Sampal, Rohtak: At 6:30pm, a little after sunset, men, women and children of Sampal converge at the chaupal—a village space traditionally dominated by men. The agenda is not the usual resolution of social issues. Instead, it is the launch of a puppet show on rights of women. Quite a contrast to the social reality of this location.

According to the 2011 Census, Haryana’s child sex ratio was 834, compared with the national average of 919, and a sex ratio of 877 as compared to the national average of 940. And Rohtak and Jhajjar, the two districts where these puppet shows and chaupals are being organized, have one of the worst sex ratios in the country.

Organized by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Breakthrough, this ratri chaupal is part of a series of such evening gatherings by the grassroots organization, aimed at changing the conversation on gender—moving from discussions on violence to rights of women. It is a new way of engaging with the society infamous for sex-selective abortions and rising rape cases.

“Even though the issue of property rights or making the unacknowledged contribution of women recognizable are complex issues, engaging the public on these issues through the medium of games and puppet shows makes way for people to question their existing practices or cultural norms in a non-threatening way... And we thought of capitalizing upon the format of a ratri chaupal, which is a recreational space for men in the villages," says Sohini Bhattacharya, president and chief executive officer, Breakthrough.

Traditionally, a chaupal is an imposing structure marked by a high plinth and a neem tree, where men sit and discuss issues at the panchayat level. But here, there is neither an elevated structure nor a neem tree. The idea is to gather people and talk.

Bringing up the rear of this procession of children at the chaupal, held at the gram sachivalaya (village secretariat), are the men from the village clad in traditional white dhoti kurtas and teenage boys in their denims and T-shirts. They quickly settle into a social hierarchy, with children and teenagers in the front rows and the men carefully leaving some space before forming the outer row. The women of the village wait with their faces veiled by their ghoonghats.

Quaffing their hookahs and bidis, men stare at the screen, intently watching the puppet show which is about a man named Dhumbey, who had two daughters, both married, and didn’t know how to distribute his property because he had no son. According to plan, the NGO halts the puppet show right before the ending to begin the chaupal and let the villagers decide what they think Dhumbey should do. Ownership of land plays an important role in strengthening women’s agency. But despite the Hindu Succession Amendment Act of 2005 which ensures equal inheritance rights for women, women are still denied land and property ownership. In villages like Sampal, which are dominated by khap panchayats, it is next to impossible for girls to demand their rights, despite the law being on their side.

Suddenly, the murmurs drop, and kids look around cluelessly waiting for the elders to raise their hands to answer the question posed. While most are hesitant to voice their opinions on the microphone, some speak up. A voice screams from behind: “Women anyway generally misuse their freedom. With money falling in their hands, they will just unnecessarily waste it". Kishan Lal, 63, comes to the front and says, “Times have changed and we need to change too. If women are working so hard on their land, what’s wrong with them owning the same land? If Dhumbey wants to give his property to his own blood, why should we have a problem?"

The NGO has been holding these chaupals around gender-based discrimination in Haryana earlier as well. Unlike discussions on rape or sexual harassment that generally receive unequivocal condemnation, this chaupal receives a variety of reactions—mostly because it was around a topic that as some men in the group believed, was fundamentally wrong.

After a few minutes of taking questions, the puppet show is restored. Dhumbey decides to distribute his wealth between the two daughters and goes against the advised option of adopting a son.

Like most of these chaupals, the real discussion starts after the formal gathering disburses into small groups. Mahendra Shammi, 78, says, “Why interfere with the age-old parampara (tradition) that we have? Woman is the maalik of the house. The man—her brother, father, husband, will take care of her. What does she need ownership for?"

As the ratri chaupal winds up at around 9pm, teenage girls still in their school uniforms are running around and giggling—some climbing the brick wall just like boys their age. Perhaps the chaupal has just begun the conversation on rights of women, but the fact that women and girls are accessing this piece of public space the same way as men are, is probably the beginning of change of a few mindsets.

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