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SEPT 9, 1994


Speaking for those not here

There should be no religion involved in this debate.  They should listen to the voices of the poor.  After all isn’t this Conference about improving our lives?” asked Chandaben Jagaria.  Chandaben represents people who are not here, the more than one billion poor women whose lives are being debated and whose voices are not heard directly at this Conference. 

The Self-Employed Women’s Association (Sewa) brought Chandaben to Cairo from her home in Ahmedabad, a large industrial city in India’s western state of Gujarat.

Chandaben is illiterate, poor and  lives in a but that leaks every time it rains.  She was born 50 years ago, in Badosan, a village of 2,000 people.  She was one of five children, and has had six herself.

Sitting below Chefren Hall Thursday, while the debate about women’s health and reproductive rights was being discussed, Chandaben had questions: “Do the men who are talking about women’s empowerment actually have a right to discuss our fate?

“Do these delegations and religious leaders know what a poor woman goes through when she bears a child-a women loses four liters of blood every times she gives birth.  I gave birth to my 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 3 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 men who are debating our future look after the welfare and well-being of every child that is born and ensure that they have food, an education, and jobs when they grow up? Will the resources pledged here 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 5 miles everyday to get wood for our stove and another 3 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 married and started having children, six in all. “If only I had had a choice I would have had only two, “she said. “None of my boys has a job, they work as labourers 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 assisted 60,000 women.

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 here 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.”