On winter afternoons, when work in the fields is over and the younger members of the household are away at their jobs, the men of Harsana Kalan village in Haryana’s Sonipat district are often at the chaupal (village square), playing cards or resting in the shade.
The women are never seen there.
“Why should women come here?" asks Vijay Mandal, a local resident. "They don’t have time from their work. Woh kya karenge in bade admiyon ke saath baith kar? [What will they do sitting among all these esteemed men]?"
Until a few years ago, this village of roughly 5,000 people, barely 35 kilometres from Delhi and part of the National Capital Region, strictly followed the purdah or practice of women wearing veils.
“Women did not even look towards the chaupal,” Mandal says. Located roughly at the centre of the village, this is the place for meetings, where the panchayat gathers to settle disputes. “Pehle ki aurat sanskari thi [The women of the past would respect tradition],” says Satish Kumar, a former sarpanch of Harsana Kalan.
“They had a sense of dignity and honour,” says Mandal, “They would wear a veil if they even walked towards the chaupal,” he adds, a smile creasing his face.
None of this is new or novel for 36-year-old Saira. She has lived through and followed most of these diktats for the last 16 years, ever since she came here as a 20-year-old bride from Majra Dabas, her village near Delhi. Unlike the men, she goes by just her first name.
“If I had met my husband before the wedding, I would never have said yes to this marriage. Is gaon mein toh katey na aati [I would never have agreed to come to this village],” Saira says, her fingers running deftly between the sewing machine needle and the purple fabric she is working on. (Her name, and the names of all her family members, have been changed in this story.)
“If a woman tries to speak out in this village, the men will not let her. They will say, what is the need for you to speak up when your man can? My husband also believes a woman should stay inside the house. If I think about going to even buy some material required to stitch clothes, he will say it is better to stay inside,” Saira says.
Her husband, 44-year-old Samir Khan, works at a factory in Narela in neighbouring Delhi, where he moulds plastic. He often tells Saira that she doesn’t understand how men view women. “He says that if you stay home, you will be safe; bahar to bhediyen baithey hain [there are wolves waiting outside],” she recounts.
So, Saira sits at home, away from the proverbial wolves. Like the 64.5 per cent of rural women in Haryana (National Family Health Survey-4, 2015-16) who are not allowed to go alone to a market, health facility, or any place outside the village. She stitches clothes every afternoon on a sewing machine placed close to a window. There is ample sunlight here, necessary since the electricity goes off at this time of day. This afternoon activity fetches her about Rs. 2,000 a month, some solitude and the ability to buy a few things for her two sons, Sohail Khan, 16 years old, and Sunny Ali, 14. Rarely will Saira buy anything for herself.
A few months after Sunny was born, Saira had attempted to go for a tubal ligation – a laparoscopic sterilisation procedure to seal her fallopian tubes. Her husband Samir was unaware of her intentions at the time.
In Sonipat district, the contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) among currently married women aged 15 to 49 is 78 per cent (NFHS-4) – higher than Haryana’s overall 64 per cent.
Twice in those few months after her son was born, Saira tried to get the surgery done. The first time was at a government hospital near her parents’ house in Majra Dabas where the doctor told her she did not even look married. The second time, at the same hospital, she took her son to prove she was married. “The doctor told me I was too young to take this decision on my own,” Saira says.
It was the third time, at a private hospital in Rohini, Delhi, when staying with her parents, that she managed to get the procedure done.
“This time I lied about my husband. I took my son along and told the doctor that my husband is an alcoholic,” Saira says, laughing now at the turn of events, but remembering distinctly why she wanted to do this so desperately. “Things were bad at home, oppressive and a constant struggle. I was sure of just one thing – I did not want more children.”
Saira remembers the day she went through the procedure: "It was raining that day. I could see my younger son crying in the arms of my mother as she stood behind the glass door of the ward. The other women who had undergone the surgery were still in deep sleep [from the anaesthesia]. It wore off earlier for me. I was worried my child had to be fed. I was too restless."
When Samir found out, he didn’t speak to her for months. He was angry that she had taken the decision by herself. He had wanted her to go in for an intrauterine device (IUD) like a copper-T, which is reversible. But Saira was determined to have no more children.
“We have fields and buffaloes. I was the only one looking after all of it, along with the household. What if something happened to me while using an IUD?” she remembers, looking back upon herself as a confused 24-year-old who had barely passed Class 10 and knew little about life or contraceptives.
Saira’s mother was unlettered. Her father was not. But he too didn’t insist she continue her studies. “A woman is nothing more than cattle. Like our buffaloes, our brains have become dull,” she says, looking up from the needle.
“Haryana ke aadmi ke saamne kisi ki nahin chalti [In Haryana, no one can stand up to a man],” she adds. “Whatever he says will be done. If he says this will be cooked, that dish will be cooked – food, clothes, going out, everything is as he says.” It is unclear at what point Saira has stopped talking about her husband and started talking about her father.
You would expect 33-year-old Sana Khan (her name, and the names of all her family members, have been changed in this story), an extended family member who lives next door to Saira, to feel differently. With a bachelor's degree in Education, she wanted to certify as a teacher and work at a primary school. But whenever the topic of working outside the home came up, her husband, 36-year-old Rustom Ali, who works as an office attendant in an accounting firm, would taunt her: “You go work outside. I will stay home instead. You go earn and raise this family alone.”
Sana has long since given up this conversation. “What is the point? It will turn into an argument anyway. This is a country where men come first. So women have no option but to make adjustments because if they do not, there will be arguments,” she says, standing outside her kitchen.
Like Saira sews in the afternoons, Sana too uses that time of day to tutor primary school children at her home, earning Rs. 5,000 a month, half of what her husband earns. She spends most of this on her children. But like 54 per cent of women in Haryana, she has no bank account that she can operate by herself.
Sana always knew she wanted two children and was aware she could space pregnancies with contraceptive measures like an IUD. She and Rustom Ali have three children – two daughters and a son.
After her first daughter, Asiya, was born in 2010, Sana got an IUD inserted at a private hospital in Sonipat. For years, she thought it was a multiload IUD, which is what she had wanted, not a copper-T, about which she had reservations, as did many women in the village.
“A copper-T has a longer life of placement and thus provides protection from pregnancy for about 10 years. The multiload IUD works for three to five years," explains Nisha Phogat, an auxilliary nurse and midwife (ANM) at the health sub-centre in Harsana Kalan village. "Many women in the village use the multiload IUD. This is why it continues to be their first choice.” The women's doubts about the copper-T seem to stem from what they hear from each other. “If one woman shows discomfort about a contraceptive, the others too tend to avoid using it,” Nisha explains.
Sunita Devi, an accredited social health activist (ASHA) who has worked in Harsana Kalan since 2006 says, “The women need to understand that they should not lift heavy weights and must rest for a week after the copper-T is inserted, as it takes time for the device to be positioned. But they don’t, or can’t. Therefore, it may cause discomfort. And they will often complain, ‘Mere kaleje tak chad gaya hai [The device has gone all the way up to my chest]’.”
Sana found out that she was using a copper-T only when she went to get the IUD removed. "I was lied to by both my husband and the doctor at the private hospital. He [Rustom Ali] knew all those years that I was using a copper-T and not a multiload IUD, but he did not bother to tell me the truth. I fought with him when I found out,” she says.
Did it really matter, since she felt no discomfort, we ask her. "They lied. At this rate, they can insert anything in me and lie about it,” she replies. “He [Rustom Ali] told me the doctor advised him to mislead me since women fear the size of the copper-T.”
After the IUD was removed, Sana gave birth to her second daughter, Akshi, in 2014, hoping this would complete their family. But pressure from the family continued until they had a son in 2017. “They see a son as an asset; they don’t feel the same about daughters,” she says.
Haryana has one of the lowest child sex ratios (for the 0-6 age-group) in the country at 834 girls for 1,000 boys (Census 2011). In Sonipat district, that figure stands lower still at 798 girls for 1,000 boys. And while the preference for boys is accompanied by a disdain for daughters, it is also widely documented that family planning decisions in strong patriarchal settings are influenced to a great extent by the husband and extended family. NFHS-4 data show that only 70 per cent of women in Haryana are likely to participate in decisions related to their own healthcare, compared to 93 per cent of men participating in decisions about their own healthcare.
Kanta Sharma (her name, and the names of all her family members, have been changed in this story), who lives in the same neighbourhood as Saira and Sana, has a family of five – a husband, 44-year-old Suresh Sharma, and four children. Two daughters, Ashu and Gunjan, were born in the first two years of marriage. While the couple decided that Kanta would go for a tubectomy after the second daughter was born, her in-laws did not agree.
“Dadi [paternal grandmother] wanted a grandson. For that grandson, we had four children. If the elders want it, it will be done. My husband is the eldest son in the family. We could not have disrespected the family’s decision,” says 39-year-old Kanta, looking at the trophies won by her daughters for their excellence in studies over the years.
When newlywed brides come to the village, ASHA workers like Sunita Devi keep a record, but often end up talking to them only around the end of the first year. “Most young brides here conceive in the first year of marriage. After a birth, we visit her house and ensure that we speak to her about family planning methods in the presence of the mother-in-law. Later, when the family holds a discussion and comes to a decision, they let us know,” Sunita says.
“The mother-in-law will get angry with us otherwise, and tell us, 'hamari bahu ko kya patti padha ke chali gayi ho [what have you taught my daughter-in-law]!” Sunita adds.
When the third child was also a girl, Kanta started taking contraceptive pills, which her husband used to procure for her, unknown to her in-laws. Months after she stopped the pills, Kanta was pregnant again, this time with a son. The irony was that the grandmother never saw the grandson. Kanta’s mother-in-law passed away in 2006. A year later, Kanta gave birth to her son, Rahul.
Since then, Kanta has been the eldest woman in the family. She has chosen to use an IUD. Her daughters are studying; the eldest doing a BSc in Nursing. Kanta isn’t thinking about her marriage yet.
“They should study and be successful. If we don’t help our daughters achieve what they want to, how can we expect their husbands and in-laws to help them study? Our time was different. That is gone,” Kanta adds.
What about her future daughter-in-law? “Same,” Kanta says. “It’s her choice what she wants to do, what she wants to use [contraception]. Our time was different; that is gone.”
Cover illustration: Priyanka Borar is a new media artist experimenting with technology to discover new forms of meaning and expression. She designs experiences for learning and play, juggles with interactive media, and also feels at home with traditional pen and paper.
PARI and CounterMedia Trust's nationwide reporting project on adolescent girls and young women in rural India is part of a Population Foundation of India-supported initiative to explore the situation of these vital yet marginalised groups, through the voices and lived experience of ordinary people.