Photographer Captures Female Empowerment Spirit Among Marginalized Women & Girls In India

All images courtesy of Emily Garthwaite

One of the main reasons our website exists is to amplify and draw attention to the lives of women around the world, especially those whose voices and accomplishments aren’t always seen in the mainstream. One of the most powerful mediums for sharing a message is photography, and we have featured a number of photographers who have used their artistry to inform, educate, inspire and activate people around the world.

British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite, whose work has been featured internationally, released an incredible series of images she took while on assignment in Bihar, India, and captured the unique female empowerment spirit of marginalized women and girls.

The series of images were taken to promote the work of a local organization called Nari Gunjan, which translates to “Women’s Voice” in English. Not only do we get to see a side of Indian woman like never before through her lens, we also learn about social issues these women and girls face and how the organization is empowering them to rise above social stigma.

We spoke with Emily to find out more about her photo series, and what she learned from capturing the images and stories of the women and girls of Nari Gunjan.

Tell us about your background in photography and what drew you to the medium?

I first established an interest in photography when I was 15. There was a forest fire near my family home, and I remember watching the fire destroying the woods that I played in and feeling the need to document it before it disappeared. I sent the photos to my local newspaper, and my photos were published the next day. My love of photography blossomed from that point. I always wanted to be a painter, sculpture or designer. Photography was something very pure then, I was enjoying documenting what was around me.


Tell us about Nari Gunjan and what they do for women and girls?

Sudha Varghese established Nari Gunjan (Women’s Voice) in 1987. Over the years, Nari Gunjan has worked with thousands of Musahar children and women in Bihar through educational centers and support groups. Since it began, Nari Gunjan has spread its reach to the Mushar communities of three districts in Bihar – Patna, Gay and Saran.

Nari Gunjan’s primary focus is to access the rights of marginalized young girls and women from the Dalit community, in particular, the Musahar caste. The Dalit community plays a large role in the rise of dowry, illiteracy, malnutrition, sexual harassment and female mortality. Organizations like Nari Gunjan believe that education holds the key to economic, social, cultural and political change. Human Rights Watch described Nari Gunjan’s work in the state of Bihar as a ‘silent revolution’.

Can you share some of the most touching stories you came across while taking your photographs?

Visiting Prenana Hostel, where the young girls live and attend school, was always special. Their routines are strict, but there were plenty of quiet moments where I could sit with them, they could show me their drawings, plait their hair, show them photos from home and listen to music. I enjoyed watching them pose for and photograph each other with my camera. I requested one day that all the girls draw their home and show what their life is like before I headed out to the villages. Each one had a small pig, water well, a straw house and them standing with their friends.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, what is a “Dalit” and how does that factor into the socio-economic status of a person in India?

I spent time with Musahar and Dalit communities in Patna, Danapur and the surrounding rural regions. Musahar translates to ‘rat catcher’ as this is one of their primary jobs alongside making alcohol. They catch the rats out in the fields or cities, skin them and sell the meat. All of these communities live on the land of a higher caste, and they are tied to that land leaving them little opportunities. Literacy rates can be as low as 20% among Dalit girls, and their life expectancy can be incredibly low. Nari Gunjan field teams suggested that the average life expectancy was between 35-50 years of age.

How does being an “untouchable” disproportionately affect women and girls in India?

There is a growing feminist movement among Dalit women, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, that is seeking a dialogue at the community level to show the links between Dalit women’s struggle for justice and the greater Caste-driven social inequalities that have fuelled the concept of ‘untouchability’. The push for female leadership has been immense and will certainly help Dalit women seek justice.

There is a lot of focus on gender violence in India, especially the high number of rapes being reported since the 2012 gang rape of a young Delhi woman. How do you hope your project will add to the growing conversation and awareness?

I hope this series will highlight the impact that Sudha Varghese, the founder of Nari Gunjan, has had on the women in the rural areas of Bihar. Sudha left her home in southern India and journeyed on her own to Bihar after hearing about the conditions Dalit (formerly known as ‘untouchables’) lived in. As a Catholic nun and social worker, she has devoted herself to empowering Musahar and Dalit communities. It is extraordinary to see what one person can do to bring about change.

Bihar has had a lot of bad press and many Bihari’s are frustrated with the negative rhetoric surrounding the life of Dalit men and women. I believe this series shows not only the issues but also the inspiring activism Dalit women have demonstrated.

What motivates you to shoot?

Whether it’s shooting in my home of London or abroad, I still love the feeling of discovery. I’m inquisitive and love striking up a conversation with strangers on the street so, in many ways, photography is just a tool for that. I never consciously motivate myself to shoot, but I think that is due to being engaged to another photographer. Street shooting with my partner Alan Schaller is one of my favorite things to do – we bounce ideas off each other, help point out or set up shots and discuss all things photography. We will soon be launching workshops in London.

In light of the saying “a picture says a thousand words”, what are the messages you want to share through your series?

Dalit women are extraordinarily strong and at times are solely responsible for looking after their children. Dalit women living in the rural regions of Bihar are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse as well as trafficking, be it for labor or sex work. The lack of legal, emotional and financial support has meant that they have not had the opportunity to stand up and ask for help. I joined Nari Gunjan at a time when it was beginning to be lead by women who were once supported as young girls by Nari Gunjan, and the sense of female empowerment was ever present.

What are some of the main issues that you hope audiences will learn about from your stunning images?

One of the main messages I believe people will take from the series is how resilient these young women are. The issues facing these women are only challenged by support, courage and a willingness to make a change – that is something every single girl and woman I met showed.

Finally, a question we like to ask all our interviewees: what makes you a powerful woman?

I have had the opportunity to meet and share stories with extraordinary women around the world, and I have learned so much from them. There have been so many powerful forces in my life such as my mother, my sisters and grandmothers and most certainly my friends. If you surround yourself with positive, confident and inspiring people, you lift each other up! In retrospect, that’s Nari Gunjan’s message too.


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