Articles and Commentaries |
May 1, 2017

Adivasi Women and Gender Justice

When I first visited Siringsiya village in West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand two years ago, while working with an NGO,  the first thing that I came across is still beautifully imprinted on my mind. One of the Self-Help Groups of women was having their weekly meeting. Everyone was intently listening to a woman sharing how she beat her husband few days back when he used all their savings over liquor. He beat her too in retaliation. There was a sympathetic understanding among the women hearing this. They inspected her wounds. The victim now was seeking a sustainable solution from the other members of the group. After much deliberation, it was decided that all of them will go and talk to the husband. The women made a few visits to the husband and the intensity of their conversations turned from warm to heated. I came to know much later that eventually the husband stopped hitting his wife. He was also seen less in aninebriated state.

A couple of years back, the highlights of local newspapers of Jharkhand were about women and women collectives marching and rallying in the streets against illegal liquor shops in the villages and small towns of Jharkhand. In effect, the block offices had to act and close down some of the liquor shops.

The above two instances give us an inspiring picture of gendered spaces and potentially fair justice system within the Adivasi community of Jharkhand. But is it really true? This paper attempts to understand gender relations, norms and bargaining of these norms within and outside the Adivasi community of Jharkhand. Different boundaries of the Adivasi eco-system are explored in order to understand the dynamics of gender. However, it does not necessarily give a holistic account of the Adivasis of Jharkhand.

Adivasi Women – Their Home and Their World

Historical evidence has suggested the multi-faceted role that Adivasi women play in their eco-systems. The status of these women in their society is determined by that role. Adivasi women are known to have an astute knowledge of their jungle and its resources. They play a key role in the economic sustenance of their communities. In addition to working on their own or others’ farms as laborers, engaging in off-farm work like MGNREGA or at construction sites in cities, the women work in the forests collecting forest produce or firewood for domestic requirements or income throughout the year.

If we take into account the role of Adivasi women and their jungle, an interesting observation could be found in the Adivasi carvings and murals in large parts of the erstwhile Chhotanagpur region, which were centred on natural forests. They invoked images of fertility among nature and the women. (Rycroft,1996) An important point to note here is the symbolic construction of the special relationship of Adivasi women with their natural environment, which had a basis in the prevailing gender divisions of labour. This division ascribed the responsibility of fetching forest produce on women (Damodaran,1997).

But it is becoming increasingly difficult for Adivasi women, to be able to contribute to her household and community in this role. Forests are greatly impacted by the forest policies and the forest and environment policies in India today are influenced by the global climate change policies and the neoliberal markets. These forest policies which displace the Adivasi community from their otherwise democratic and participatory governance of forests, predominantly hits the Adivasi women. Furthermore, with rising mining activities, Adivasis are increasingly being displaced or alienated from their forests and lands. With control over their forests eventually abrading, due to Forest Acts and industrial acquisitions, Adivasis in general and Adivasi women in particular are left in a void with nothing to fend for themselves and their families, especially in case of any exigency.

Intra and Inter Gender Conflict

Another inexplicable yet potential form of conflict around the issue of gender and forests within the Adivasis put forward by Sarah Jewitt depicts the ostracization over the lack of a particular skill to cut down a tree. Men in some villages are believed to be aware of the techniques to cut tress in a way that stimulates forest regeneration. Only women know of this technique. Though the administration system of Adivasis is believed to be that of collective ownership, the resource related decision making is mostly male-dominated. Hence men do not appreciate women cutting the trees. It has been popularized that women cutting trees stunts tree growth. Despite the indispensable and traditional gendered roles and indigenous knowledge that Adivasi women are endowed with, which also finds articulation in their murals, they fail to create an equivalent assertive space for them outside art.

Additionally, there can also be intra gender imbalances while considering the forest spaces. Relatively more affluent backward caste women consider themselves superior to the Adivasis. They dominate the gathering processes.

Adivasis in rural Jharkhand are majorly engaged in small-scale agriculture and allied activities. Most farming activities like sowing, transplanting, weeding and post-harvest activities are undertaken only by women. Women work as laborers, either in their own fields or of their neighbors and relatives. An interesting note to make in this regard is that in these agricultural communities, women touching the plough are regarded as a bad omen. So, ploughing the field mysteriously becomes the major agricultural activity. This relegates all other transplanting and cutting jobs as menial. Consequentially, this makes men an authority in decision making in the farm too. So, if the woman wants to farm in her land separately from or in case of the absence of the male member of the family, she either must pay someone to plough her land or if she does not have the resources, not grow anything in her field, or work in someone else’s field as a laborer.

If we consider gender bargaining over general task allocation, in addition to all the farm activities, the tiresome household jobs like fetching water, looking after the kids, cooking and cleaning etc. are in most instances ascribed to women. Besides, there seems to be a lack of convergence in the introduction of innovative specialized climate friendly farming systems on the one hand and training and building capacity in the Adivasi women on the other. They still depend on traditional farming practices involving much drudgery and labor. Furthermore, with such rigid compartmentalization of roles, with respect to forest and farm, increasing migration percentages from the rural areas augments gender imbalance.

Migration and Gender Dynamics

According to the Journal of Economic and Social Development, Jharkhand’s seasonal migration results in about 20% to 33% of the family members remaining out of villages for four to nine months. The journal also says that most of the women migrate with the men and that during agricultural off-season most of the houses in the villages are locked. Nevertheless, another perspective has evidences of men migrating in off-seasons to towns or even different statesleaving the women, children and family behind. There is a popular Santhali song which depicts the idea of more men migrating while the women expressing their helplessness over the absence of men from the village with whom they can’t dance to celebrate the advent of New Year on Sarhul.

Villages with relatively fertile tract of land and better farming opportunities do consist of men who do not migrate often for work, but this premise goes non-supplemented due to the uneven distribution of rainfall, land and resources. Some other villages have MGNREGA work during the agricultural off-season of the year. This engages both men and women in off-farm work inside or near their villages. Owing to the uncertainty of work generation in MGNREGA, it has curbed excessive migration, but only to an extent. Though NGOs and Krishi Vikas Kendras aim to provide training to farmers for incorporating better and innovative farming practices, farmer trainings and acquired skills can hardly be expended in case of uncertain monsoon adversely affecting produce and market.

In the absence of men from families, the responsibility of bread (arranging for food and resources with or without the money sent or given by the earning male) and butter (appeasing and catering to the day to day family tantrums and requirements) all falls solely upon the woman of the family. She temporarily gets promoted to the titular household-head position. So, she can mostly be found dealing with the apprehension of her husband’s return to the village on the one hand and managing the entire household by herself on the other. To add up to the income of the family, young girls from these communities are pushed to take up jobs at construction sites or as domestic help in faraway cities and towns.

The lack of education and wellbeing of these girls or the unstructured and precarious nexus that they often fall prey to is another alarming area of concern. Adivasi women are acutely affected by migration of the male members of the family and are dependent on the forests and farms for their survival – spheres where their roles are rather massive, traditionally too. It is imperative that vocally and actively Adivasi women reiterate and claim the spaces and roles that already belong to them.

If we consider the Adivasi community, we find that alcohol plays a crucial role in Adivasi society in rural Jharkhand. Hadia and Mahua (made out of seasonal flowers) is produced by a large number of Adivasi households for self-consumption as well as for sale. In addition to being used for enjoyment, these drinks hold an indispensable part in the festivals to celebrate agricultural cycles, ceremonies, or even to appease the ancestors or guests. Due to this awareness, or in the absence of proper awareness, the urban eyes usually perceive the Adivasis as drunkards and uncivilized. A gendered dimension to this view asserts the popular belief that Adivasi men drink and beat their women and portray women as victims.

Not contradicting this popular narrative, but a look at another aspect of Adivasi community reveals women and men equally partaking in the act of drinking. Either women or men process or produce the alcohol, serve it and drink it. Not ascribing empowerment to the act of drinking, per se, but if one comes to think of the relative freedom enjoyed by women in the process of alcohol production and consumption, gender dimensions find no imbalance. During a candid chat one evening with a household from a different village, I asked the women whether she ever felt differential treatment meted out to her from other men due to her drinking. Her husband and she replied in amazing unison, ‘Why will they belittle me if they themselves are doing it?’

That evening, I was also informed about the marriage of one of the daughters of the same household who had met her groom in the annual fair and had decided to get married. To settle my apprehensive eyes, the father told me that since I was educated, I would understand it better that only a girl can know and choose whom she can be happy with.

These anecdotes could certainly be sporadic, but do give us an idea of the much simpler and pristine process of everyday lives in the Adivasi community. Plethora of reports and indicators has depicted the abysmal state of the socio-economic and human development indicators of Adivasis. But the social status of Adivasi women if compared with the ‘upper’ castes in the villages or towns of India comes out as more emancipated and powerful.

Power of the Community

Undoubtedly, there also have been customs and practices which have constantly brought distress and disempowerment of women within the community. For instance, social practices like witch-hunting, though have been relatively declining, still occupies a central place in Adivasi cosmology. The same household that was asked about their drinking habits got offended when asked about killing their daughters for honor. It might not be ideal to compare the gender bargaining with regards to these social dimensions. The asymmetricity of the gender relations between the relatively educated and evolved urban spaces and gender relations in the Adivasi communities are very stark and complex. Justice or freedom could be an abstract idea meaning different to different people. But the essence of that meaning should be contextually explored, comprehended and implemented.

What was identical in the two instances mentioned at the beginning of the paper, of rallying against illegal liquor, and settling a domestic abuse in a village was the collective participation and effort of women towards claiming for anarticulate and equal space. Development workers working for gender equality in this Adivasi heartland work towards helping address health, education, sanitation and agricultural first and then by focusing on their rights and building capacities in them through Self Help Groups or farmer collectives. This is how the Adivasi women are enabled to acknowledge and collectively relate with the gender related issues.

Women rights groups and NGOs have increasingly adapted the community based approach to further the case of Gender Justice. With ‘women for women victims’ approach, nyayasamitis and nariadalats run in some districts of Jharkhand. They hold para-legal courts in villages and in most cases deliver justice faster than the courts of law. This collectively powerful approach supports the victims by motivating more and more people to come out with their violations who are otherwise afraid of the tedious process of law. Secondly, they are facilitated for a quick redressal of their issues.

Gender prescribes how gender relations in a society should be rather than recognizing how we are. It ascribes Adivasi men to come out and participate in the economic and political sphere but Adivasi women, who as compared to non-adivasi women, traditionally enjoy a fairer equality status in their communities, succumb to the larger narrative of gender inequality. In all our anecdotes, women have made a community led change possible, by organizing themselves and claiming their spaces by acting as a collective. Instead of uniforming them into the skewed urban idea of freedom and gender relations, one must try to incorporate their essence and together make their rightful spaces available in social, economic and political spheres.

If the status of women were traditionally decided by the role that they played in their communities, then Adivasi women have been playing much arduous and dominant roles, without recognition, in their society. This reality must be exhibited and put forth increasingly in the political and economic spheres. Activists must critically reflect on their idea of gendered spaces, their idea and vision of empowerment – one which does not alienate men from women as far asAdivasi community is concerned. They should rather bringboth of them together, as one force. For a holistic way of looking at gender balance within the Adivasi community, every facet discussed above as well as every other facet which affects the day to day lives of Adivasis should be taken into account.

(Arundhita Bhanjdeo is pursuing her PhD from Charles Sturt University, Australia.)  

 (This article is carried in the print edition of May-June 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal.)


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