A lifeline for mothers in Bihar

, 12 August 2013

Ram Lakhan frequently leaves his brothers, sisters and wife behind to work as a labourer in Mumbai. He uses his dual SIM Chinese mobile phone to talk to the folks back home: “I’ve got an Airtel SIM for Bihar and an Idea SIM for Mumbai – the Airtel network is better in Bihar, but Idea has good deals in Mumbai”. He also likes to listen to music on his mobile and buys songs from a top up shop in the city.

Ram dropped out of school when he was 9 years old to work on the family farm. He’s now 26. He has no idea how old his wife is. He recently found out that she was six months pregnant with their first child from his sister-in-law. His wife seems to be a stranger to him – and the fact that she’s bearing his child is of little concern.

During the last five days I’ve been struck – really struck – by the heart-breaking gender inequality in this village and lack of communication between husbands and wives in rural Bihari society. Take the example of Sundari Devi.

25 year old Sundari Devi is 9 months pregnant. She already has three children, including a toddler. She had all her babies at home – and it was painful. Very painful. “No one cares enough to take me to the hospital,” she says. She’s on the verge of crying when she tells us this.

She lives in her husband’s large joint family – a landowning family who can afford to send her 6 year old daughter and 3 year old son to school – but her in-laws mistreat her and she’s clearly malnourished, hungry and in pain – and understandably angry at the world.

Her husband works as an auto rickshaw driver in Delhi and only comes back to the village once a year. He comes home for the Diwali holidays, gets her pregnant and leaves again – he won’t be there for the birth of their fourth child.

Untitled-3Sundari Devi says none of the other women in her house can use a mobile – she can, she says with pride, because she’s smart. But she’s visibly scared of subscribing to Kilkari without her brother-in-laws permission and says she’ll get in a lot of trouble.

Wearing a black baseball cap and wielding a fancy new Chinese handset, Lallan is proud of his 2GB memory card. “It can hold 400 songs”, he says, and I use the camera to take photos at weddings. Lallan married his wife when she was 14. She’s now 22 and already has three kids, and is 9 months pregnant with the fourth.

Lallan is a 29 year old farmer. He owns land, studied to the 5th grade and can read and write. After receiving his first call from Kilkari – about the importance of registering his pregnant wife for health services, he tell us that he hasn’t told his wife anything about the call because: “I make the decisions – she’ll do as she’s told”.

Across the board, landowning or landless, literate or illiterate, many women in rural Bihar seem to have purely functional relationships with their husbands and are not allowed to have opinions or make decisions. Given the clear intelligence, bravery and curiosity of the young pregnant women we’ve interviewed – the mental and physical imprisonment and drudgery of their lives would be soul destroying if there weren’t a glimmer of hope.

20-year-old Neelam Kumari is 5 months pregnant with her first child. She’s already had one miscarriage – when she was seven months pregnant. She had to drop out of school when she was very small “to do the house work”. She lives with her husband’s extended family – he’s a farm labourer – and her mother-in-law took her nice Nokia phone as soon as she arrived. They gave her a second hand phone – with a basic Nokia back and a grey market ‘Nokai’ front (pictured above). The phone is cracked and tightly wrapped with a piece of string to keep it from falling apart. 

When she calls Kilkari, and hears the baby’s laugh – she smiles a small private smile. She says she likes listening to the doctor talking to her on the phone. A tiny moment of privacy – where someone is talking kindly to her about her health – a welcoming voice from a world beyond her compound – is a little crack of light. She’s only been using the phone for three months – but it could be a lifeline to advice, guidance and most importantly – empathy. She wants to listen. She wants to know more.