By Arpita Sharma:

Uttarakhand women have always emerged as the pillars of the rural economy due to their total involvement with agriculture, forest protection, cattle care and dairying. The male members of the family usually migrate to towns to earn a living for their families. Thus, women in villages become the heads of the family. Even where the men continue to reside in the villages, it is the women and girls who look after the agriculture and cattle. Typically the leftover food is meagre, considering the families are poor and have little to begin with. This creates a major problem with malnutrition, especially for pregnant or nursing women. Few women seek medical care while pregnant because it is thought of as a temporary condition. This is one main reason why India’s maternal and infant mortality rates are so high. Starting from birth, girls do not receive as much care and commitment from their parents and society as a boy would. For example, a new baby girl would only be breast fed for a short period of time, barely supplying her with the nutrients she needs. This is so that the mother can get pregnant as soon as possible, in hopes of a son the next time.

Uttarakhand women have been the backbone of the State’s economy. They have always stood in the forefront during the struggle of State formation. Women are the mainstay of the culture and traditions of the hills. Repeatedly, hill women have shown remarkable courage and participation in development programs. The life in the hilly areas of Uttarakhand is very difficult. Despite the adverse conditions, the rural women of the area portrayed immense potential and prominence in the society. Almost all the women in the society are employed in one way or other. In some cases their status was better off than any woman living in a hi-tech city or metro like Delhi. A woman in Uttarakhand is earning Rs. 18.13 per day. This is more than the per capita income of India. But the potential of Uttarakhand women is still not being utilized fully. Thus, there is a need to raise the status and standard of women in Uttarakhand. Women who are working on the farm were suffering form a lot of problems. They are major contributors in the inside activities as well as outside activities. There is a need to assess the socio-economic status of the farm women.

The Condition of Hilly Women

Women are the centres of the family. Though the role of women is very important and crucial in a hill economy, yet they are the invisible workers and lead a tough life. Women are actively engaged in all the activities right from the house to the fields.  Interaction among women takes place during their work in the field and /or forest, kitchen, during washing clothes etc. sometimes they make courtesy visits to their neighbours. There is no strict parda (veil) system in the village. Women are free to move for marketing and other household activities but they have to cover their head with their saree as a token of respect to the elders.

During my visit to Dogra village in the Nainital distict of Uttarakhand, I observed many social taboos among the hilly women. The very first social taboo is reflected during the period of menstruation. During this, women are not allowed or they themselves do not enter into the kitchen or place of worship inside or outside the house. They sit at a distance and sleep on a blanket laid on the ground during this period. After three days they wash their hair and take a ‘complete bath’. They wash their used blankets, bed sheets and clothes after five days. This is done outside the house and near a natural water stream. They do not touch food items like pickle or even plants bearing fruits. It is said that if touched, the fruits will become rotten. If someone within or outside the family touches the body by chance, he/she has to be sprinkled with Gangajal/cow’s urine/water touched with gold ornament. Only then can the person enter inside the house. During these five days, either the husband or other women in the family does cooking. But the women can go for farm/forest for work. Women lead even tougher lives during the winter. This practice is not as commonly-practiced in urban or semi-urban societies these days.

The women face many other problems due to the rigid conduct that is expected of them with respect to familial roles –

Health Problems

Lack of Knowledge about Dietary Pattern: Nutrition requirement depends on the age and sex of an individual. Women have a lack of knowledge about the dietary pattern best suited to different age groups. They do not know how much food they need to consume during the time of pregnancy and about the lactation period for women. Lack of knowledge thus is a cause of high maternal mortality rate among the women. They suffer from various health problems such as anaemia, weakness and vomiting.

Gender disparities: Gender has been the most statistically significant determinant of malnutrition among young children, and malnutrition is a frequent direct or underlying cause of death among girls below the age of five. It was also found that women use to eat whatever was left after feeding it to the male members of the family. Women also used to consuming the leftover meals of the day for dinner. Girls were breast-fed less frequently and for shorter durations during infancy and childhood and during adulthood, while males were fed first and better.

Infectious Diseases: It was found that improper disposal of waste and working barefoot leads to high instances of hookworm infection in rural areas. Hookworm infection is directly responsible for a high percentage of anaemia among women.

Medical Amenities: Uttarakhand is a newly formed state with Government health services still in the process of formation. In the area surveyed, there was one hospital which had two lady doctors. One was an eye specialist and the other was dealing with all other health problems concerning women. According to the women they have limited knowledge and took little interest in their patients. Doctors are in clinic very erratically, and women suffered a lot as a result of this.

Lack of Nutritional Education: It was found that women have low level of Nutritional education. Low nutrition education explains the poor intake of vitamin rich food; especially green vegetables among women, even though they are available in plenty in the Pantnagar area.

Lack of Knowledge of Human Rights

a) Child Labour- A considerable amount of girl children are employed in strenuous activities. They lack awareness about the Child Labour Act and its protectionary measures to prevent it.

b) Women’s Rights – Women, constituting the weaker section of the society, are suffering from various problems in every field. Today, the government has initiated various programmes related to Anti-dowry and maternal benefits, but women lack awareness about these laws and rules. The two women who were working in the Pantnagar field had no men to support them in household activities, and many women were also on the receiving end of various forms of violence from their male counterparts.

c) Agriculture Policies- Agriculture, being the backbone of most of the rural population needs particular attention from both, our planners and purveyors of knowledge. Government has initiated various policies and laws in Agriculture. Even though they live near the Agriculture University of Pantnagar, women had no idea about the services they could access, including the toll-free helpline.

The above findings only go on to prove that the difficulties faced by women are two-fold. As women in developing countries move into the work force, their domestic responsibilities are not alleviated. Women work two full-time jobs. One, in a Pantnagar farm where they are paid, the second is in the home where they are paid nothing. Women are not educated and cannot hold a prestigious job, and as a result, they take on the most physically difficult and undesirable jobs. A typical day for a woman in an agricultural labour force lasts from 8am to 5pm, with only an hour break in the middle. Most women are overworked, with no maternity leave or special breaks. They have insufficient knowledge about a balanced diet and most of the females were unhealthy due to gender discrimination. As India is male-dominated society, all the decision is taken by the male members in the family. Women, as ‘invisible workers’ contribute a lot to household activities as well as other outer activities. Agriculture is the backbone of Indian farming. Women, though equally engaged in farming activities, lack knowledge of agriculture policies and services, and other social benefits.

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[box bg="#fdf78c" color="#000"]About the author:

Arpita Sharma is Ph.D. Research Scholar in the Dept. of Agricultural Communication of G. B. Pant University at Pantnagar. She has published review papers, research papers, articles in various Mass Communication journals and Rural Development Journals as well as Magazines. To read her other posts, click here.[/box]

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