Women's Status in North-Eastern India by Sindhu Phadke

Women's Status in North-Eastern India

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Women's Status in North-Eastern India
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The vast socio-economic and cultural diversity of the north-east region of India remains a largely unexplored area of academic research. Within it, the status of women continues to be a neglected aspect. This book contributes to the slowly expanding body of literature on the subject of the status of women in the seven North-Eastern States of India, viz. Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.

The author makes a painstaking effort to put together the economic, social, educational and cultural dimensions of the plight of women in these States, in the uniquely individual ecological, historical, social and political backdrop of the region. In the process she uncovers many aspects hitherto unknown to us, and also demolishes certain standard and pre- conceived notions about North-Eastern women. We learn about the distinctive features of each State, individually, in relation to each other, and the country as a whole.

Using primary and secondary sources, the author builds up a useful wealth of statistical information about the subject; the book also contains explanatory maps and charts. In all, it is a useful text not just for scholars of the North-East and Gender Studies, but also for the general readers as well.

About the Author

Dr Sindhu Phadke holds a Doctorate in Social Work from the University of Southern California, USA. She worked as a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Social Work, M.S. University of Baroda, and thereafter as a Reader, Delhi School of Social Work for 12 years.

She joined UNICEF in 1968, and during her long tenure of 20 years, was responsible for planning and implement-ation of UNICEF's involvement with Central and State Governments in different programmes related to family and child welfare, health, nutrition, water supply, women's empowerment, education, etc. This book is inspired by her extensive travels in the seven North- Eastern States as UNICEF's East Zone Representative.


Authentic information on almost anything in the North-East India is exasperatingly thin - it has yet to be patiently assembled from the data painfully exhumed - even more on a subject, until recently, as unfashionable as women's status.

Dr Sindhu Phadke in Women's Status in North-Eastern India has carefully put together stipples collected from personal observations, particularly as a UNICEF Zonal Representative for East India, records of ten ICSSR seminars, inputs from knowledgeable persons, and government documents, and given us the first outline of what must eventually become a fascinating picture.

There are already some surprising conclusions. One of them is that the status of women in the region was generally very low but that it improved with becoming Hindu or Christian. (I always thought the youngest daughter among the Khasis and Jaintias of Meghalaya inherited all the property. But in fact there was no concept of private property among these tribes and so she was merely holding the property in trust for the clan. Therefore even Meghalaya is not an exception.)

We have since realized, of course, that women are the more interesting aspects of humankind. Take one step forward and we all ought to be reading this absorbing pioneering work.


A succession of striking images race through my mind when I think of the situation of the hardworking and resourceful women of North-East India:

• An attractive newly built Mahila Mandai (women's club) centre in a remote Manipur village, comprising a fairly large central hall for meetings and recreation, with half a dozen handlooms arranged on one side, adjoining a separate enclosure for the balwadi (children's centre) and another enclosure for the local youth band's musical instruments etc.; on the opposite side another alcove for storing large cooking utensils generally hired out for village and family celebrations! Asked how the members managed to build such a multi-purpose institution around a rather modest UNICEF grant for the Mahila Mandal, the women clad in their traditional striped Manipuri "puan" explained with obvious pride and excitement how they managed to mobilize enthusiastic community participation, with the Panchayat (village council) donating the land, the village mason and carpenter substantially donating their services in building the modest structure with locally available materials such as bamboos, thatching and wooden logs donated by the village community, and their own labour power!

• Small bands of four or five Khasi women with a couple of young children in tow, trekking up the narrow hill paths, with conical baskets strapped to their backs, bringing vegetables and fruits for sale at Shillong markets. Not too far away, some neatly dressed Khasi women catering tea and snacks, skilfully arranged on cane trays, for office workers in Meghalaya Secretariat.

• Members of MHIP (Mizo Women's Federation) show off the low- cost sanitary latrine being constructed for their centre in Aizawl (capital of Mizoram) under a UNICEF-assisted project which required a matching contribution. These women proudly claimed that they had themselves generated the matching contribution by taking a labour contract on the State's road construction project.

• A couple of women in a village in Arunachal Pradesh pounding their daily requirement of rice with utterly quaint and primitive tools such as a thick log roughly spooned out in the middle to serve as a mortar and another little wooden rod for a pestle. Nearby, an older woman weaving a narrow strip on a loin loom, maintaining the tension with a strap going around her back and another in front tied to a tree trunk.

Just a few fleeting glimpses, such as these, from my numerous visits to the seven North-Eastern (N-E) states as UNICEF Representative (United Nations Children's Fund) in East India from 1977 to 1987. In the course of programming UNICEF assistance to development programmes for children and women in these states, I was privileged to have a look at the way women from diverse backgrounds and cultures lived and laboured. The more I observed their industriousness, resourcefulness, tenacity and zest for life even under the most adverse circumstances, the more fascinated I was to learn about them. I could not, however, undertake a systematic study about their situation because of my other official responsibilities.

This deep urge was subsequently re-kindled when the Tata Institute of Social Sciences offered me a Golden Jubilee Professorship in 1992. While initially working on a monograph on North-Eastern women's status in marriage, family and economy, I found myself irresistibly drawn into a wider and deeper exploration of the subject, and realized that my search had just barely begun and that there was a lot more to be learnt. Despite a number of interruptions - both personal and professional- my inquiry kept extending into other related aspects such as religion, health, education, social and political spheres. Discretion, however, demanded that I pause somewhere and present my findings in this book, fully realizing that this inquiry has an ever-widening horizon. If I succeed in motivating some others to take this search further along, I would feel amply rewarded in this effort.

Concept of Status
The term "status" has been used in this discourse in its wider sense, and includes both its hierarchical, meaning relative rank, as well as non- hierarchical, meaning situation or position of an individual. Status is reflected in roles and relationships of a person with respect to others and vice versa, and values attached to these are sometimes specific to a particular cultural context. Certain roles may be vital for the well-being of the family, and yet these may not give much status. N-E women carry the full burden of cooking and feeding the family and yet this does not enhance their prestige very much, since every housewife is expected to perform these tasks. On the other hand, if a wife shows alacrity in keeping "ju" (fermented rice beer) for her husband when he wishes to relax with his friends, she would be rated as a dutiful wife and hospitable hostess. Customs and cultural traditions in each community decide division of functions between men and women. In most N-E groups, major financial decisions are taken by men. On the other hand, ensuring adequate food for the family is women's job and how they supplement inadequate yields from cultivation determines their status as house-keepers. The term status also includes legal position, e.g. right to own and inherit property. In a majority of N-E communities, for instance, women cannot own land. Most of such laws are not codified and are in the form of conventions. Women's status is reflected in the manner in which laws or conventions are interpreted.

Status is an abstract concept and has to be inferred from relationships, attitudes and behaviour. For instance, status of women in the family is reflected in, e.g. how birth of a girl child is received, whether girls are allowed to play with their friends in a relaxed atmosphere, and whether girls have the freedom to select their marriage partners. Roles and relationships are reflected in social practices and traditions. The practice of bride-price in a majority of N-E societies is indicative of a girl being viewed as an asset for her parental family. The groom and his family therefore try to compensate for the loss to the bride's family by giving bride-price, whether in the form of money, a feast for the girl's family or a mithun (tamed bison). Once a girl gets married and becomes a housewife there is a sharp change in her status. In a few N-E communities, e.g. the Lothas of Nagaland, if a husband for any reason gets displeased with his wife, he may ask her to leave his house after paying a token compensation. The woman's status after marriage therefore needs to be viewed in the context of a particular community's culture. Furthermore, external influences such as modern education system and contacts with outside communities bring about changes in concepts of status. Thus a Nishing woman of Arunachal Pradesh may well feel satisfied with her position as the senior-most among several co-wives and With the Improved economic status of her husband due to greater availability of labour for family cultivation. However, if she receives an opportunity to get education and a salaried job as a teacher, would she still prefer to be one among several co-wives? The impact of new alternatives for enhancing one's status is therefore an essential component for an adequate analysis. Quite often, status in one area influences status in another, and there is no doubt, for instance, that as women achieve economic self-reliance, their status in the family also goes up.

Since status is expressed in a person's roles and relationships within a social context, introduction of new systems or institutions disrupts the status quo. The adoption of Christianity among the Khasis of Meghalaya, for instance, has eroded to some extent the exalted position of the mother as "Ka Blei Ing" - goddess of the household - and as a continuator of the clan. At the same time, adoption of Christianity not only opened the doors for women to participate in religious services but also in church- sponsored social services as well. It is therefore important to note how creation of new institutions influences women's status. In some cases, women's access to some spheres has increased, while in some, the old traditions have eclipsed newer structures. For instance, the customary ban on women's participation in traditional village councils or the councils of elders in tribal communities seems to have inhibited many N-E women from participating in the new autonomous district councils established through Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

Status is thus a complex concept, which has to be analysed in the context of various spheres, e.g. economy, marriage, family, religion, health, education, social and political institutions. There are many differences among N-E states, and indeed among various communities within each state, in social structures, customs, traditions and women's access to opportunities of enhancing their status. At the same time, there are similarities and common elements, which seem to enhance their capacities to minimize their handicaps and raise their status. This book represents a search in this direction.

Organization of Contents
Chapters 1 and 2 together provide profiles of the N-E region and its seven component states. The general ecology of the region, its isolation from the rest of India, broad demographic aspects and its political integration with India are presented in Chapter 1 - North-Eastern Region: A Profile. This is followed by Chapter 2 - North-Eastern States: Seven Unique Sisters, which provides the backgrounds of each N-E state in two parts. Brief accounts of history in pre-British, British and post- Independence periods are given in the first part, while the second part presents geographical and demographic features of each "'state, followed by present economic and social contexts.

Perhaps an explanation for giving this background might be useful. A few illustrations follow: In the predominantly hilly areas of N-E states, the most common mode of cultivation so far has been "jhuming," characterised by community ownership and control. This context is essential for appreciating the negative implications for women's status when there is a shift from community to individual ownership of land, and take-over of tribal lands by non-tribal entrepreneurs. Another illustration refers to Mizo women's position in their indigenous faiths prior to Christianity. When missionaries from English Baptist and Welsh Presbyterian Missions tried to introduce Christianity and girls' education in Mizoram in early 20th century, initially there was strong resistance from Mizo men. Why Mizo women avidly welcomed Christianity becomes clear in the background of their marginal status in their native religions. The practice of bride-price, instead of dowry, has generally been viewed as an indication of girls' higher status in marriage in most N-E communities. But among the Wanchos of Tirap district in Arunachal Pradesh, bride-price is viewed by some men as a means of purchasing the woman's body, and her procreative power. A wife who produces more children, especially some sons, gets higher status. On the other hand, a barren woman suffers humiliation and her husband feels justified in discarding her and taking another wife. The context of frequent warfare and the need to replenish population, the prolonged geographical and social isolation of the Wanchos - these circumstances help to explain the degraded status of Wancho women.>

The first two chapters thus present the backdrop for succeeding contents, and may well be skipped by readers who are conversant with the N-E region. In an effort to make the outlines of N-E region and its States as concise as possible, some details were eliminated from the text and some are included as the footnotes in each chapter. This procedure is followed in succeeding chapters as well.

Chapter 3 deals with economic status of N-E women, and examines three major aspects: economic status in terms of work participation in the formal sense as used in the Indian Census, the various tasks women perform for family subsistence whether or not these are included in the Cswensus definition of work, and legal rights to ownership and inheritance of property and maintenance, access to means of attaining economic self-reliance, etc. Chapter 4 deals with women's status with respect to marriage, family and religion in each N-E State. This chapter examines customs related to choice of marriage partner, bride-price and dowry, polygamy, divorce, re-marriage, etc., roles and relationships in the family, areas of decision-making, participation in family and community religious worship and special events, etc. in relation to women's status. Chapter 5 brings together information on N-E women's status in terms of certain indicators 'of health and education. Chapter 6 reviews women's social and political status in each N-E State as reflected in developments such as organization of groups and associations around common social issues, expression of joint protests, participation in political movements, representation in national and state legislatures and in rural and urban local bodies, etc. Chapter 7 recapitulates major findings of preceding chapters and presents some ideas and approaches for enhancing N-E women's status.

A Word of Caution
As will be noted, status is an abstract and somewhat elusive concept and it is inferred from some more tangible forms of behaviour such as roles and relationships. A book such as this, based mainly on reported accounts, cannot do full justice to the topic since it is likely to miss out a number of nuances which are evident only in direct observation of human interactions, not to mention women's and men's subjective feelings of their own and others' status. As I have drawn to a large extent on reports of State level seminars on N-E women's status for some areas, e.g. family, marriage and religion, limitations resulting from unevenness in the quality of presentations and coverage of communities in these documents were inevitable. Despite attempts to supplement with other books and reports, some gaps do remain. In general, coverage on women's status tends to be mostly absent or very thin in writing on N-E States. Furthermore, in an effort to ensure manageability, women's status has been examined selectively in the context of certain broad population groups and clusters of tribes in each N-E states, and several individual tribes were not included. My fervent hope is that this modest effort may help to generate more comprehensive thinking and writing on this subject.


  Foreword v
  Acknowledgements vii
  List of Tables and Maps xiii
  Abbreviations and Terms Used xvii
  Introduction 1
  A Map of North-Eastern Region 8
  Introduction 9
  Ecological Features 10
  Transport and Communications 11
  Demographic Aspects 12
  Political and Administrative Developments 19
  Economic Aspects 24
  North-Eastern Council (NEC) 28
  Recapitulation 29
  Assam 32
  Arunachal Pradesh 48
  Manipur 60
  Meghalaya 75
  Mizoram 89
  Nagaland 101
  Tripura 114
  Overview 128
  Introduction 131
  Section 1: Economic Activity Status of N-E Women as per 1991 Census 132
  Section II: The Nature of Women’s Work 146
  Section III: Property, Ownership, Inheritance & Auto-nomy Regarding Management of Resources 150
  Arunachal Pradesh 150
  Assam: Non-Tribal Societies, Hill-Tribal Societies, and Plains Tribal Societies 153
  Manipur 160
  Meghalaya 163
  Mizoram 167
  Nagaland 169
  Tripura 171
  Overview 173
  Introduction 180
  Framework for Analysis : Marriage, Family, & Religion 181
  Arunachal Pradesh 182
  Assam: Non-Tribal Societies, Hill-Tribal Societies, and Plains Tribal Societies 198
  Manipur 232
  Meghalaya 247
  Mizoram 261
  Nagaland 270
  Tripura 285
  Section I — Health 296
  Section II — Education 324
  Concept of Social and Political Status 355
  Framework for Analysing Social and Political Status 356
  Arunachal Pradesh 360
  Assam 366
  Manipur 377
  Meghalaya 386
  Mizoram 391
  Nagaland 395
  Tripura 400
  Summary 407
  Recapitulation 411
  Concluding Observations 432
  List of Seminars on Status of Women in North-Eastern States, Sponsored by ICSSR Regional Centre, Shillong 447
  i. Proportions of Agricultural Workers Amoung Female Main Workers in Districts in India and N-E States, Rural Areas 449
  ii. Numbers of Femail Main Workers by Industrial Categories in India and N-E States, 1991 450
  i. Numbers of Female Main Workers Classified by Industrial Categeory: India and North-Eastern States, Census of India 2001 451
  ii. Housing Characteristics, Educational Attainment,Female Nuptuality and Fertility Indicators India & N-E States:NFHS-IlI,2005-06 452
  iii. Key Indicators of Maternal and ChildHealth, India & N-E States: NFHS—III, 2005-06 453
  Bibiliography 454

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