Rekha Devi loops the thread through her sewing machine with a flourish, lifts her chin defiantly and proudly declares that she will never marry a mineworker.
This may seem a strange priority for a 15-year-old girl: contemplating a future husband. But in the small village of Bheel Basti in Rajasthan, India, such a man may be difficult to find. Located in the middle of the Thar Desert, the area’s only natural resource is an abundance of sandstone, and nearly all of the village’s men work in the mines. And it’s dangerous — often lethal — work.
In mining villages all across Rajasthan, men have been dying from silicosis, an incurable respiratory disease caused by inhaling silica dust in the mines. The deaths of these fathers and husbands leave behind villages full of women. And in communities where marriage is prioritized over education, the widowed women often lack the skills to support themselves. Faced with the prospect of being unable to feed their children, mothers have little choice but to marry off their own daughters as soon as possible and send their sons to work in the same mines that killed their fathers.
Now, however, some women are fighting back. When Rekha’s father, grandfather and uncle all died from suspected silicosis within the space of a year and a half, her grandmother, Rambha, was left to raise her and her sister alone. Determined to seek a better future for her granddaughters, Rambha joined a self-help group set up by a local NGO called Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (GRAVIS), which works with impoverished rural communities to provide education and other grassroots options to help build better lives. Group members came together to help Rambha take out a loan to buy a sewing machine that she could use to start a small tailoring business.
As well as helping widows form support groups and arrange microfinancing, GRAVIS also offers legal advice. Moti Devi, 29, a mother of four, lost her husband to silicosis in 2014 when her oldest child was just 10. With the NGO’s support and despite never having left the small village where she grew up, Moti traveled to Delhi to fight for compensation for her husband’s premature death in the highest court in India. She won, and now helps other women in her village who have also lost their husbands. The money will allow her three daughters to stay in school, unmarried, until they are 18.
Once known as a village of widows, Bheel Basti is slowly transforming into a village of young women emboldened to dream for the first time of a better future than the generation of women who came before them. Rekha, who learned to sew from her grandmother, now helps her to design and sell saris for local weddings.
When asked whether she will be wearing her own wedding sari any time soon, Rekha is adamant that she is more interested in fashion than boys; she dreams of one day moving to a big city and becoming a fashion designer. Perhaps after that, she says offhandedly, she will think about finding a husband.
This spring, OZY will be reporting untold stories from every Indian state and union territory, introducing you to new people, trends and places. Join us for the ride.