Tribal Indian Women Voicing Change

It was July 2018 when I moved to the Jharkhand state of India, having very little to no idea about the tribal culture and traditions. The Chhota Nagpur Plateau is the home to Munda Tribe, a tribe that is culturally rich, diverse, and also patriarchal. It’s a society where women, who work in fields throughout the day, are not allowed to touch the plow. The women step into the farmland once it is plowed by a male member of the family. Women start by sowing the seeds, they grow them and even harvest the crop, but the money goes into the hands of the men of the family. The most surprising part is that a woman hesitates in calling herself ‘a farmer.’ She fears the men might think that she is trying to get the hold of the family’s economy by calling herself ‘the farmer’ or ‘head of the household,’ which she deserves to be called after all the hard work and effort she puts in. 

I had to conduct a thematic village study before starting to work on projects to understand the dynamics of the community. For this purpose, I stayed in a house within the same village, and my host was a woman named Sunita Tiru. She always woke up before dawn, did all the household chores, prepared food on an earthen stove, got the kids ready, sent them to school, and then asked her husband if she could leave to work in the fields. She also visited the nearby market once every week to sell fruits, vegetables, and homemade snacks and gave most of her earnings to her husband, who did nothing.

She was shy but sometimes talked to me about her life. She never got an opportunity to study, was married at a very young age, had two children, and always feared about their future. The children were then attending a government school that provided free education until a certain age. She often felt like fleeing with the children to a faraway town or a city where she could work in people’s houses and provide her children the education she never received. Her family did not even have farmland and the wages that she got after working hours in people’s fields were minimal compared to men. Some did not even pay as most of the laborers were women and did not voice against the injustice.

A great source of motivation and happiness for the women in the village was the Self Help Group (SHG), formed with the assistance of the organization that I worked for. The SHG meetings were conducted once a week where all the members came together to save money and discuss women’s issues. It was a new SHG, women were hesitant and did not share enough. They deposited 10 Rupees (13 cents) per person, and there were just 13 women as some were not permitted to join the group. Some did not even have 13 cents to save in a week and stopped showing up in the meetings. I tried to make these meetings more inclusive and comfortable for them to share their sorrow and joy. I spent time with them other than the meetings, went to markets, worked in the fields, and cooked with them. After a few weeks, they began setting their own agendas in the meetings, and they were more openly discussing issues, unlike the previous meetings where they used to take attendance, collect money, and leave.

I started learning about the dynamics of this village from the women in the SHG and got to know about the traditional local governance of the Munda tribe, which was divided into 22 categories named Parha, this village was a part of the Tiru Parha with people from Tiru caste of the Munda tribe. People from all the villages of each parha elected a king. And the Parha King held weekly meetings in the village where women did not participate but could attend if they had an issue that needed to be resolved by the King and other designated male members. All these 22 kings from each parha had quarterly meetings at a central location to talk about the tribal traditions, development, governance, and several other areas.

After a few months, when I was busy with other projects, I planned to visit that village and meet Sunita Tiru and other SHG members. In the meeting, I learned about the Horo parha, where the head of the parha was a woman, Mukta Horo. As she was elected, the news spread like wildfire in all the 22 parha. Women in SHG were talking about the changes she was making in the local governance and the lives of Munda tribal women. Women started participating in the village level meetings and raising concerns about their rights in Horo parha. Motivated by this, the SHG planned to visit the village level meeting and demand two things. First was equal participation of women in those weekly meetings, and second was equal wages for women farmers, yes farmers. The women identified themselves as ‘farmers’ in that meeting. Our hearts were filled with joy and our eyes with tears. It was not an outsider that brought this change, it was the women in the community who led that change.

I was not fortunate enough to meet the Queen, Mukta Horo, nor did I get to know about her struggle, which I believe would have been intense. But this news from hundreds of miles away lent voice to the women in this village. Their savings increased tremendously within a year, members could get their loans sanctioned from the SHG, which helped in increasing the revenue of the group through interests paid by members. Today these women have become entrepreneurs and are selling Bamboo Handicrafts and increasing their revenue even more.

-S.T. 

References:

Tyagi, S. (2019, December 19). Munda tribes- traditional practices and local … – IJAHSS. IJAHSSS. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from http://ijahss.com/Paper/04102019/1179495180.pdf

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