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5 Ways India’s Adivasis Are Way Ahead Of The Rest Of Us In Practicing Gender Equality

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By Karan Singhania:

Gender equality has long been a struggle for Indian women. The oppression of women in the past centuries is, unfortunately, a common phenomenon. From being deprived of education, facing domestic violence, being forced to give dowry- women rights in India has a long way to go. India ranks 132 out of 187 in the Global Gender Inequality Index while standing at 108 out of 144 in the Global Gender Gap Index.

It is a shame that basic rights like education and employment are still considered a privilege for women in India. However, amidst all the inequality and injustice, Adivasis have been setting an example of gender equality and women empowerment for the rest of the country. The lives of our Adivasi fellow people are hard but they have been competent enough to acknowledge the rights of women and integrate them into the society. They know that the involvement of women in various aspects of life is essential and their role is just as important as men. Here are five ways in which Adivasis teach us gender equality:

Economic Involvement

Because the Adivasis lack a business system of economy, the traditional activities are carried out by women. Among the Gaddis and Bhutias, men are shepherds and women grow crops for food. The Bastars stand out as a great example of economic involvement. In this economy, women work together alongside men for clearing jungles, planting and harvesting crops. Among communities like Munda, Oraon, Santhals and the Gonds who generally populate Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Chattisgarh, there is equal participation by both genders in the cultivation process. Women are exclusively responsible for transplanting and harvesting in addition to weeding, reaping, and winnowing activities.

A Karbi woman of the Assamese region earns her own income by selling fowls and other livestock. The 19th-century writings about Adivasis portray women as responsible, mature and stabilizing figures in the society. Some references to tribal women in colonial records were seen in reports where British officers hailed the women’s intelligence and capabilities. “Among the Bhils (who are primarily an ethnic group of West India), the women are generally more intelligent, and have a far greater fund of common sense, than the men.” (Barnes 1907:327; Skaria 1997)

It is unfortunate that a community with its own unique structure lost control over its functioning due to British interference and the Hindu anti-colonial movement. Verier Elwin, a scholar, wrote that Adivasi women had the right to inherit property along with other benefits. However, Christianity was imposed on them which reduced their economic involvement along with taking away of various rights. Moreover, the anti-colonial Hindu movement included Adivasis extensively but with a motive to convert them into Hindus. As a result, Adivasi women fell victim to a law imposed on their community, depriving them and their community of the right to practice their own methods to run the society.

Marriage Practices

Different Adivasi communities follow diverse practices of marriage. These practices involve exchange, capture, purchase, service, and probation.

The purchase practice of brides is not to be confused with dowry or other ill-practices. In contrast to the bride’s family paying money for marriage in the dowry system, the groom’s family pays a certain sum to the bride’s family in the purchase system. The payments can be made in cash and kind.

The service system is also a very healthy practice. In this ritual, the groom needs to do labour or provide services to the bride’s family. This ritual can be seen as one which signifies a woman as a precious being and in order to be able to marry her, one needs to prove one’s worth – not only to the woman but to her family as well.

The Maria Gond celebrating a wedding ceremony.

The freedom of women varies among different communities. Some Adivasi communities allow little say to women, whereas some give their opinion the utmost importance. Among the Maria Gond tribe of Bastar, the consent of the girl is considered to be essential in marriage. There is a social practice that if a girl makes a decision about her marriage and pours turmeric powder over a man, it is considered to be a socially valid marriage. Among the Paliyans, a hill-tribe of the Palni Hills in South India, a girl is free to choose her spouse. Feel the need to adopt some Adivasi practices yet?

Property Rights

An extension to the economic rights, this is a highly important independent right. One may argue that the Parliament amended The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 in 2005. However, in reality, women are hardly allowed to exercise this right. The Right to Property has been highly debated and has been tampered with by the British and the anti-colonial Hindus. Despite the intervention of the British and anti-colonial Hindus, some Adivasi communities provide women with property rights.

As was the case with marital rights, different communities provide their women with varying freedom. Although men had the customary right to property and the ownership was transferred to male kins in absence of a male child, integration of household economy in the market has helped improve the situation. Women are able to create self-acquired property, in which daughters have shares. Also, daughters get an equal share of property if there are no sons in the Jamatia community.

The Dimasa, too, practice male inheritance but the property is transferred to the women if there are no sons in the family. Within the Garos, women inherit ancestral property, but it is the men who manage it. The situation regarding property rights wasn’t something to be proud of even within these communities until the Adivasis and Angamis changed things around. Self-Help Groups were formed by women and exposure to other factors helped them inform themselves of their legitimate rights.

Sexual And Social Freedom

The kind of liberty Adivasi women enjoy is worth noting. Women have always had more control than men over the sexual relationship. This was also until the British imposed their practice on them in an attempt to “civilize” them. Despite foreign intervention, a lot of Adivasi women still possess control over sexual relationships even today.

Verier Elwin also depicted the sexual egalitarianism among the Adivasis in his writing. He writes that women were the “rulers of the house”. They could change their partners and remarry. He conveys that sexual relations are a male’s duty and a woman’s right. A tribal woman has the right to demand her sexual fulfilment. For example, women of the Gond community are free to divorce their husbands in case of ill-treatment and abuse and widows are allowed to marry the deceased’s younger brother. The Gaddis practice polygamy in case the wife is unable to bear a child.

Girls dressed up in traditional gaddi attire. Photo by Shyam Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

When it comes to clothing, the women of these communities enjoyed the freedom of clothing themselves as they wished. However, not wearing a blouse was shocking to the Hindu practitioners.

All in all, sexual and social rights of Adivasi women are debatable, but with reference to the crises we face today, we can certainly look up to these communities and learn from them.

Contribution To Defence

Adivasi women have a history of long-fought battles and display of bravery.

The Santhal women contributed significantly to the 1855 Santhal rebellion against both the British and the zamindari system. According to reports, almost every Santhal woman was a rebel and was also imprisoned for her active involvement in the uprising. Women like Phulo and Jhano Murmu played an integral role and thousands of Santhal men and women head out to Calcutta to take part in it.

The inclusion of Adivasi women in rebellions and defence does not necessarily imply that we should force women to join the army as well. This simply shows that women are held in equal regard to men and are seen as a strong force who can fight for and defend their communities if needed.

The lives of Adivasis have some unique characteristics but the involvement of women in the mechanisms of their society is something we can all absorb into our own lives. Not all Adivasi women and communities follow gender equality and even when they do, they are not regarding the same aspects. However, the ones that do follow and exercise the true meaning of gender equality are the ones we really need to look up to. It is our failure that we do not recognize such communities as our own even when they have been here for ages. We need to acknowledge, appreciate and inculcate these values and ideals. Maybe in time, we will finally understand value in the way of life of Adivasis’ and work towards making women an integral part of our society in the true sense.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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