International Women’s Day: A story of one woman’s fight against poverty

Happy International Women’s Day. That’s right it’s the time of year that celebrates femininity in all its forms. Normally Travel Antics would give you a long list of inspirational women who have been trying against all odds to make the world a better place. But, today we’re going to do things a little differently. Rather than focus on those who are in a position of power and already in the public eye, I want to take a look at the everyday heroes. The women who face unthinkable adversity and still stand up fighting.

One of my favourite issues of the Travel Antics magazine came midway through last year when we met the poverty-stricken women of India who are fighting to rebuild their lives through the power of education. So, in celebration of International Women’s Day 2019, let’s take a look at one of these strong, brave women; Paptu:

It’s been an eventful life for Paptu, a 20-year-old woman from the Ohja Gond community who lives on the streets of Bhopal with her husband, two young children, drunken parents, siblings and other homeless people. She’s the fourth youngest of 13 siblings but only nine of her brothers and sisters have survived to present day.

Why did you decide to live on the streets in Bhopal?

“This street is my home and I will never leave, regardless of what the city council threatens to do to me. I’m very happy living here as I have my entire family next to me. I don’t desire a permanent address, concrete shelter over my head, a stove to cook meals, running water, toilets, new clothes, food which is not retrieved from a garbage bin, a door to my house, privacy or anything else which you feel will make me happy.

“I am content with my current situation despite being viewed adversely by most people who pass by in their comfortable cars and occasionally peek out of their windows to give me either a look of disgust or sympathy. This contentment stems from knowing life could be a lot worse for me and I’m grateful for what I have right now.”

What dangers do you face on the street?

“As we sleep in the open we sometimes get harassed from strange and drunk men who try and get into our beds in the middle of the night, it’s quite common. We usually beat them up but we never hand them over to the police. We understand people behave strangely when under the influence and like us, they too have families who would be worried if they were arrested.”

How did you and your husband meet?

“Sigu was a child waste-picker just like me and we met 10 years ago while waste-picking. He was 5 years older than me and we got involved with each other. When I found myself pregnant with his child, the only recourse was to elope with him to avoid the wrath of the community and my parents. I was old enough to know when an Ojha Gond girl gets involved with a Muslim boy, they are in for a lot of trouble with the community. We dealt with the situation to the best of our ability. I hid my pregnancy from everyone and eloped with Sigu to his village. All my siblings have also eloped. It is very common to elope but the community still makes it a big deal out it.”

How has your husbands (Sigu) drinking affected your current situation?

“I know my children won’t have a future if Sigu keeps drinking. We don’t even have a ration card because Sigu doesn’t take the initiative to get us one. It’s just work and alcohol for him.”

Have you struggled with any forms of addiction?

“I was a frequent whitener sniffer back then and only realised the connection between my addiction and my children’s death when I was pregnant with Palak. When I fell pregnant the first time at the age of 12, I was sniffing whitener very frequently. It was a tough habit to break and I continued all throughout my first and second pregnancy. My first child was stillborn and my second died within 5 weeks. When I found myself pregnant the third time, my mother made me promise I would stop sniffing for the sake of my future children. I’ve not touched whitener or alcohol since having Palak. It also helps that now I don’t have to waste-pick. I spend my days looking after my children and playing cards with my sisters.”

what effect has the death of your children had on you?

“When my first child died, I didn’t have any anger. Maybe I was too high to feel anything. But when I lost my second child, I was angry at myself for not being able to quit my addiction. Sigu tried to console me saying we could have another baby but I don’t think he understands the pain and difficulty of a pregnancy.”

How has waste-picking changed your life?

“Waste-picking robbed me of the opportunity to go to school and hang out with friends. Occasionally, I played hide and seek near a big water tank in the dumping grounds. There were days where I would find a lot of plastic items days where I would be greeted with an animal carcass and other horrible things you discard from your household. The most challenging part was learning to deal with the foul smell of the waste, just to make Rs 30. I rarely ever played. I would waste-pick and be high on whitener all day.

“Once my friends and I were waste-picking when a man teased my friend by making vulgar remarks at her. We used our slippers to beat him up. It was a lot of fun. I still remember the day so well. These days I don’t go out much so I don’t face any trouble but when I used to work, men would trouble us all the time. Even old men would tease us and make indecent comments.”

You’ve mentioned you were high on whitener while being a waster picker, what was that like?

“Most child waste-pickers are high on whitener. The high lasts about 2 hours and during that time, I don’t feel thirsty or hungry. I became addicted to it. My parents were always too drunk to reprimand me for sniffing whitener. My addiction only got worse.”

Why didn’t you decide to continue your education while you were young?

“I didn’t see the point in continuing my studies when I fell pregnant. All education would have done is made my father proud in the community for having an educated daughter. My father has always said nobody will give people like us who drink, eat mutton and live in filth any jobs.”

“My parents don’t see the point in education for people like us. Although my sisters want to study and not get married, they are too afraid to go against my parents. My parents also use emotional blackmail to keep them at home, such as insisting they will only eat if fed by my sisters.”

What is it like being married to Sigu?

“Sigu drinks day and night and sometimes he raises his hand on me. Sometimes, not always. My father used to hit my mother a lot more. Sigu used to sniff whitener very frequently but I persuaded him to stop after we had Sitar and Palak. He’s promised to stay away from drugs for the sake of our children. I gave up sniffing whitener and alcohol completely after Palak and Sitar. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have the urge every now and then but I’ve learned to control myself. My only weakness now is tambaku, as evident from my stained lower teeth.”

What’s it like living with your parents, while having a young family?

“I really like having my parents living here with me. I don’t have any anger towards my father for not allowing me to study when I was younger. I share all my sorrows and joys with my parents. I like having them with me, despite their constant intoxicated state. I get very angry when someone abuses my father. In fact, he hides behind me when he needs to be protected from my siblings. Just like you, I too am very protective of my family.”

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