Tribal Women’s Rights in Northeast India
Access to Representation and Justice
A Round Table Consultation
16 February 2016
A Brief Report
Release of the study report on Tribal Womens' Rights in Northeast India Access to Representation and Justice. (From left: Prof. Seema Kazi, Associate Professor & Senior Fellow, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi, Mr Scott Furssedonn-Wood, British Deputy High Commissioner to Eastern and Northeast India, Justice (Retd.) DN Choudhury, Gauhati High Court and Mr Wasbir Hussain,Executive Director CDPS)
The Centre for Development and Peace Studies organized a day-long Round Table Consultation titled Tribal Women’s Rights in Northeast India: Access to Representation and Justice at Guwahati on 16 February 2016. The Consultation was supported by the British Deputy High Commission, Kolkata. Here is a report of the Consultation which was inaugurated by Justice DN Choudhury, Former Judge, Gauhati High Court. The British Deputy High Commissioner to Eastern and Northeast India, Mr Scott Furssedonn-Wood was the Chief Guest at the occasion while Dr Seema Kazi, Associate Professor & Senior Fellow, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi was the Keynote Speaker. The Consultation was attended by a cross section of people including activists for women’s development, academics, scholars, writers, veteran journalists, social workers, college and university students and bureaucrats.
Participants at the Consultation
Introduction and Welcome
Mr. Wasbir Hussain, Executive Director, CDPS
Mr Wasbir Hussain, Executive Director, CDPS, welcomed the participants and delivered the introductory address.
Mr Hussain said that though women have a high status in the Northeast, the fact remains that very few women are to be found in decision-making positions. This is mainly because there is poor representation of women in politics either because they themselves do not venture into this field or are denied opportunities to do so. He said that women in the Northeast are aware of justice as their lawful right but they hardly approach courts.
The Consultation is a part of a project under the same title and had two components: a research study and a documentary film covering the states of Nagaland, Manipur and Assam, said Mr Hussain. He thanked BDHC Kolkata for supporting in the effort by CDPS and also thanked everyone associated with the project and all the participants at the Round Table.
Address by Justice DN Choudhury, Former Judge, Gauhati High Court
Delivering his inaugural address at the Round Table Consultation, Justice D. N. Choudhury, Former Judge, Gauhati High Court, said a democratic nation like India must have an equal status for both men and women, a place where the rule of law prevails and where everyone is entitled to enjoy his or her basic human rights. He lauded the initiative of CDPS in carrying out the Study which he described as a ‘pivotal subject’. He also talked in brief about the northeast region and its tribal population which is a veritable repository of customs and culture. He referred to the matrilineal society of Meghalaya which lays so much importance to women yet the women folk have no say in the election process, and they have no voice in the Durbar. This is a blatant abuse of their constitutional rights, he added. Justice Choudhury stressed on the need of such dialogue which he stated could be a powerful tool of driving away the anguish of darkness.
Keynote Address: Dr Seema Kazi
Dr. Seema Kazi, Associate Professor & Senior Fellow, Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi, delivered the Keynote address.
She began with an overview on the subject by comparing the Western concept of democracy with that of South Asia and India. She stated that in the West the emphasis is on procedural dimensions, namely competitive electoral politics, the rule of law, institutional accountability, protection of civil rights and freedom of speech and information. However, in the Indian context, the concept of democracy is based on greater public awareness of political rights and well-being understood more in terms of freedom of want, fear and violence, and the delivery of social goods and services. Democracy is not just about constitutionally guaranteed individual rights.
Women’s absence in politics and lack of access to political institutions in India is the outcome of a combination of historical, political and cultural factors, she said. She said that India’s record in terms of women’s political participation is paradoxical in that sixteen of the last fifty years were occupied by a female in the executive office, yet women hold 11 per cent seats in parliament and 10 per cent ministerial level positions. India’s female politicians owe their political eminence to powerful political families or kinship links with male politicians: they generally lack power in their own right. Dr Kazi highlighted the impediments to women’s access to institutions of governance and justice mechanisms and the necessity of bridging class inequality and effecting distributive justice. She also emphasised the significance of local women’s struggles and mobilisation for justice and the advantages and limits of reservations for women in governance institutions.
Address by Mr Scott Furssedonn-Wood, British Deputy High Commissioner to Eastern and Northeast India
Addressing the participants, Mr Scott Furssedonn-Wood said that women’s political and social participation achieves real changes. Quoting UN findings, he said that half the world’s population is locked out today, prevented from being productive and from pursuing opportunities. The world average Gender Inequality Index score in 2011 was 0.492, which indicates a 49.2 per cent loss in potential human development due to gender inequality. This is not a sustainable path to development, he said.
Stressing on women’s participation in political and decision-making process, Mr Furssedonn-Wood said that although women make up more than half the world’s population, they represent only 20 per cent of political leaders in the world, and Britain is not an exception. He said that the economic empowerment of girls and women is essential to achieve gender equality, women’s rights and wider development outcomes.
Screening of the Documentary:
Northeast’s Women: The Road To Power
Round Table Session I
CHAIR: Mr. Wasbir Hussain, Executive Director, CDPS
A participant interacting at the Round Table
The first session of the Round Table began with a power point presentation by Ms Rani Pathak Das, Senior Research Associate, CDPS. She gave a broad overview on the s tatus of tribal w omen in the country. She said that women constitute a little more than 11 per cent share in the 16 th Lok Sabha. Highlighting the low level of representation of women in politics, she said that in Nagaland, there has never been a woman legislator in the history of the 11 State Legislative Assemblies.
Dr. Jeuti Barooah, Former Director, Law Research Institute, Gauhati High Court & Former Prof. & Dean, School for the Study of Culture, Central University of Jharkhand shared her experience on ‘Customary Laws in Northeast India: Impact on Women’s Access to Representation and Justice’. She said that customary laws and practices differ in patrilineal as well as matrilineal social organisation. Therefore, the status of women differs in the kind of life they live where their position in society is almost without any protection of law. Dr. Barooah said that the customary laws and practices relating to the rights of property and inheritance of women should be modified and codified in the changed social milieu and in codifying the customary laws, the beneficiary provisions of the enacted legislations can be incorporated to preserve the sanctity of the customs and traditions.
A power point presentation of the findings of the study on Tribal Women’s Rights in Northeast India: Access to Representation and Justice was made by Mr Arunav Goswami, Senior Fellow, CDPS.
The topic, Naga Women and the question of Equality before the Law, which was to be delivered by Rosemary Dzuvichu, Advisor, Naga Mothers’ Association and Associate Professor, Nagaland University, was read out by Nezelu Neykha, Research scholar who had also assisted in the field study in Nagaland. The address included the most debated topic of gender inequality in Naga society and the problem with Customary Laws as hindrance to women in society.
Ms Lhaihoineng Chongloi, CDPS Research Assistant from Nagaland, talked about her experiences of field survey in Nagaland. She stated how the Naga men she interviewed were averse to participation of women in traditional bodies.
This was followed by discussion where the participants put forward their views and questions.
Round Table Session II
CHAIR: Dr. A.N.S. Ahmed, Director (Research), CDPS
The first speaker of the session was Prof Khakchang Debbarma, Professor of Political Science at North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong. He spoke on Challenges before Woman in Matrilineal Meghalaya. He said that because of the prevailing matrinineal society in Meghalaya, it appears that women there enjoy freedom and absolute power. However, the real picture is completely different, he said. Women in Meghalaya face a lot of challenges. The popular belief is that if women participate in political matters it could only bring misfortune! Economic factors and lack of interest also restrict women from joining politics. He insisted that reservation can play an important role in changing the picture.
A power point presentation on field experience was made by Ms Mary Magdalene Kurbah, Research Assistant from Meghalaya. She spoke about her experiences in the East Khasi Hills and Ri-Bhoi districts of Meghalaya.
Ms. Nandita Gorlosa, Member, Make a Difference Society, Dima Hasao, Assam addressed the participants on the topic Women Empowerment in Dima Hasao. She gave a picture of the status of woman emerging from a conflict zone like Dima Hasao. She said that though tribal women in Dima Hasao play leading roles in the rituals of birth, death and marriage, they have no political presence or rights otherwise. Women should be aware of their rights, encouraged to study, learn to eke out a livelihood and become self sufficient. She urged for 30 per cent reservation for women in all spheres including Gaon Burahs, Executive Members in Autonomous Councils etc.
Ms Reeni Kamprai from Haflong presented her experiences during the field survey in the male dominated Dima Hasao. She was disheartened by the fact that the women folk were not allowed even to speak to her during many interviews she conducted.
Dr Jeuti Barooah, Former Director, Law Research Institute, Gauhati High Court, addressing the participants
After the discussion on what could be the road ahead, certain steps were highlighted by the participants. For example, the need of including women in village health committees, school management committees, student unions etc and to work together in the need of the hour. Formation of Mahila Sanghas, Nari Adalats at the village and Panchayat levels, something that is practised in some parts of Assam that has already settled many cases, was also advocated for practice in other parts of the region that may serve as a non-formal justice delivery system.