The beauty of old tribal women 

The beauty of old tribal women – and their role as change agents

Isn't it amazing? Isn’t it amazing?

In many big cities, with the ongoing globalization and higher education, huge changes of family structures are taking place – also in India.

Young families need to go for work in other areas and personal independence gets higher rated than ever.
Where in the past the women with the day of their marriage entered the husband’s house and started a “new”life with his family, today esp. in the cities, this becomes difficult to manage, although it is still the most accepted and appreciated way of living together.
For sure, it has never been easy for many women to live in the same house with their mothers-in- law and more than one man.

Taxi drivers, men from low and upper classes I met while traveling or at occasions when we talked about their families – told me that they feel sometimes being the “poor guy” in between. “Better to go for work”, explained this morning a driver in Chennai who took me to the airport – with a large smile in the face.

A smiling old lady A smiling old lady

The situation in rural areas

Of course, in tribal and rural areas the traditional family integration and structures are still dominating. The women who have started as “new family members” many years ago have gained a special status during the years.
I try to understand who are these elderly women in the tribal areas: how they do behave, which are their ideas, fears and views on life.

Fact is that the one specific and typical elderly Indian woman does not exist. They are all different. But there are some things that evidently are common in many of them.

Elderly tribal women and their influence

Most of them are much more self- confident than their young female family members. During our discussions often they take the initiative and speak out clearly what they think, how the future life of the young generations should look, and they encourage the communities to work together for a better life,

Some elderly women want the younger women to focus and to develop more skills with farming and/or goat growth. “If we manage to grow more goats, we will become more independent. Our young women have to learn and to see that this makes sense”, told me an elderly woman and explained how she managed to multiply the number of goats and how this benefitted to her and the family. Other elderly women – most of them are illiterate or have just a very small education – are going even further: “If we want to develop our village, we women in the self-help groups have to take the initiative and try to start a small business, a paddy shop, a mushroom farming or produce something else that we can sell to get an own income,” she encourages the women.

Building bridges between generations

Then all listen accurately on what we “from the outside” say. It seems that there is an unconscious sequence of what or who counts more. In the hierarchy this sequence is ranking young women – young married women – elderly women – old ladies – western women.

Being a Western Woman have definitely a difficult role. All try to find a supporter in me in what they think. There is no right or wrong – it all depends on the perspective and concrete situation they are in.

What really is important is to link them and their experiences to the projects we run together: projects around sanitation and toilets, medical visits and opportunities to work together on a better future.

A woman who knows A woman who knows

The beauty of getting old

Often I’m impressed by the energy elderly women show, and by their status within these groups, by their beauty and pride. These women are respected, they feel important. They are ambassadors and influencers in these villages.
There is no resignation, but rather a huge willingness to share their experience. They express it not just with words, but also with mimics and gesture.
These women have their own beauty and they demonstrate it.
With a whiff of vanity like if they want to tell me “Here I am. I have worked my entire life for what I am now. I have worked so hard for it – and now I am important. I have something to tell.”

Probably there are also elderly women who live in a more “retired” manner. But these “speak up women” are leaders in their communities and are present in all villages.

Aging in the Western world

Aging is seen in a different way from how it is perceived in the Western world. It is about winning and gaining – a better and respected status, more knowledge and guidance. Something that we here in the West could definitely learn from. This would maybe also give the topic of aging a completely different understanding. Maybe with some more purpose and less frustration.

Added in Dec 2020: Elderly and the Covid crises

With the Covid crises many young people who were migrated to the cities came back – due to the lack of informal jobs in the cities. In the villages the number of people has grown. And poverty and lack of means don’t make it easier to live together again. The elderly are asked to coordinate within their families in a way that living together gets acceptable – with all the crises around.

While 2/3rds of India’s population lives in rural areas, there are almost four times as many health workers per person in cities.

Most rural communities rely on untrained health workers. Over two-thirds of these rural health providers have no formal healthcare training but remain the only option of medical support for most of the rural population. And many rural people have unreserved trust in their local village informal health practitioner. 

Here the respected guidance and involvement of the elderly who participated over the last years in many of our training sessions we had run will make a big difference.

Related content:
From woman to woman, part 3

Elder Women As Agents Of Change
The Huffington Post – When you picture a traditional African grandmother, you probably see a woman who is caring but feeble, ever-present to provide her guidance and unconditional love.

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