RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This next story is about a woman who lived with domestic violence for 20 years - not anymore. What changed her life was going to school - not to learn, but to cook. Reporter Rhitu Chatterjee has the story from northern India.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Namaste.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Namaste.
CHATTERJEE: Saroj is on her way to work. That's actually her full name. Many people here in the state of Haryana don't have last names. Saroj is a cook in a nearby school. She's short - hardly 5-feet-2 - but she walks tall down narrow streets of concrete houses with cows and buffalos outside. We walk past an old man sitting outside a house, and she leans in close to me and whispers.
SAROJ: (Whispering) (Through interpreter) That man sitting on that chair, he's my brother-in-law, my husband's elder brother. He quarreled a lot with me.
CHATTERJEE: I ask her, what did he quarrel about?
SAROJ: (Through interpreter) Well, to control me, so that I didn't come and go as I please. He wanted me to ask for his permission. That's why.
CHATTERJEE: Saroj spent most of her life confined to her home, obeying the men in her family. Today she lives life on her own terms. That's unusual for women in rural India. And it took Saroj more than two decades to break free from the traditional rules of the region. Her parents married her off at 16.
SAROJ: (Through interpreter) I came here after I got married.
CHATTERJEE: Her husband was from this village, Dujana, in the northern state of Haryana. The marriage gave her two daughters and two 6-inch scars on the inside of her left arm.
SAROJ: (Through interpreter) This - he hit me with a piece of wood, my husband.
CHATTERJEE: Saroj tried to get help by telling relatives.
SAROJ: (Through interpreter) If I told someone, they'd say, after all, it's your husband beating you, not some random man.
CHATTERJEE: This is a particularly patriarchal and violent part of India. Domestic violence is common. Ten years went by like this. Then one day, Saroj's husband just disappeared. Months later, she had no idea whether he was alive or dead. Eventually, Saroj was treated like a widow. And widows here in Haryana are often married off to one of their husband's younger brothers. So Saroj moved in with her younger brother-in-law, a man named Dharamveer.
SAROJ: (Through interpreter) I thought, well, he'll raise my children. He'll look after me.
CHATTERJEE: What happened was the opposite. He drank a lot and was more violent than his brother. She stayed with him, even bore him a son. But she felt miserable and helpless. When her son was still a toddler, she finally met the first person who was sympathetic to her. Santra Devi is a local schoolteacher.
SANTRA DEVI: (Through interpreter) She had come to get her daughters admitted at the school. We started talking, and I came to know that poor thing. She was very sad.
CHATTERJEE: Santra says Saroj told her about her husband's drinking and that she had no money for food.
DEVI: (Through interpreter) So I said, why don't you come to the school and help us out with a few things?
CHATTERJEE: Santra meant odd jobs like cleaning, making tea, running errands. It was Saroj's first time working outside the home. A few years later, Saroj got an even bigger break because the school signed on to the government's free school-lunch program. That was in 2004. The program required schools to hire cooks, preferably poor women, like Saroj. The school hired her full-time to cook lunch for the students. The pay was peanuts - less than $20 a month - but the job became her lifeline. For her husband, though, it was a threat because he couldn't control her anymore. Santra, the teacher, remembers all of this.
DEVI: (Through interpreter) Her husband was awful. He would stop her on the road, beat her up. He even came into the school. If she had any money, he had taken it away from her.
CHATTERJEE: He tried to convince Saroj to give up her job. When she refused, he beat her more, so Santra and other teachers decided to do something about it. They spoke directly to the husband.
DEVI: (Through interpreter) We told him that if you come here again, you will end up in jail.
CHATTERJEE: They threatened to report him to the police.
DEVI: (Through interpreter) We made sure he didn't beat her on the streets either. We put pressure on him.
CHATTERJEE: Their strategy worked. He never came back to the school, and he stopped beating her on the streets. But inside their home, Saroj says the violence continued.
SAROJ: (Through interpreter) I'd feel angry because he just wouldn't change.
CHATTERJEE: Then one night, he did something he'd never done before.
SAROJ: (Through interpreter) He broke my teeth. He hit me with a pipe. See? It's here somewhere. I'll show you.
CHATTERJEE: She walks out to her kitchen and returns with a narrow pipe about a foot long and places it in my hands.
This is an iron rod, I say.
He hit you with this on the face? And this time, Saroj did something she'd never done before.
SAROJ: (Through interpreter) I went straight to the police.
CHATTERJEE: Still bleeding, Saroj walked to the local police station and filed a charge. The police called her husband to the station and locked him up overnight. The next morning, she says he left the village. She hasn't seen him since. That was six years ago. Today, Saroj is the state leader of the union for women who work as school cooks and kitchen help. There are thousands of union members across the state of Haryana. This is their meeting in a town called Jhajjhar.
(CROSSTALK IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
CHATTERJEE: Saroj has helped these women lobby for better pay and other rights. Some women haven't gotten paid for several months. Others are worried about layoffs.
SAROJ: (Foreign language spoken).
CHATTERJEE: Saroj answers phone calls and listens to the women in front of her, promising to take their concerns to lawmakers.
SAROJ: (Foreign language spoken).
CHATTERJEE: Soon, it's time for a new member, a skinny woman in a yellow tunic, to pay her union dues and sign her name in the receipt book.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).
CHATTERJEE: "I don't know how to sign my name," she says. She's illiterate, but Saroj reassures her.
SAROJ: (Through interpreter) You'll learn. We'll teach you. No one is born knowing everything.
CHATTERJEE: Then she turns to the group and says...
SAROJ: (Through interpreter) Soon we'll make her the chief of her block, right? We women are no longer lagging behind. We are not lagging behind men anymore.
CHATTERJEE: Across India, more than 2 million women work in school kitchens, like Saroj, a modest investment by the Indian government that means big changes in their lives and, Saroj hopes, a way for them to live life fearlessly. For NPR News, this is Rhitu Chatterjee.