BENGALURU: On Monday evening, a group of five mothers from Upturn Learning’s community for single parents, and five students from Sydney met at Dialogues cafe, Koramangala. What was stipulated to be a one-hour conversation, went on for three-and-a-half hours, as the subtle nuances of the physical, emotional and financial abuse they faced came to fore. No one, however, seemed to mind, or notice, the time.
The MBA students from the University of Sydney had travelled more than 9,000 km for their Social Enterprise Project, with the aim of coming up with solutions that could make an impact on the lives of Indian women.
“We initially chose women’s rights as our topic. One of the things that surprised us about India is that it’s one of the most dangerous countries for women,” said Sarah Nguyen – who along with Geoff Wellman, Katherine Withnell, Jon Luey and Angela Catalan - has been working on the project.
The group arrived in Bengaluru on November 11 and since then have interviewed multiple people, including Neeraja Ganesh, head of JobsForHer and Manjula Dharmalingam, founder of Second Innings.
Besides those interviews, they also spoke to city-based single mothers about their circumstances and struggles.
Victims of abuse
One woman recalled the first instance of physical abuse she encountered. “I had started earning early. When I earned my first pay cheque of `1,000, I asked my mother to encash it, only to learn that I couldn’t do so until I opened a bank account. This was news to me. Ever since, despite earning money, I always handed it over to my parents and made do with asking them for an allowance whenever needed,” she recalls. The then Mumbai-based woman got married to someone from Bengaluru and shifted cities to live with her husband. “About ten days into our marriage, I asked my husband for `10 to go to the beauty parlour. He slapped me and said he couldn’t have a grown woman living off of him,” she recalls.
Recounting another incident that took place when her son was five, she says, “We were in the car when I told him to ensure that the car is gassed-up the following day. The next thing I know is his hands around my neck. He stabbed me at home later that night. I almost lost an eye. My son came in between when I was lying on the ground in a pool of blood. I couldn’t see properly and thought my son’s shirt was covered in chocolate ice cream. I later realised it was my dried blood on his shirt.”
Another woman, who is now the mother of a teenager, said, “We both came from educated families. We both had PhDs in Chemistry. After our marriage, I went to Germany to work. My boss was a woman but my husband assumed her to be a man and accused me of being unfaithful. After having revealed that I had gone for a drink with my boss, I was called back to India, locked in a room and no one from my family was told that I am back. I gave the marriage another shot due to family pressure. When I was pregnant, my husband wanted to know who the father was.” It wasn’t until couple of years later that she found that her husband suffered from schizophrenia. “He would often have alliances with other women too. When I was nine months pregnant, I would receive threat calls from his girlfriend, asking me to leave my husband,” she remembers.
A mother of another teenager divulged the misery she faced during her first divorce. “I was married at 20; it was an arranged marriage. It didn’t work but due to familial pressure, I had to stay in the marriage. At 22, I moved out into a working women’s hostel, with no support.” At 23, her boss suggested she apply for a divorce. “I had to contest a lot for my divorce, which dragged for three years. Despite good international work opportunities, I had to stay back for my divorce,” she says. She was finally granted an ex parte divorce (a proceeding in which only one spouse appears in the court). “This is granted if the other party doesn’t appear three consecutive times. My then-husband would often come for one hearing, then miss two. He would tease by coming to the courthouse but not entering the courtroom. Luckily, the judge understood my situation,” she adds.
Three important insights
These accounts, along with the other interviews, helped the students arrive at three insights: “It’s important for women to work towards a career, have a strong support system in place and learn the basics of managing money,” said the students.
The assignment also required the students to come up with a solution. In this case, it was a community care centre that provides early learning for all children of middle income women, whilst also providing a supportive community for all women to learn new skills. The community model, the students say, will help families learn from each other and be an educational forum that provides one-on-one mentoring for mothers. According to their business plan, it would take two years to start three such centres.
‘Blame always comes on women who are not able to conceive’
A mother who was recently divorced revealed that her husband had quit his job soon after marrying her.
“I shouldered all our financial responsibilities. I was advised that having a child might save our marriage. We had trouble conceiving due to his medical conditions. But for some reason, in such cases, it’s always the women who’s blamed,” she says. The couple then became parents to a son. “Talking to a counsellor really helped me deal with everything. I was also lucky to have supportive siblings and parents who stood by me throughout the tense period leading up to the divorce,” she adds. These accounts, along with the other interviews, helped the students arrive at three insights: “It’s important for women to work towards a career, have a strong support system in place and learn the basics of managing money,” said the students.