*Suhasini was touching the end of 40s, when she began to work for the first time in her life – as a domestic help. Her ‘motivation’? An able-bodied husband, who refused to work, and a child undergoing treatment for a brain ailment. Balancing between standing in long queues in hospitals, managing her household or what was left of it, and attending to the demands of a bossy boss left her with no consciousness of the growing pain in the joints that had begun to hound her. Six years  down the line, her son has recovered, the other sibling has begun work, and her husband is still where he was –on the cot, with a bottle. As far as Suhasini goes, arthritis has become her best and only friend, leaving her with not much hope of a ‘professional career’. Her biggest fear? “Who will look after me, when I can’t work? No one will respect me, anymore!” “What about her children?” one asks. Her eyes stare blankly into space. “What does freedom mean for her?” “Freedom from pain,” she answers abstractly.

*Surbhi had been enjoying a high-flying career for over a decade, having started to earn early due to financial constraints at home. Being the only child placed numerous responsibilities on those slender shoulders. Marriage was never on the cards, till one day she took the plunge with someone she met at the work place. Love, unfortunately, turned sour sooner than expected. With physical, emotional and mental abuse, the career suffered, but more so did the soul. Bruised and battered, starting afresh was not easy. The tag of ‘divorcee’ stuck like nothing else had. “It was like the plague for the conventional, ‘easy-to-get’ for the contemporary and for me…,” she trails off. Her spiral into depression left her alienated, even from her parents. Destiny decided, one fine day, to show some mercy, and professional medical help from a doctor with good judgment and heart turned things around for her, helping her help herself. “What does freedom mean for her?” “The choice to be what I am without being judged…the choice of saying ‘no’ to an abusive relationship…the choice to seek medical attention without being ostracized.”

*Sukantha is a frail woman. Her last child ended up in a self-induced abortion in a dingy toilet. Her fourth child is on the way, and she had no inkling till the fourth month, or so she says. She is exhausted most of the time, but has to work almost 16 hours daily to support the family income. Her husband supports, where he can, but he has to keep-up with two wives: one Sukantha – the official one – and the other lady in his life. The body may be tired, and so the mind and soul too, but Sukantha’s thrill, and, perhaps, the only one is derived from ‘shringar’, which this 25 year old loves doing at the end of a tiring day. “I like my eyes, and accentuating them with kajal makes me happy.” “What does freedom mean for her?” “I don’t know what that means. Perhaps, 2-3 minutes of solitude in the bathroom with myself. The moment I step out, everyone pulls me in different directions…”

*Janaki is a well-educated woman, who was married off as soon as she completed her Masters. “’Enough was enough’, said my family. I had studied enough. Why did I need to study more?” says she. Janaki is grateful she could complete her Masters, as in studying she found solace. Marriage was a happy institution till bearing a child became an obsession with her husband’s family. Countless procedures later, the only options were adoption or surrogacy – both declined by the in-laws. “The husband supported as much as he could, but, finally, succumbed under the pressure. We separated. He re-married. I did not. I could not. I never forgot him. I never forgave him,” says she. She stays alone in a city far away from what she once called home. “What does freedom mean for her?” “Freedom, for me, means to live life without expectations, more so if these are not mine.”

*Madhuri had left her country many moons ago. She reminisces about the first few years, post her marriage. Adjusting to a culture at a 360 degree variant to her native culture was not easy, to say the least. “Everything was different: the food, clothes, customs, climate, language…the list goes on. I did not even know English properly, forget about Hindi.” Many tough experiences later saw acceptance, finally, but something, she says, broke inside her. “It was never the same again. My relationship with my husband. My relationship with my self. Everything had changed. Even my name. Perhaps, the pressures. There were so many. I had changed so much that the self I was many years ago would never have recognized my current self.” Life traversed. She traversed. We all do. For Madhuri, freedom meant and means acceptance of a person irrespective of man-made barriers and boundaries, for the inherent self is what matters, she adds nostalgically. Her eyes still mist-up.

We talk about many varieties of freedom, on a consistent basis, the upholding of this right, its importance and so much more. Every day, in some form or the other, consciously or unconsciously we trample on someone’s right to freedom. How then can we talk about the right to freedom of the masses, when the individuals comprising these masses are subjugated and supressed in some form or the other? Freedom is both a duty and a right. Observing a day for a gender may be a form of awareness, but change begins at the atomic level, with each one of us – the freedom of others, and the freedom of the self…food-for-thought…

Sarah Berry is a Consultant – Outreach, Content and Public Diplomacy and is currently associated with the Indian School of Public Policy