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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Gender and Culture in India

A first-person account of living and working in an orphanage

Sarah Bradley

India. I went there expecting to learn a certain thing, and came away with so much more than I could have anticipated. Something richer, something deeper. Although I originally went there to learn about gender inequality, that turned out to be only a small portion of what I would learn.

The experience of living in an orphanage in a developing country is indescribable. Although the founders, Sandhya-ma and Durga-ma, and the woman in charge of the home's operations, Sneha-madam, did serve as guardians to the children of the orphanage, for most of the time there were no parental figures: children raise children. Children as young as five-years-old are caring for those smaller than themselves. The older girls scold or spank to punish children behaving badly; they clean up messes that the infants make on the floor; they cook and clean for the other children and volunteers; and this is on top of their respective chores. Everywhere you turn there is a child crying or laughing at your knee. About 90% of the children have shaved heads because of lice. After school, boys play cricket outside of the grounds in the red clay. Across the street, families live under tin roofs, and chickens and cows roam freely in the open spaces. My ears were blessed with the afternoon prayer, a twenty-minute chant that rolled throughout the orphanage. In spite of waking at 5 in the morning, getting all the older kids to sleep is more of a task. They stay up on the tile floor, singing the new Tollywood songs and, rather than painting each other's nails, paint each other's arms and hands with henna, or mahindi. At night, children sleep all over the lobby floor-no pillows, no blankets, but perfectly content cuddled with each other. The poverty around me, conflicting with all the joy and happiness around me, put me on an emotional roller-coaster.

The list of wonderful things I miss about India far outnumbers the list of things I missed about home. However, being amidst such conditions definitely made me realize how much I take for granted: clean feet; soft mattresses; not worrying about my mosquito net or the power going out and stopping the ceiling fan in the middle of the night; toilet paper; not having to worry about lice; seatbelts; ice and cold refrigeration; trashbins that people use instead of the ground; and on more serious notes, having parents who raised me with so much time, effort, and love spent on my development; having an unconditional support system that these children lack; having people who are proud of me, give me credit and praise, guidance and discipline; not having to stop and think if something is appropriate to do or say simply because of my gender; and being in a place where class doesn't dictate my occupation and life.

There was no doubt that the teachers and children benefited from us teaching classes, and explaining how education works in America, for their system is based merely on memorizing sentences in English, rather than comprehending their meaning. I felt that the girls benefited from seeing strong, confident, educated women-I even taught a workshop in self-defense to the girls. Sometimes simply our attitudes empowered the women. When I mentioned that I was traveling alone on a night train, several of the female teachers were worried, but admitted that they wanted more women to be brave enough to travel.

However, sometimes I wondered if the Western influence was what was right. How intrusive was it? How dismantling was it to their way of life? During my time there, Sandhya-ma had some problems with the older girls, who, in her view, were being snobs and not helping out enough with the younger ones. She worried if the girls were losing their female sense of responsibility to care for others because they were experiencing so many women who were independent of such duties. Although I think women should have their own accomplishments, should it come at the cost of losing a cultural identity?

There's a very different gender dynamic in India, which, from a Western perspective, seems incredibly paradoxical. The oppression of women is evident in India while at the same time, I've never witnessed so much respect for women. The mere existence of Aarti Home and the Vijay Foundation Trust illustrates that women are disadvantaged-families would rather have male children. Most of the orphans dumped on the home's doorstep are baby girls and there are millions of female babies aborted and killed after birth every year. This occurs because men are much more valued by families who see them as a net gain-the boy will become a man, gain a wife and often a dowry, and contribute to family income. Though contributing through work at home and receiving an education to then pass on to siblings, women will ultimately detract from family wealth due to the culturally necessary dowry and by leaving the family to join that of her husband.

The gross majority of the young girls brought to Aarti Home were abused and abandoned by their parents. Jhyoti, one of the newest additions to Aarti Home, is one such case. Her age isn't known, but is somewhere between four and seven years old. When she arrived, she had an infected head injury that exposed her skull, brain damage, and venereal disease from her father. After months of being at Aarti Home, her head still does not heal, it constantly has a white gauze in it that attracts flies. When she arrived she didn't know how to communicate, and even after months of being there, her communication was limited to physical communication and a few demands. She would hang on you, always touching you, and point to communicate, looking up at you with a huge smile and cocking her head to the side, completely unaware but happy. Because of her mental disability and her inability to communicate, Jhyoti didn't understand many of the social norms we expect from other people-personal space, restrictions on what she could do or instructions and rules. However, when a British volunteer, Siobhain, came for a week, this all changed. Siobhain specialized in diagnosing education models for special needs children. After only one week of using conceptual puzzles to help Jhyoti make spatial and conceptual connections between objects and her environment, we could see improvement in Jhoyti's behavior; she was less needy, less demanding, and seemed to understand "no." Throughout this time, it became apparent how much we take for granted-even our capabilities to think! And to imagine that something like that would be so commonly robbed from young girls simply because of their sex….

Abuse is not only for the young girls, but domestic abuse with wives is common, especially in the villages. But I didn't need to see this to understand it was there, and I didn't need to see that in order to see oppression. When I was walking through the villages, the oppression of women was apparent, although I didn't see any physical abuse.

Most of the time I was in the villages surrounding Kadapa with Manjewla, one of the teachers for the youngest children and a capable translator, and we were trying to mobilize the residents to get them to sign their girls up for the Bridge School we were building. The grandparents (parents were out working in fields nearby) sincerely wanted what was best for the children, but it was seen as an economic burden to give up the free labor of a young girl. Extra hands are needed at the house to cook and clean, and for the villagers, that naturally falls on the shoulders of the daughters, while the boys get to go to school and play games in the streets. Walking down the village strip, women and girls cooked on outdoor stoves and swept the cement doorways. The boys played games outside. It's just how it was.

I remember one time we were in a village without Manjewla. Another one of the teachers came with us, but she didn't speak much English. We gathered most of the neighborhood around a space with wood and tin to sit on. Although the primary purpose of the trip was to get young girls signed up to get an education, the school officials for the district were only there getting photo ops with the young boys surrounding them. The officials asked them if they were going to school and what they were going to study. The girls were on the other side of the wall of parents circling the scene. I remember I just kept asking, "Why aren't they talking to the girls? What about the girls?" However the teacher would just excitedly nod and point to the girls on the outskirt, not understanding that I was upset. Frustrated with the officials and the entire trip, I walked over to where some of the young girls were and tried to mime what I was saying in English-which probably just looked like a lot of smiling and pretending to open and close a book. Driving back from that trip, I was infuriated and felt helpless. Even though the government may be doing well in making sure more girls are attending school and getting hired in big cities, that definitely wasn't the case in the country; and here these elected officials had the chance to reach out and begin a cycle of empowerment, but their attention is always focused on the boys. It's always the boys who are cherished, which is why India's Missing Girls problem requires places like Aarti Home to exist.

Even people who were fighters for female rights surprised me. There were times when I'd catch even Sandya-ma giving preferential treatment to the male orphans at Aarti Home. Here, this incredible woman who has done so much good work, has empowered so many women with training and employment and educated so many girls who never would have experienced learning without her-this woman was even stuck in the cultural construct she was fighting against. Although she may have never noticed it, she would expect much more responsibility from the older girls than the older boys. Every girl, even at the age of five, is expected to be a good mother figure to anyone smaller than she. She's expected to care for the other children, clean up their messes, bathe them, comfort them when they cry, help feed and clothe them and put them to sleep. If any of the teenage girls were slacking in their care, they would get an earful from Sandhya-ma, Durga-ma, or Sneha-madam, and-if they really were negligent-a slap on the arm. However, this discipline was never given to the older boys. Sure, these young men watched over and played with the younger boys, but it wasn't a responsibility as it was for the young girls.

One experience really hit me as a good demonstration of the stark differences in gender understandings between where I come from and where I was. In August, there was a week-long celebration, and all the young and teenage boys of the town were playing in the dirt and celebrating the festival of Ganesh with holi paint, water, drumming, and dancing in a procession to the river. It looked like the most fun thing ever. I can't tell you how badly I wanted to grab some of the holi powder, throw it at someone, and dance in the middle of the drumming circle-but women didn't participate in those festivities, at least not in places like Kadapa, especially the rural villages. This was something I implicitly knew but decided to push anyway; however, when I asked any of my "sisters" if I could go, they looked at me like I was crazy and gave a certain "No." It drove me crazy; why was it that men could play but women had to work and be responsible for others? In that moment I realized just how different gender was in the United States. While at Aarti Home the women may be respected as equals with men, they're still "unequal equals" and aren't allowed the same freedoms.

Yet here was one of the paradoxical understandings I gained from India: in the face of all this violence and unfairness, it still seemed that most of the women I came in contact with were highly respected by men. When talking to the girls and boys of Aarti Home, it was apparent that boys looked up to the girls-and the girls knew it. The mentality there was that the girls did everything, were in school, applying for university, and also constantly caring for the younger ones, cooking, and cleaning.

In talking to Durga-ma's husband at their dinner table, I noted this kind of respect. While he has been a professor, principal, district educator, and is now a top administrator in the state's education department, he looks up to his wife and chalks all his success up to her influence.

"Durga is behind everything in my life; her social work, she runs this whole house, takes care of all family, she has her own career as a judge and her social work at Aarti Home. She does everything. She is the reason behind me."

While the women may be respected for taking on many duties, this respect is less about them as individuals, than about them as caregivers. While a man's worth seemed to be connected to his achievements and his work, the worth of a woman seemed to be dependent on how well she took care of others. While Durga-ma, Sandhya-ma, and many of the girls are respected more than many of their male counterparts, this isn't because of their individual accomplishments, but because of how they treat others. In contrast, the families of men have bragging rights when their son achieves something independently. While he may love and value his wife for her ability to care for everything and everyone, Durga's husband's pride for his son rests in his son's accomplishments: he is now working at the Microsoft headquarters in Seattle, managing all projects in India and China.

Personally, I think that this is unequal and unfair-that women's individuality should be celebrated and encouraged as much as men's-but then again, in a culture so different from my own, do I really even understand the complexities at play? Is it, in fact, untrue to say that men are different than women? Even in my own life I see this pattern in the relationships and friendships around me-the women around me are much more group-oriented, other-oriented, while the men around me are much more focused on themselves, their own state of being, rather than that of others. Even though the U.S. is more equitable to girls and boys in terms of role and acceptable behavior-it still has underlying similarities with India. More often than not, it's the American woman "doing everything" for family, house, and career while the man focuses solely on his career. More often than not, certain behaviors are laughed at and accepted by young men but carry a stigma of "unladylike-ness" if a young woman engages in that behavior. Perhaps we're not that different in substance, just in scale. The larger difference I see is how men respond to it-whereas many of the men I met in India acknowledge female strength in being more capable of caring for many things, this is hardly commonly acknowledged in American society, and in fact, this role of women is often looked on as a weakness. In India, the marriages I witnessed were characterized by such an intense amount of mutual respect and loyalty, with the men in quiet reverence of the powerful matriarchs. However, it's important to note that I was living with some of the strongest female leaders in India, not the everyday family in the slums of a rural village where the men can be incredibly abusive.

Gender definitely played a part in many of my experiences alone in India. It's hard to differentiate experiences rooted in me being an outsider or a woman. Being a foreign woman in India was a strange experience. While I've never felt so secure and cared for by strangers, the attention was almost stifling. As I walked down the street with my sisters, the entire city would stop and stare and point. Because I wasn't in a big urban area, there were fewer beggars than I expected, but what surprised me were the strangers who were relatively-well off but assumed that I should "do something" and send them money. I sometimes felt like a circus freak-everywhere we went was newspaper-worthy, thus the reason we went to one of the villages with those education officials and danced to publicize Aarti Home at the Independence Day celebration and were on television. In situations like that, innocent children run up and touch you, which then becomes a game of who-can-do-the-most-ridiculous-thing-to-the-foreigner, like running up and pinching her cheeks with all their might. If a camera surfaced among the volunteers, every stranger wanted a digital photo of themselves, even though they would probably never receive a copy of it.

Being such a novelty got annoying, but it was also an honor. I've never felt so cherished and cared for by strangers. People went out of their way to help me-with bags, with purchases, with directions, with meals, and even with safety. On an overnight train, a transportation security guard made it his personal responsibility to stay with me for the entire trip and make sure that I was safe. He couldn't believe I was traveling alone, and he got a kick out of hearing about the United States. He even paid me for a dollar bill that he could show his family. He gave me a photo of himself when he was young, and a photo of his family, and he instructed me to call him when I was in America. Creepy or not, people are engaged and connect with you-care about you. They desperately want to know you and you to know them. My India experience was one of strange celebrity, gender shock, solidarity with the poor and parentless, Telugu lessons, adorable moments with the world's neglected children, and of incredible amounts of love.

Sarah Bradley graduated from Santa Clara University in 2010. Her work on this essay was in part supported by a Hackworth Grant for Student Research in Applied Ethics from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.


Dec 15, 2010
All About Ethics