Sailing through rough seas has been the norm for Indian women. However, in the North-east, they are respected, unlike their counterparts in many other parts of the country. Traditionally women there have been equal partners in running households as well as holding the purse. In fact, in Meghalaya it’s a role reversal as Khasis, Garos and Jaintias practice a matrilineal system.
But in terms of measuring the North-eastern womenfolk’s true potentials and contribution to the village economy, there is a need for an understanding of the complex and dynamic challenges they face. Rural womenfolk, as also men in the region, are often faced with a situation in which revenue or income from traditional sources has declined or, at best, is reaching saturation point. Government jobs are simply evaporating and thus there has to be a good synthesis of modern education and traditional qualities and aptitudes.
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Competition has grown manifold and at times there is the pressure to avoid the traditional working system. There are also issues of infrastructure, poor roads and unsafe law and order situations.
Even in tribal-dominated states like Nagaland and Mizoram, where social respectability of rural tribal women is much higher than their counterparts elsewhere, limited access to assets, punctuated with lack of bargaining power, constitute significant economic disadvantages.
Nagaland and Mizoram are notable exceptions to the rule because till date they have not elected a woman legislator. However, over the years government initiatives and various schemes charted out at both the Central and state levels have helped improve the chances of employment for rural womenfolk.
“The government of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognises the importance of the role of women in the development of society, rural India and growth of the nation. We remain committed to give a high priority to women’s empowerment and welfare,” says Union rural development minister Chaudhary Birender Singh.
In fact, the ministry is implementing various poverty-alleviation and rural development programmes that, as always, involve special components for women. Some of the guidelines stipulate certain provisions for the creation of specific facilities at the worksites for women. For instance, to encourage more women to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the ministry has rightly suggested that individual bank/post office accounts be opened in their names and that their wages be directly credited to their accounts for the number of days worked.
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The Centre has also advised states to identify widowed, deserted and destitute women who qualify as a household under the Act to ensure they are provided 100 days of work. Similarly, several schemes are tailor-made in various states to encourage women’s employment, especially in the rural sector.
In the process, we can safely conclude that the progress and development of any nation or society is also depended on the social and economical position of women. In this context, it is also relevant to understand that the “participation of women in economic activity” only highlights the quality of employment. At the same time, these also bring into focus the powerful relevance of self-employment; and this aspect is often qualitatively a better option to change the face of the North-east. The handloom and handicrafts sectors have played game-changers in these realms. So also the involvement of women in agri and horticulture, at both the production and marketing levels.
In fact, in Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh horticulture is a chief occupation among a large section of people, especially womenfolk. Across India there’s an abundance of fruits. With more than 28.2 million tonnes of fruit and 66 million tonnes of vegetables, the country ranks as the second largest producer of these items in the world.
In fact, more innovative experiments are being conducted to tap the potentials of fruits and fresh suggestions are pouring in. In some North-east states, since moderate consumption of wine is considered part of culture and good for health, wine-making is being looked upon as an industry. In fact, Meghalaya organises wine festivals in idyllic Shillong with the enthusiastic participation of women.
Switching over to this practice with the support of modern technology can help North-east enthusiasts to make a fast buck, exhibit their skills and even sell surplus local fruit.