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Egypt Cairo Voices of Women 9 Sep 1994


SEPTEMBER 26, 1994

Will it ever reach us?

(Two women from rural India)

By Ashali Varma

CAIRO, Egypt—For Chandaben Jagaria and Raheema Dholaki, the Cairo Conference raised many troubling questions. “There should be no religion involved in this debate,” Chndaben said.  “The delegates should listen to the voices of the poor. After all isn’t this Conference about improving our lives?

Raheema said, “Tradition, society and religion have kept women suppressed for generations. It is shocking that while even the poor and uneducated women with whom I work have put religious differences aside, at the Cairo Conference supposedly learned people used religion and customs, to dictate what a woman should be allowed to do regarding her own reproductive health.”

Both women represented people who were not present at the Conference, the more than one billion poor women around the world to whom the Program of Action, when implemented would directly touch.

The Self employed Women’s Association . (SEWA) brought Chandaben and Raheema to Cairo from their home in Ahmedabad, a large industrial city in India’s western state of Gujarat.

Chandaben is illiterate, poor and lives in a hut which leaks every time it rains. She was born 50 years ago, in Badosan, a village of 2000 people. She was one of five children. Chandaben was concerned that the delegations while debating the Program of Action did not directly touch the issues that most concern the poor.

“Do these people know what a poor women goes through when she bears a child? I gave birth to six children in my hut. I was so weak; we had very little food and I had to go to the nearest river to bathe since we had no water.”

 When her last child was just three days old she took a bus to the hospital and got herself sterilized. “I didn’t want any more children and I could not afford family planning,” she said. Chandaben went on to ask, “Will the resources pledged at Cairo, ever really reach us to improve our lives and the lives of our children?”

Chandaben’s questions spring from the experience of a difficult life. She remembers spending the first 13 years of her life helping her family survive. “We had to walk five miles everyday to get wood for our stove and another three miles for water,” she said. “There were no schools or health facilities in our village, so I never learned to read and write. Besides, there was so much work.”

At 14 Chandaben’s parents got her married and although on her husband’s salary they could barely make ends meet, she had six children. “If only I had a choice I would have had only two,” she said. “None of my boys has a job, they work as laborers whenever they can find work.”

For 25 years, this woman’s mainstay has been SEWA. She has worked for the organization for 25 years, helping women form cooperatives to generate income and helping to set up health clinics in villages.

SEWA has helped 60,000 poor women in India. Chandaben spoke proudly of her own contributions to women’s issues. She spent four years training in women and child health care and now spends 12 hours a day going to villages to set up health facilities and  talking to women about family planning, nutrition and hygiene.  “Few of the people at the Conference have ever had to feel the desperation or the pain that goes with poverty,” she said, adding, “I hope this Conference will achieve something for the poor women of this world and promise us an existence that is at least human.”

Raheema who works closely with Chandaben in SEWA, added, “We women who have come to Cairo from every corner of the world cannot go back empty handed to our sisters who sent us here.  We must achieve something.  My first priority is the overall health of women, especially the poor who have no access to free clinics and health services near their homes.”