“Woman by Woman” carries a powerful message for women in rural India—freedom to make choices about your reproductive rights is power and it can be the first step toward upliftment from a seemingly endless cycle of poverty, overwork, and continual childbearing. On a more subtle level, the film also portrays how change can be effected within a community, one woman by one woman. Rekha, Sarita, and Damyanti are three such women in rural India, who take their first step toward self-empowerment through their involvement with Janani.
Janani is a nonprofit family-planning organization that works to improve the status of village women in India. The group has offered alternatives to sterilization to over half-a-million people. In programs set up in Bihar and neighboring states, more than 10,000 couples have been trained to offer contraceptives and counseling in their local communities. Janani’s outreach began by approaching rural medical practitioners (RMPs) who are not physicians, by are trusted as healthcare workers by the villagers. When Janani realized that the women in the village were not able to speak openly with the male practitioners, they invited the women, usually the wives of RMPs, to work as partners with their husbands. The women in “Woman by Woman” are such trained women medical practitioners (WMPs) who advise the rural womenfolk of their reproductive rights, their options for family planning, and help them to take that step towards making a positive change in their life.
Oscar-nominated and Emmy-award winning director Dorothy Fadiman spent 26 hours filming for this movie, which in its final version, runs 27 mins. As she follows the three separate lives of Damyanti, Rekha, and Sarita, she also captures the beauty of the countryside, the toll of centuries of poverty, and the humanity of the people.
“Every film I have done has an experience of mine at the heart of it,” says Fadiman of the making of “Woman by Woman.” Producer Kristin Atwell shares the sentiment. “You have to care about something on which you make a film, because for the most part, you devote your life to it … especially since a lot of times funding doesn’t come through.” Fadiman has long been associated with making films that portray women’s issues. Her work includes films like “When Abortion was Illegal,” the Emmy-award-winning “From Danger to Dignity: The fight for Safe Abortion,” and “The Fragile Promise of Choice: Abortion in the U.S. Today.” Atwell co-produced “Protecting Choice: Providing Choices,” a documentary about the 25th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. “Woman by Woman” was fully funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in Los Altos, CA.
“Woman by Woman” does not only bring to light the crucial and urgent task undertaken by organizations like Janani. It gives viewers a look inside the minds of women who not only grasp Janani’s message, but also take that bold step toward breaking centuries of norm, by educating other women about their choices. “As a Westerner watching the footage for the first time, I was concerned that these were women who were supposed to be in power, but seemed so tentative … Slowly, as I got into the rhythm, I saw how steely there were inside,” says Atwell.
For women living in a community where they would rarely step out without the saree pallu drawn over their head, Rekha, Sarita, and Damyanti are remarkably forward. By choosing to be a WMP, Sarita works side-by-side her husband Pawan who is an RMP; Pawan in turn, has made her an equal partner, sharing his work and her domestic chores. For Rekha, support comes from her mother-in-law Rajkumari, a first among her peers and once a schoolteacher. Rajkumari wants her daughter-in-law to have a meaningful life outside the confines of the kitchen and household. In Damyanti’s family, she is the role model. Unlike others who pull their daughters out of school to help with the household work, and get them married early, Damyanti imbibes in her daughter the importance of a good education, and inspires her to have a better future, … maybe even become a doctor some day.
On the common front, all these women are involved with Janani because they feel that a woman has the power to reach out to another woman, and help foster a positive change in society.
The scenes and stories in “Woman by Woman” are everyday scenes from rural India, but the women’s struggles they depict are symbolic of the struggles endured by women anywhere in the world. As Fadiman puts it: “For the most part, I have led an avante garde life. When I met Sarita, with no plumbing or electricity, I asked her what struck her most about this experience. She said, ‘I realize you have come halfway around the world, but when you sit here next to me, I feel like we are sisters.'”
Film premiere of “Woman by Woman,” Thursday, March 29, 8 p.m. Spangenberg Theater, 780 Arastradero Rd., Palo Alto. $15 general, $8 students.