In many ways, Hansaben’s story is typical of millions of ordinary Indian women, but it is also a story of extraordinary strength, determination and courage.
Hansaben was born the second of five daughters in a poor farming family. The family raised buffaloes for milk, but sold all of their production to make ends meet, and rarely had enough to feed themselves.
When she was twelve and had completed the 7th level of her education (out of a total of 12), Hansaben was forced to leave school and go to work, tending the animals and doing heavy manual labour. She begged her mother to let her stay in school, but her mother did not think it would be fair to offer her something the other daughters could not have. She even tried to get her mother to invest in feeding their animals to improve their productivity and bring in more money, in the hopes that this would allow her to stay in school – or at least have enough to eat – but her mother was afraid to take the risk.
Soon afterwards Hansaben was married off to a man from another village, and went to live with his family. At first she considered herself lucky: he was close to her in age, and he was kind to her. But shortly after their marriage, he moved to the city to study diamond cutting and work in the jewelry trade, and left Hansaben behind with his family. Although she worked hard and tried to be a good daughter-in-law, she had a difficult time with her mother-in-law and brother-in-law, who treated her like a servant. She felt very lonely, but could not even visit her own family because her in-laws would accuse her of being disloyal.
The first of many brave steps
After three years, Hansaben took the first of many brave steps that would shape her life. She wrote to her husband and demanded that he bring her to the city to live with him, or divorce her and let her go back to her own village. He brought her to the city.
They lived in the city for twelve years, during which time both their daughter and son were born. Hansaben’s husband did not make much money, but Hansaben also worked as a house cleaner and they managed to survive.
When her daughter finished the seventh level of school, Hansaben made another fateful decision. Her husband wanted their daughter to drop out and start working, but Hansaben refused; she wanted her daughter to have the opportunities she never had. However, after the seventh level, schooling is no longer free, and was particularly expensive in the city. Hansaben decided to return with the children to her husband’s village so that her daughter could stay in school.
Slowly and steadily
Her plan was to begin farming the family land, but upon her return, she was shocked to discover that her father-in-law had lost almost all of the family land. There was no farm. She was forced to rely on charity from a wealthy landowner and work as a day labourer to make ends meet. In addition to her own children, she had to care for the child of her brother, whose wife had left, and of course, her mother- and father-in-law. She was a servant again.
It was around this time that Hansaben joined the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) – a non-governmental organization of poor, self-employed women workers across India, many of whom are rural women farmers. Through SEWA, she learned about microsaving and microlending, and was able to make her third life-changing decision: she resolved to buy back the family land.
Slowly and steadily, she began to cultivate the small plot of land that remained, using very small amounts from savings and from micro-loans to purchase improved seeds and fertilizers. By the end of the first season, she had made enough money to repay her loans and expand production for the following season. And within a few years, she had earned enough to buy back the family land.
Today, Hansaben cultivates about half a hectare of land. She grows millet primarily for use by the family and cotton as a cash crop. Her biggest expenses are seed, fertilizer and the hiring of draught power. Her next goal is to acquire a pair of bullocks that she can use on her own fields and hire out to her neighbours.
Hansaben’s husband, who lost his city job when the financial crisis hit, has since moved back to the village. He now works with her on the farm, but it is her farm and he is proud of what she has achieved. Her in-laws now look to her as a loyal daughter, and her own daughter is the first girl in their village to complete all twelve levels of education.
According to Hansaben, it is very common for an Indian woman to hold the keys to her house, but she is proud to say that she holds the keys to her farm.
Hansaben currently lives in a small village in the Indian state of Gujarat, south of Ahmedabad, with her husband and their young son. Her daughter, who is older, is married and lives with her husband in a nearby city.
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