would stand behind the door and talk to the visitor, and she would not show her face, she would not even come out. But now she opens the door, and she’s wearing a shalwar kameez which is a dress which is a little less conservative so things have improved. But only women’s improvement is not going to do any good until we change the mindset of the man. Now, all the training work that I have done for these last 30 years was with women; I think I should now direct it to men. In fact, it’s very heartening that men are now coming to our micro-finance groups and our self-help groups. The first two men’s groups I have formed just now before leaving India.

What do they do, the men’s groups?

They have formed self-help groups, and they're also depositing 20 rupees, each man. Instead of drinking and wasting the money, he puts it there. He saw how his wife is empowered now. And she can take a loan for debt, for illness, for the child’s marriage, or to set up her own industry. So they have also been tempted. And this is really a heartening feature for me, to see that men are coming forward, those who used to degrade women and laugh at us, now themselves are wanting help from us to do their own finances. So, the situation is like that. I got in at that time, and now the things are changing slowly. But because of tradition, she’s burdened by this tradition, the woman. And for her to get up from that is very, very difficult. There is hardly any difference, even now, between a cow and a woman.

Some people argue that the increasing levels of violence against women, and various forms of degradation to which women are subjected, have to do with rapidly changing social conditions more than with tradition – which would explain why you said this phenomenon was at its peak in the 1970s.

Tradition still has its roots in spite of women changing, in spite of men changing their mindset. But it’s just half a percent of the total society. So, tradition still has got deep roots in the social milieu. Wherever you find women in groups, even now they are bringing buckets and buckets of water from the well, the man doesn’t help her, even now the tradition is that she must be the doer of all things, looking after the child, cooking. And if she’s working, she’s working out of her own free will, that's extra work that she does. It’s very difficult to change that tradition, and it takes time. In rich families, the same tradition exists. And we are, today, fighting against that tradition. We are fighting to change that mindset of the man, to change it from there. But change is very slow. You can see it in some places. It’s creeping in. But women have become stronger at the same time. Although tradition has not given up, but women have been able to voice at least certain things in spite of the tradition.

One of the things that you said in another interview is that there are 42 million widows in India. That’s a very large number. Is that connected in any way to the phenomenon of child marriage?

Child marriage, and no remarriage. See, you can't re-marry also, so naturally widows will be more and more and more, because tradition doesn’t allow us to marry. And also child marriages bear widows, because if I'm married to a man who’s 40 years older than me, then naturally he will die, and when he dies I'm still a little young girl, and what will happen to me? I'm still a widow, I can't get married. And then I'm thrown away to places like those you see in the movie, to places like Vindrahvan or Kashi or Tirupati, where she has to fend for herself.