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The Myth Of Matriliny, Empowerment Still Eludes Meghalaya’s Women

At 25, Bris, a resident of Meghalaya, is the mother of 10 children with the eldest being a little over 10 years. Bris has no clue about how to prevent another pregnancy. Neither does her husband who, in any case, feels that having babies and looking after them is a ‘woman’s job’. It is another matter that the couple can barely eke out a living from the hill farming that they rely on for a livelihood.

There are many others like Bris in the rural pockets of this northeastern state of India who face a similar dilemma. To make matters worse, this is just one indicator of the low status of women in Meghalaya. Matrilineal society has been a source of great pride to the state, but experts maintain that the reality on the ground is quite different.

In some ways, the condition of matrilineal women could be even more precarious than that of their counterparts in patriarchal societies. A significant reason for this has to do with the fact that these women experience what could be called ‘double negative effects’: the universal discrimination experienced by all women, to which is added the burden of living under the assumption that women control everything. This in turn is taken to mean that these women do not need any special attention to ensure their rights.

Besides a lack of information about and access to contraception, crime against women is a rising phenomenon in the state. Take the case of Lakyntiew, a 23-year-old woman in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. She was sexually assaulted by a gang of six men and left for dead. Somehow she survived and managed to file a First Information Report (FIR) against her assaulters in the local police station. But the brutality of the crime notwithstanding, she and her husband, a daily wage laborer, were “persuaded” by the local tribal village council and the perpetrators of the crime –all moneyed men– to withdraw the FIR in exchange for payment of her medical bills.

The state also has the dubious distinction of having a high rate of domestic violence, according to North East Network, a women’s rights organization based in Shillong. Besides vulnerability to violence, political rights are another sphere where women are not empowered. While women in the rest of the country have long got the right of 33 per cent representation in the Panchayats (local self governance), women in Meghalaya have only recently woken up to the need to seek representation in such middle-level political institutions as the district councils. Politically, women in Meghalaya are nowhere. They can neither become tribal nor village chiefs. Leave aside occupying these positions; they do not even have the right to elect candidates to these posts.

Women in the state are, however, showing their dissatisfaction over this situation. For instance, those from the matrilineal Garo tribe led by Dr Caroline A Marak, a University teacher, recently set off a controversy with their demand for one-third reservation of the seats in the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC) for women. They had to take this step because women in matrilineal societies like the Garos and Khasi-Jaintias are not supposed to need quotas! In fact, the GHADC – incidentally an all-male body – has made it clear to the Commission for the Review of the working of the Constitution that being a matrilineal society, Garo women are already ensured their rights.

While the ‘quota war’ is yet to affect the other matrilineal tribes in the state, over the years, women’s organizations have been demanding the setting up of a State Women’s Commission to handle the growing problems of women. This demand has, however, not been taken seriously by state authorities who are overwhelmingly male. The standard reaction to a demand for mechanisms to protect women’s rights is that “in matrilineal communities it is men who need protection as women control everything”.

L R Sangma, the Director of Social Welfare, Meghalaya, describes this situation as a paradox. “Our state should have been the role model for gender equality, but despite our strong matrilineal traditions, the status of women is among the lowest in the country,” she says, quoting the Planning Commission’s cross-country study on the status of women. In comparison, it was highly patriarchal states like Kerala and conflict-ridden Manipur that ranked at the top of the gender index.

Research studies in specific sectors further highlight the low status of women. For instance, a study by the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition found that Meghalayan mothers were among the most anemic in the country. This was attributed to an incapacitating lack of awareness and education about their own health and needs. Adds Dr Biloris Lyndem, women’s rights activist and well known educationist, who recently received the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Award for promoting literacy, “Rural life is marked by poverty and alcoholism which have a fallout on women in the form of domestic violence and deserted wives and children.” What is worse, she points out, is the complete silence around these issues, since women are ashamed to speak out.

“It is true that women in Meghalaya have more mobility, but the customs and practices of our community in no way allow women the social space to participate in decision-making. The women’s movement in other parts of the country is way ahead of us,” says Lyndem, stressing the need for Meghalayan women to organize themselves. While some dismiss these positions as the ravings of women who demand too much, lawyers point out that contrary to popular belief, women in the state are indeed lagging behind in social, economic and political rights.

“Women in matrilineal societies are entrusted with enormous rights over property and important duties in performing family rites, but the actual ownership is not theirs,” says O D Vallentine Ladia, a Shillong-based lawyer. For instance, in contrast to men, women do not have the right to dispose off property on their own. Further, women cannot claim maintenance if deserted by their husbands, as they do not have this right under matrilineal customary practices, he adds.

The myth of the powerful matrilineal women was also shattered by no less than the Assistant President of the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), Phrang Roy, who belongs to the matrilineal Khasi tribe. Quoting an IFAD study of matrilineal societies across China, Indonesia, the Philippines and India (Meghalaya), Roy says that the Meghalayan matrilineal societies are deteriorating the fastest. Though men here say that matrilineal society is negatively affecting the man’s position, “Women are losing out faster,” he says, warning that the state has to wake up to urgently address the special developmental needs of women in this peculiar situation.

*The article is written by Linda Chhakchhuak.

*The author is based in Shillong.

(Courtesy: India Together)

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