Read, Debate: Engage.

"Women empowerment is a gradual process"

June 27, 2019
topic:Women's rights
tags:#India, #human rights, #migration, #Adivasi, #caste, #Scheduled Tribes, #Priyanka Jain, #women's rights, #deforestation, #climate change, #displacement
by:Magdalena Rojo
Priyanka Jain is a part of the research program of the Indian non-governmental organization Ajeevika Bureau that works in communities dependent on migration in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. While migration is usually approached from a perspective of a male migrant facing challenges in the city, Jain together with her team also made a study on the situation of families left behind in the communities of the Adivasi people, or Scheduled Tribes, in Southern Rajasthan.

"If you look at the health of these women, almost all of them suffer from anaemia. There are women who give birth and they go back to work immediately," Jain says when explaining the precarious situation the Adivasi women find themselves in, due to the huge workloads, social structures, and high poverty levels.

FairPlanet: Adivasi people are stigmatized in Indian society. Why is it so?

Priyanka Jain: Adivasi in India are considered Scheduled Tribes, which is a category outside of the caste system. To some people they might look different, they speak differently and they follow a set of rituals that might not make sense to others. They have historically been animists, but in Southern Rajasthan, they have been through a long period of sanskritization. Many of the Adivasi try to look like Hindus; they try to perform rituals like Hindus, as these are also the ways for them to have social mobility in their lives.

Adivasi in Southern Rajasthan used to live of forests, however that is not the case anymore. What do they live off nowadays?

Adivasi groups perhaps suffered the most from colonial rule, experiencing large-scale displacement from forests. The disastrous policies set in place by the British to enable extraction of resources for their profits were continued and made worse by successive governments in independent India. Southern Rajasthan has been through a severe deforestation, which means a loss of livelihoods in the rural areas where these communities reside. But these communities also have a long history of resistance and struggle against the post-colonial state.

Conflict, deforestation, climate change, displacement are various factors that made Adivasi turn to wage-based, casual and often hazardous work in contemporary economy as labour migrants. Usually, men go to the neighbouring, more industrialized state of Gujarat. The majority of the families also work the fields and grow few vegetables and fruits. Even the combination of seasonal migration and other forms of labour, such as agriculture, is not enough for the Adivasi families. The poverty level is too high and they are paid very little in the capitalist labour markets.

While men migrate, women are in charge of the fields and households. Can you give us an example of how a day in the life of an Adivasi woman looks like?

The chores start at dawn with cleaning and milking the animals, followed by cooking food for the family. Women then work on their own farms or on others’ farms for a wage. They need to collect firewood for cooking and collect water from village hand pumps or a distant water source, as Adivasi hamlets often do not have a functioning hand pump.

Evenings are spent cooking and managing the house. One of our studies on child and mother malnutrition found that these women spent about seven hours on activities around their households and fields. Half of these women were also engaged in various forms of local wage labour. Throughout the day, they multi-task with care duties for children and elderly in the house.

How does a marriage happen within the Adivasi? Are there organized marriages?

Adivasi girls get married young; sometimes they are only 16 and often parents find a future husband. Instead of dowry, which is usually the case in India, a bride’s price is established among the Adivasi. If you want to get your son married, you need to give some jewellery and other things to the bride's family. That might sound progressive, but it is actually not, because this way, men are literally buying a labour-power. Right after the marriage ceremony, women usually move into the house of their husband.

If girls get married young, they often do not get the chance to finish studies. How does the lack of education affect their lives?

About two-thirds of Adivasi women are illiterate. Those who are literate have very basic literacy; they are usually able to sign. Many women have no experience being in public, outside of their house, but when a husband is not present, they are in charge of dealing with local officials. Poor families in India are entitled to government support, which is incredibly important especially for children and women.

Women have access to guaranteed public work, which is 100 days a year, and subsidized food for the whole family. They also have the right to get scholarships for children, a pension if they are old or widows. However, for government officials, the Adivasi villages are places of the powerless where nobody will demand their rights because men are gone.

What kind of problems do women experience when accessing government support?

For example, Kamla Bai from Tirol Panchayat was denied her rations by the ration dealer repeatedly. He kept on confusing her with computer-generated statements and complex accounts. The government representatives find ways to confuse women with paperwork and technicalities to cheat them of their food rations and other entitlements. India is a corrupt country, the system is very dysfunctional and there is no accountability.

What possibilities does a woman like Kamla Bai have? Ajeevika Bureau established a program to encourage women to demand their rights. How does it work?

Family Empowerment Program makes women realize that they have a lot of power and that they can be agents for change in their communities and for themselves. We bring women together by setting up solidarity groups called Ujala Samoohs (translated to Collectives of Light). It is a group of women, sitting together and learning about the rights they have. The meetings are about coming out of that language of fear and moving into the discourse of rights and entitlement. We want them to understand how power hierarchies around them exploit them and their families.

Once they learn about their rights, how do they act on eliminating the exploitation?

When they decide to engage, they do it collectively. Instead of going to the panchayat office (village council in India) individually, they go and demand their rights as a group. There are about 450 such solidarity groups facilitated by the program. Over a period of ten years, thousands and thousands of women got what they have the right to, but most of all, many of them experienced fearlessness for the first time, they developed a sense of identity.

What happens when a husband comes back? How does this empowerment change the dynamics in the family?

It is usually an uncomfortable process. In some families, a man can come to appreciate that his wife is now able to do things she was not able to do before and he might actually be proud of her, see the value in it. There have also been cases when women were prevented from attending meetings as their men had fear that women would sit together and discuss.

We also had cases when men started to help in the household; they started to cook, which is not common at all. There are other cases when women realize that they are not happy in their relationships. Women empowerment is a gradual process and it goes through many phases and has many faces, which we have to accept as part of achieving greater equality.

The interview was created within the project Women Who Stay. In this long-term, global project, a Slovak journalist and a Mexican photographer, Magdalena and Noel Rojo, are collecting stories of women left behind while their family members migrate.

Article written by:
Magdalena Rojo
Embed from Getty Images
Migration, together with other forms of labour, such as agriculture, is still not enough for the Adivasi families.
Embed from Getty Images
"The poverty level is too high and people are paid very little in the capitalist labour market we have here."
Embed from Getty Images
Adivasi in India are considered Scheduled Tribes, which is a category outside of the caste system.
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