The last couple of weeks have been an eye opener for me. I have spent some time with women who collect firewood for a living.
The women are lively and smile back at passersby.
Their smiles tell little of the burdens they carry every single day. Even at that, the women have such a will to keep pushing.
Every other day, a group of women leave their homes before the break of dawn. Setting off any time later means getting scorched by the sun while in the woods. Going alone is not an option.
In the forest, the women have to make sure that they do not wander off too far from each other. Of recent, they have been hearing about instances where other women have been physically attacked by strange men who appear in the woods every now and then.
‘We now know their routine’, one women tells me.
Where do these men come from I ask. She tells me women are often caught off-guard because the mountain is a popular training location. So ‘these strange men pretend to be training’ in the woods. When they see a woman by herself, they try to attack.
There’s more to this. There are hyenas in the woods.
When it rains, the women are not able to see clearly – adding to the risk factor. Moreover, the wood soaked with rain water weighs twice or thrice as much. This means the women have to carry less bundles, and hence will make a lot less income-wise.
The walk into the woods is equally as tedious and time-consuming as collecting wood and bringing a bundle down the mountain to where the women can then sell their find.
“It is not easy”, one of the women tells me. “When I get home late in the afternoon, I have to cook and take care of all the other house chores. On days I am able to return home earlier, I have to go to find a place to sell my bundle.”
Many of the women nod when the issue of abuse in the home comes up. One confesses that her spouse has tried to hit her and their children. Another woman says “physical pain can be forgotten, but verbal abuse, insults, are painful”. One of the women is lucky – she has a supportive partner but he is too sick to go to work.
This situation is all too real. The fear of not fitting in any other occupation has left these women without much of a choice. They are so afraid that they do not have skills to do anything else. For those who know what they can do, and want to do, they lack finances to get out of this vicious cycle.
The women’s desire to be able to provide for their families – and wood collecting, bearing all of the far reaching challenges that come with, and each other, are all they have.