Tag Archives: gender inequality

My month volunteering in Rajasthan

This time last year, I decided to take some time off work to go to India. I think if you spend years working in Corporateland (especially finance) there’s a chance that you lose touch with reality. Your life becomes a round of meetings, expensive coffee, and commuting, and you forget that there is actually a whole world out there where none of that matters.

I did some research online and found Sankalp (Hindi for ‘helping hand’), an NGO with volunteer placements in various locations across India. And in November 2013, I set off to spend a month working in an orphanage in Jaipur.

It’s taken me a few months to gather my thoughts and write about my time in Jaipur. It’s hard to make sense of the good (helping people, making friends, experiencing a new culture) and the bad (poverty, inequality and how they blight people’s lives).

My working day started at 8.00am, when I was picked up from the volunteer house and driven to the orphanage, home to 30-odd children aged 0-6 years. The kids would be drowsy but reasonably cheerful, and our first job was to get them undressed, washed, and dressed again. Peeling clothes off wriggling kids is a challenge but also a good opportunity to interact and make them laugh. The wee ones were generally a bit reluctant to go the washroom. Not that I blamed them, I wouldn’t be up for early icy wash either.

Next up was drying time. There were two towels between the 30 kids, which meant that the kids at the end of the queue were invariably dried with a damp-to-sopping-wet towel. This is an example of a small thing that could have managed better for the sake of the kids.  The poor buggers at the end of the line  would reluctantly shuffle forward to be enveloped in a dripping wet towel. The towels were washed daily in a huge washer, there were plenty of them, so I couldn’t see any need for this stinginess.

This situation frequently led to fractious conversations between us volunteers and the staff – me asking for a towel, and them refusing. I get the impression the staff saw us as decadent, wasteful Westerners, and while there’s a fair bit of truth to that,  these are orphans who have no family, schooling or toys.  Would it have been so hard to give them a comfortable wash in the morning?

Once or twice, the younger kids would be handed to me to dry having not been washed properly by the staff. This was particularly true of the toddlers and disabled children. I found one of the carers holding a disabled 2-year old at arm’s length with a sneer of disgust on her face, before handing him to to dry. He had soiled his nappy and she hadn’t bothered to clean him properly. I wanted, to use some charming Scottish parlance, to skelp her. I had to remind myself that the workers themselves received very low wages, with a standard of living far below my own, so it was a bit rich of me to judge them.

This was a common occurrence for me – tied up in Western guilt over conduct I felt showed a complete lack of compassion or humanity, while trying to remind myself that I was there to help, not to judge. As an example, one of the women would threaten and  hit the children with a wooden stick as a means of chastisement. They weren’t physically bruised or damaged afterwards, but they were cowed and scared, and it broke my heart.

Orphan drop box - how some of the kids arrived.
Orphan drop box – how some of the kids arrived.

Orphanage life

Returning to he daily routine: after washing, it was playtime, my favourite part of the day. There were limited toys in the orphanage, but we would play games with the older kids, and sit with the younger ones on our knees. I should have said – as far as  Sankalp was concerned, that was the volunteers’ main role – to give affection to the kids. Around six of the kids were sponsored, and therefore went to school. The rest didn’t attend school, despite India’s universal right to education act. You need a birth certificate to gain admittance to many schools, which in practical terms excludes many orphans.

One little boy had TB, so he was kept apart from the others (somewhat inconsistently, some, but not all of the time). One of the girls I volunteered with – a tiny, big-hearted Aussie girl – was desperate to hug him, but she hadn’t been immunised against TB. She hated to see him excluded, and unable to understand why. If I was to make a criticism of Sankalp, it would be not telling the volunteers in advance that could be exposed to kids with diseases such as TB (and Hepatitis).

Having re-read the above, I feel I’ve painted a bleak picture of the orphanage, and it’s not my intention here to criticise it. It gives these kids a roof over their heads, relative stability and plenty of food. It’s trying to give them a chance in life, or at the very least, to preserve them from immediate poverty. That said, the lack of education opportunities for these kids makes me so frustrated and depressed. I played a counting game with a little boy who was innately so quick, yet he’ll grow up illiterate. For girls, the outlook is even more bleak. There was a courtyard under the orphanage where some older orphans, (young women really) lived. Without a dowry, they’re looking at marriage to someone coming to the orphanage looking for a wife. And without education, they’re wholly reliant on their looks and domestic skills. As someone a bit obsessed with gender equality, all of this was hard for me to take.

Weekend roaming - the camel fair at Pushkar
Weekend roaming – the camel fair at Pushkar

After hours: roaming

My working day in the orphanage would end at lunchtime, meaning afternoons and weekends were entirely free to explore. I do find myself equally charmed and frustrated by India. On the one hand, it’s breathtakingly beautiful. Jaipur, the  ’pink city’ is aptly named – the buildings glow pink in the sun, and there’s a constant hum and red dust as people go about their business. Even the everyday, the mundane looks beautiful to a stranger, like catching a glimpse of a bright sari through the heat and haze.

I love Indians’ laid-back attitude to time-keeping. It really appeals to me. It proves what I always suspected: the world doesn’t end if you do something a little later, or differently, to how you originally planned.

Exploring and chatting
Exploring and chatting

Before visiting Jaipur, I hadn’t seen an elephant in the flesh before. The first time I saw one in the street I was pointing and shouting like an idiot, much to the amusement of the locals.  Later in the month, we spent the afternoon at Elefantastic, an elephant sanctuary. Seeing elephants up close for the first time was genuinely amazing, and even more importantly, I came away with the impression the owner of the sanctuary really cared about the welfare of his elephants.

The frustration came out when I went out with other Western girls. I get that people will try to overcharge us – by their standards we’re rich, so I don’t really blame them for trying to get money out of us, in rickshaws, at stalls, whatever. I’d probably do the same. What made me uncomfortable was the staring, and following, generally by younger guys. We were all wearing clothes we bought for our placements, a kurta and trousers, so we were always respectably dressed. Despite this, we were approached by men quite frequently, and all groped on at least one occasion.

To compound things on a personal level,  I had spent the three months prior to Jaipur living in London, where I had unlimited freedom of movement. In the volunteer house, we adhered to a curfew of 9pm, and the female volunteers were discouraged from going out at all after dark. Having my freedom limited by my gender was a new and sobering experience for me.
Another aspect to volunteering is that you meet loads of different people. I was really lucky to volunteer alongside some great socially-minded people who really wanted to make a difference. That said, I did find myself getting frustrated with one of my roomates who didn’t have a negative thing to say about India. We had nearly enough common ground – concern for the orphans – but not quite enough to be friends. I would balk at the wasted opportunities for the young, and feel my heckles rising on a personal level at the attitudes towards women. She would talk about how she felt ‘so at home’ in India, that it was such a spiritual and relaxing place,  but her eyes seemed shut to the glaring social inequalities in India. India offers hospitality, beauty, the opportunity to explore on a huge scale. I can see that, and love it. But the poverty and the gender inequality are still there. My conclusion – embrace it warts and all, but don’t pretend the warts aren’t here.

Jaipur - an incense-smoking pig
Jaipur – an incense-smoking pig
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The peepshow women’s toilet that’s ‘a bit of fun’

A better toilet experience than The Shimmy?
A better toilet experience than The Shimmy?

When I think of revolting Scottish toilets, the first two images that pop into my head are Ewan McGregor doing his toilet dive in Trainspotting, and the typically minging festival toilets at T in the Park. But this week another contender emerged to vie for the crown of Most Ghastly Toilet experience: Glaswegian nightclub The Shimmy.

Here’s why: The Shimmy’s owners have installed a two-way mirror in the women’s toilets, allowing a select group of people (sitting in £800 private booths) to watch women. In the toilets. You know, that place you go when you’re looking for privacy.

When the fact hit the media this week, you might think the club would be embarrassed at invading women’s privacy, or ashamed of the notion that elite, wealthy guests get to pay extra to perv on ordinary, unsuspecting women. But no. The Shimmy’s response was so uppity and defensive that I just had to share it.

They start off by snootily saying: “it’s clear that those who are negatively commenting online may not have been lucky enough to get past the door staff and viewed the area”.

Damn, you got me there. I do feel downcast that I’m not ‘lucky enough’ to have spent time in a club where a bunch of random strangers are watching me without my knowledge. Oh, and clearly I can’t have a valid criticism of your creepy voyeuristic toilet because I haven’t actually seen it. Guess what though? I haven’t actually seen Guantanamo Bay either, but I disapprove of it too. Something doesn’t need to be directly in front of my retinas for my opinion to be valid. You arrogant pricks.

Next off:

The sight line is very limited and allows for glimpses into the wash up area only of the ladies loos”.

How considerate of you – so the people in these private booths can’t see me actually defecate. How comforting.

“Interestingly, you can see into a similar area of both the ladies and gents from the street at Corinthian Club and no-one has ever said a word”.

That’s right people! There’s another club in Glasgow being equally creepy, because they have these awful things called….windows. I’m now wondering how stupid the people at The Shimmy really are, if they can’t see the difference between people paying up to £800 for the privilege of peering into the women’s bogs, and panes of glass that let light in. They miss another significant point here: these evil glass-panes the Corinthian has are in both the male and female toilets. The Shimmy’s custom-made perv-mirror is only in the women’s toilets – not the men’s.

“There has always been signage in the toilets which no-one has mentioned thus far”

Translated as “we tell women they’re being spied upon – we just wait til they’ve paid the entry fee and are in the toilet”. How magnanimous of you. What you have actually done is put a sticker on the mirror, one that apparently wasn’t evident to some of your clientele. Also, poor you, having the media report on your perv-mirror without stressing this fact. One bright spot – after all this negative publicity, there’s unlikely to be a girl in Glasgow left who hasn’t heard about it.

You would think that’s more than enough arrogant chat from one company in one Facebook post, but they’re not done:

“loads of you have used the opportunity as it was intended and knowingly had pictures taken acting up to the camera individually or in a group of friends”.

Let me get this straight. You installed this mirror as an opportunity for women to ‘act up’ to groups of unknown strangers? Last I heard, that’s called a peepshow, and women generally get paid for participating. They don’t pay for the privelege. Do you seriously expect girls to fork out £10, or whatever your sleazy club charges as an entry fee, to then act as entertainment for your wealthiest clientele? Can’t you just hire a decent DJ like everyone else?

Their charming post ends by telling us that there are vibrators embedded in the dance floor. I assume this is Stage 2 in their plan to get their female guests to act as entertainment for the guys. They’ve also edited their post since I first read it earlier in the week, when they claimed that their creepy mirror set-up is ‘not sexist’. It seems even they are willing to concede that one. They’re standing by their comment that it’s a ‘bit of fun’ though.

This whole set-up is a huge invasion of women’s privacy. And the club’s cynical encouragement of women to pout and ‘act up’, is just a blatant way of lining their own pockets at the expense of the female clientele. More insidiously, it reinforces the view that women are playthings and toys of men.

I used to live in Glasgow, and I’m actually going out there in a couple of weeks. Think I’ll head to the Corinthian and check out these infamous windows it has. I would genuinely rather use the fabled Trainspotting toilet than be part of a peepshow at The Shimmy.

Feminism: the conversational turd

Have you ever dropped into conversation the fact that you’re a feminist? I have, and some people continue to react like you’ve dropped your trousers, squatted, and taken a crap in front of them. You get a raised eyebrow accompanied by embarrassment, as if you’ve said something indecent.

The crazy thing is, if you broached the conversation in a different way, and didn’t mention the dirty F-word, most rational adult people would probably agree with you. They would think it’s pretty reasonable that women want to be paid the same as men, that trafficking women to use as sex slaves might be a Bad Thing, and maybe a bit unpleasant for the girls involved. Genital mutilation? That’s maybe not a lot fun either, and since they’re your bits, maybe you should have a say in what happens to them.

Stop complaining!
Some colleagues of mine made the point recently that as a working woman in the UK, I don’t have a lot to complain about. I do know what they mean. The UK ranked 18 out of 135 countries in the 2012 Gender Gap Index. I had a free education, and unlike Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, no-one tried to shoot me when I went to school in the mornings. I live in a developed society where there aren’t rape-mobiles masquerading as legitimate forms of transport. I live in a country governed by laws that mean I could prosecute and seek redress if I were raped or sexually assaulted. I know all of that, and I’m genuinely thankful. But that doesn’t mean that feminism doesn’t have a place here.

Take gender inequality, and the following ire-inspiring research I discovered. A researcher at Yale University submitted 2 identical CVs for roles in science; the same qualifications, the same experience. One was male and the other female, and on average, the female was offered a lower starting salary – by $4000. Based on gender and NO other factors. Wouldn’t it be nice if people were paid based on their actual qualifications and experience, rather than their possession (or otherwise) of a penis?

Yes, I know that’s in America. But in the UK, that’s not a problem, right? Wrong. You don’t need to go all the way to the States to experience gender inequality – just toddle on down to your nearest Boots, where the science toys are stored under ‘boys’ and all the fluffy pink shit is left for the girls. You want a chemistry set? Sorry love, you look more a tea set kind of girl. Not for you.

Boots display of toys 'for boys' and 'for girls'

Then there’s sex. A fellow blogger spoke very eloquently how society views men who have lots of sexual experiences as players, while women are sluts. And there was the charming piece online (that I can’t now find) about how ‘nice girls are rarer than unicorns’. The gist was that we’re all to stay at home guarding our virginity, while the male writer has the freedom of unlimited sexual experiences. He’s joking, right? I’d love to think so, but sadly I think not.

Love sex, hate sexism

That brings me to the intimidating and sinister side of sex, and how women are treated in the UK. Passing over the incident where I was grabbed by the crotch in a club a few months back, last week I read that barrister Barbara Hewson proposed the age of consent be lowered to 13. I totally disagreed with her, as did many others. But here’s the creepy bit – people were tweeting this woman and threatening to rape her.

Let’s be clear, her suggestion was controversial and unpopular. But if a man had made it, would he have been subjected to that?

She’s not alone here – Rebecca Meredith, one of the Cambridge University students who objected to sexist comments made during a debate, received her own set of rape threats. Specifically, whether or not it would be preferable to rape her using a knife, or keep her as a sex slave. Because she and her fellow debater disagreed with some men. Call me crazy, but I don’t think that’s OK. And it’s just one reason why we still need feminism.