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SHE WAKES UP AT FIVE

Riaz A. Aziz

Friday, June 10, 2016

It’s almost 5 in the morning.  Seema (name changed to protect her identity) rolls over on her makeshift bed, a blanket on the floor of her 2-room house, and wipes the sleep from her eyes. Looking through a hole in the tin roof, Seema notices it’s dark outside. Soon the morning sun will illuminate the field, a short distance from her home, that she must reach before anyone notices.  Seema calls for her mother in a low whispery voice. She does not want to wake her father.  He is sound asleep on a wooden bed a few feet from her.  Seema’s mother is awake and waiting for her and her older sister to join her for the 10-minute walk to the field.


Seema has accompanied her sister and mother along this uneven dirt path since she was a young girl.  It's a daily ritual, once in the morning and again in the late evening, but always in the cloak of darkness.    Mother and sister in front, Seema follows a few paces behind. The sound of birds can be heard in the distance, a dog barks, and the cries of a child seeking nourishment can be heard coming from a house down the path.  The air is damp and a slight breeze blows across Seema’s face.  She loosens the shawl around her shoulders and neck and covers her head.  It provides some comfort, but her feet are starting to feel the chill.  Nothing Seema can do about it.  At least it’s not the monsoon season, when the rain drenches everything, making it nearly impossible to walk the uneven surface covered in water with all sorts of unspeakable things floating just below the surface. 


Suddenly, they are not alone.  The sound of many feet across the dirt can be heard.  Even in the dark, their eyes adjust to see the silhouette of a human form taking shape - the family has company.  The field is just around the next bend. The sound of more feet can be heard, voices whispering, others giggle.  There is little time, they have to get to the field and back home before anyone notices.  Mother and sister pick up the pace and Seema hurries to keep up. 


It’s still dark when they reach the field.  Seema notices a familiar stench in the air, but she chooses to ignore it. The family moves to a familiar spot.  The sound of other feet fades.  Seema’s mother stands watch, looking from side to side as her daughters take up position, she is holding a flashlight.  She does not plan to turn it on, it would draw unwanted attention to her family, but she won’t hesitate to use it to blind anyone approaching or use it as a battering ram.   Darkness offers cover for the family, but it also offers the same for those looking to prey upon young women.  It’s happened before, so Seema’s mother keeps a close watch.  


A few minutes later, Seema offers to stand watch - it’s her mother’s turn.  Seema holds the flashlight tight. She hears voices, but they are in the distance, it’s another family.  Soon her sister is standing alongside nudging to move on, the family should be heading back, it’s almost daylight. Their morning ritual finished, the family reaches home.  Seema and her sister get ready for school while their mother prepares breakfast.  With his family back home, Seema’s father starts to leave, he’s headed to the field, it’s his turn now.


Seema’s family is among the 700 million people in India without access to toilets, according to a recent study.  Generations have defecated in the open, it's just what they have to do. Poverty is among the key reasons, but not the only one.  Families struggling to put food in their bellies and with little access to running water, they just can’t afford to prioritize toilets. According to UNICEF, poor sanitation and contaminated water cause over 80 percent of the diseases afflicting rural India, and diarrhea is a leading killer of children.


Seema wants more for herself and her family:  a home with running water, a roof without holes, and a toilet, so her family doesn’t have to risk the embarrassment of being seen, or the real danger of being sexually assaulted.  Seema is one of Begunahi Foundation’s daughters, and is studying to earn a college degree.  “I want to make something of myself, and I want the basic dignities of life for me and my family,” says Seema. 


Riaz Aziz is co-founder and CEO of the Begunahi Foundation, a non-profit based in the USA, whose mission is to educate and empower underprivileged women in India. 


Photo Credit:  Joel Dousset