Eat with your family, ask for your rights, rural Indian women told

A woman in a village in Rajasthan cooks. (Shutterstock)
Updated 22 November 2017
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Eat with your family, ask for your rights, rural Indian women told

MUMBAI: Indian women living in rural areas are traditionally the last to eat at home, serving the men first and then the children.
The result: poor health and malnutrition, and a lack of critical conversations about the household, money and property.
A project in the western state of Rajasthan to improve the health of women among poor tribal communities took on this tradition by encouraging families to eat together.
By doing so, the Rajasthan Nutrition Project, launched in 2015 by non-profits Freedom from Hunger India Trust and Grameen Foundation, not only improved the health of women, it also made men more aware of gender equality, a senior official said.
“When the issue of women’s health comes up, everyone is aware that ‘women eat last, women eat the least’. Yet this had never been addressed before,” said Saraswathi Rao, chief executive of Freedom From Hunger India Trust.
“We decided to specifically address it by engaging with women and men, showing them what it means to have women eat alone, and eat the smallest portions. We wanted them to see eating together is for everyone’s benefit.”
One of India’s poorest states, Rajasthan is known as much for its beautiful palaces and colorful apparel as for its centuries-old traditions of patriarchy.
It has some of India’s lowest rates of female literacy and highest rates of child marriage.
A recent survey of about 400 of the 8,500 families that took part in the nutrition project showed improved health and nutrition levels among the women and children, said Rao.
The women also said they were less afraid of their husbands and were more involved in household decisions including on children’s education, health care and property, she said.
While Indian law ensures equal inheritance rights for women, in states such as Rajasthan, married women often forgo their claim through a tradition called “haq tyag,” or sacrifice of right.
Taking on seemingly innocuous traditions is key to securing equal rights for women, said Varsha Joshi, an associate professor at the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur, the state capital.
“Getting women to eat with their husbands is a major achievement; it makes a dent in other traditions that hold women back,” Joshi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Even if they don’t get their property right away, at least they are having conversations about it, and men are seeing the injustice of these traditions.”


Iraq’s top musicians play on despite unpaid wages

Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat leads musicians during a rehearsal at Baghdad's School of Music and Ballet. (AFP)
Updated 15 August 2018
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Iraq’s top musicians play on despite unpaid wages

In a dusty Baghdad dance studio, conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat tries to fire up the musicians of Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra, whose enthusiasm has been dampened by eight months without pay.
An aging air conditioner fights to beat back the summer heat in the cramped space at the capital’s School of Music and Ballet as the 57-year-old maestro leads the group through a rehearsal of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”
The shaggy-haired Ezzat and the 40 musicians surrounding him are gearing up to perform at Baghdad’s National Theater on Saturday, but the group’s morale is at an all-time low.
The ensemble has lost more than half its members since the start of the year, when the government issued a directive barring state employees with two jobs from receiving two salaries.
The anti-corruption measure was suggested by the World Bank and should affect only about a third of the orchestra’s musicians, but because of delays in carrying out the reform wages have been withheld from the entire group.
“The orchestra is in great danger,” Ezzat said. “Some don’t have enough money to come, and others are disappointed by the impact of politics on the orchestra.”
Officially created in 1970 after several unsuccessful attempts, Iraq’s national orchestra has survived decades of upheaval.
It has survived wars, an invasion, a 12-year international embargo and a devastating three-year battle against Daesh militants, which came to an end last year.
But this may be the last straw for the outfit, a collateral victim of Iraq’s “war on corruption.”
“Not being paid for eight months has had a terrible psychological effect on the musicians, but we’ll continue to resist peacefully with our music,” said Ezzat, who became the orchestra’s first Iraqi conductor in 1989.
“We’re on the precipice but sure that we won’t jump.”
When all its salaries are tallied up — including the maestro’s $1,200 a month, peanuts for a major conductor — the orchestra costs the state about $85,000 (€73,000) a year.
The sum is a pittance compared to the exorbitant figures siphoned off by ministers and high officials who have either fled or been arrested.
The conductor, his daughter Noor, a timpanist, and his sons Hossam and Islam, who play the cello and viola respectively, have all been without a salary since January.
But according to Raed Allawi, the head of administrative affairs at Iraq’s Culture Ministry, there is no reason to panic — the wages will soon be paid.
“The Finance Ministry has asked for a regularization of contracts. Verification measures are underway and this explains the late payment of wages,” Allawi said.
“The orchestra is one of the country’s cultural showcases (and the ministry) respects its artists and their talent.”
For the symphony’s musicians, however, these are empty words they have heard already.
Saad Al-Dujaily, a professor of medicine and a flutist, thinks the measure is regressive. “I’ve been an obstetrician and a flute player since I was very young,” he said.
Because of the directive, the 57-year-old practitioner — who teaches at Baghdad’s Al-Nahrain University and plays in the national orchestra — is now entitled to only one salary.
“In Iraq, we’re proud to have more than one job, to have more than one love, to practice two professions with the same love and passion,” said Dujaily, who plans to continue with the orchestra to help preserve its quality.
Further along into the rehearsal, the studio’s electricity cuts, a common occurrence in a country plagued by power outages.
The orchestra cannot afford the diesel to fuel the building’s generator.
But the musicians play on in the windowless room, using their cell phones to illuminate the sheet music. “There have been crises in the past, but this is the worst,” said Doaa Majid Al-Azzawi, an oboe player.
“Especially since my father and I are musicians. We don’t know what will happen, but if the orchestra has to stop, it’s culture in Iraq that will be dealt a deadly blow,” the 25-year-old said.
When the studio’s lights eventually make a flickering return, so too does the players’ enthusiasm, and the music swells.
“As long as we live, music will live. It’s our culture,” said Noor, the conductor’s daughter.