1. STATUS OF WOMEN IN ASSAM
In a human society, each individual can utilize his or her own thoughts and ideas and that is considered to be the basic human right of an individual. But it is a matter of irony that in reality each one of us hardly gets any opportunity to display our own individual ideas. Especially the women the most vulnerable sections of society are often being sidelined from taking any important decision. Another very important aspect of this point is that women themselves are still ignorant about their own rights and policy formulated especially for them. Since of late modern women has become very conscious of their rights, and empowering the women as a whole has become a new motto of the world around.
Mahatma Gandhi, while defining empowerment of women, had described it as a situation “when women, whom we call abala become sabala, all those who are helpless will become powerful.”
The greatest challenge today is to improve the status of women who constitute half the population of the country. The Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles given in the Constitution of India bear faithful application of the principle of nondiscrimination so that women are entitled to the same rights as men as citizens of India. Yet women are not treated as equal as men. The Indian Constitution gives equal political rights to both men and women, but the representation of women in Parliament and State Legislatures is very less. The 81st Constitutional Amendment Bill to provide for one-third reservation for women in Parliament was tabled for the first time in 1996 but was soon engulfed in the conflicts over the demand of special quota for women of other Backward Castes and Minorities. Till today there are no sincere efforts on the part of national and regional political parties towards the passing of the Bill.
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The status of women in north-eastern region of India is slightly different in comparison to those living in the rest of the country. In Assam, the status of women is high in comparison to the women of some other States of India. One salient feature in the Assamese society was the absence of the dowry system. But in the post-independence era, the evil of dowry system has stealthily been invading the Assamese society with the result that some dowry death cases have been reported. The “State of Indian Women Report 2001-02” released by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, revealed that the crime rate against women is even higher than the all-India average. In 1999, crimes against women including rape, molestation, sexual harassment, abduction, dowry deaths and cruelty at home were 127 cases per million persons at the all-India level. In contrast, in Assam it was 138 cases per million persons. The statistics are mind-boggling. Moreover, incidents of molestation, trafficking, murder and domestic violence have also gone up, indicating that all is not well with women in Assam in the present times.
Sex ratio is a very important indicator that reflects the status of women in society. It reflects whether she enjoys those rights to survival, protection and development. In 2001 the male-female ratio in Assam was 1000: 932 which was lower than the all India average of 1000: 933. The imbalance in the male female ratio is due to blind faith as well as the result of illiteracy which have resulted in destruction of the baby girl at prenatal stage due to sex determination test, results in deliberate malnutrition and neglect of the girl child which results in this imbalance.
In the field of education, women in Assam are in a better position than the all-India average. As per 2001 census the literacy rate for Assam is 64.28 per cent as against 65.38 per cent for India. While male literacy is 71.93 per cent (India-75.85 per cent), female literacy stands at 56.03 per cent (India-54.60 per cent). The male female gap in the literacy rate is still perceptible although it is declining over time and is much below the all-India average. Attainment of a higher literacy rate alone does not make a community educationally advanced. Completion of primary stage of education and continuation of school up to 15 years of age, etc. are taken as indicators of educational attainment. The phenomenon of school drop-out is a negative indicator of educational attainment. The dropout rates of both boys and girls( specially) in Assam remained higher than all-India average from 1981 to 2001.
Female work participation is another indicator of women’s status in the society. The more number of women in paid jobs, the better is their status for most women in the world are engaged in unpaid or in low paid jobs. Assam is not the worst among major states of the Indian Union in terms of human development and gender equality but it ranks quite low. Assam has a largely rural agrarian economy, which is characterized by high rate of work participation of women. Though Female Work Participation Rates (FWPR) is high, as it is subsistence farming, women do not benefit economically, though they share a disproportionate share of the work burden. The work participation rate of the women in Assam is considerably lower than that of men in general except in the primary sector where the rates are in favor of women. The participation of women in the secondary and tertiary sectors is lower in Assam. The gender gap in the work participation rate is obviously in favor of women, in the primary sector and in favor of men in the other two sectors.
It is a fact that the status of women in Assam is the worst in terms of their position in decision making bodies. In Assam in 1977, out of 3 female candidates who contested for the Lok Sabha, 2 candidates were elected. No women from the State of Assam contested in the 1984 and 1989 elections. In 1991, 7 female candidates contested for the Lok Sabha but none was elected. No woman from the State of Assam contested in the 1984 and 1989 elections. In 1991, 7 female candidates contested for the Lok Sabha. None was elected. In 1996 only one woman was elected to the Lok Sabha out of 9 candidates who contested. Participation of women is low not only in the elected bodies but also in administrative posts. The over-all picture seems to be quite dismal. However, there are much possibilities and potential for increased participation of women of Assam in the national mainstream.
2. Women’s Collectives in Assam
This article deals with women’s collectives in the state of Assam along with a short history of the past and the challenges that are faced by them today. The article discusses the nature of women’s work, their organizational abilities and the changes that women’s organizations or mahila samitis need to deal with today.
The status of women in north-eastern region of India is slightly different in comparison to those living in the rest of the country. For example, mobility of women in Assam is far higher. This may be due to factors like, a) absence of purdah, b) absence of occupational caste groups resulting in caste flexibility and c) a long standing influence of tribal work pattern where village economy revolves largely on women’s labour and female entrepreneurship. This however does not mean that women in Assam are on an equal footing with men. One can only deduce that despite a strong patriarchal order, there is a district tenor towards matriarchal functioning. A major finding of our analysis is that low income rural women ‘run the show’ in all spheres of work, singly or collectively.
2.2 Women’s traditional work pattern in rural Assam:
An anthropological analysis of rural women’s lives in Assam has indicated instances of greater mobility in their work pattern and social position. An interesting feature of intra-household power nexus in various communities such as the Karbi, Bodo Kacharis, Mishings and the Assamese is the relative autonomy that women enjoy with regard to their incomes. Earnings of unmarried young women, for instance, are not appropriated by other family members. They normally save for investment in pigs, goats or yarn for weaving. Secondly, while income from women’s economic activities is not really earned in cash, a system of barter and loan is widespread at the village level. Thirdly, work in the form of traditional labour collectives by mahila samitis, has bought much improvement in their economic status. An interesting instance of collective work was noticed among the plains tribal communities of Assam who run paddy banks. Under the system, young women from several households pool their share of grain and offer it on loan. Any needy person can borrow from this stock; the borrower gets six months to repay the loan along with an interest amounting to half the quantity that the person borrows. This way the paddy bank swells quickly. Women members of the paddy bank claim their share whenever occasion arises. Very often they sell the entire quantum of paddy and buy yarn for weaving with that money. This traditional form of informal collectives amongst rural women in parts of Assam has significant relevance to mahila samitis which found a niche within the social platform, and to an extent, the rural economy of Assam. While mahila samitis had their beginning in the wake of India’s Freedom Movement, a large number of them were formally established as part of the Community Development Programme in the 50s. Rural women shed their reservations and readily came under the umbrella of the mahila samiti because of their previous experience in handling collective work through traditional, informal labour collectives at the local level.
2.3 From Traditional Collectives to Mahila Samitis:
The role change of women from informal labour collectives to mahila samitis had far reaching implications. Women of towns and villages now had a significant opportunity to work together during the freedom movement. Rural and urban women thus getting together, created a relationship, which extended to the emergence of district and village level mahila samitis under the Assam Pradeshik Mahila samiti, in the first quarter of the 20th Century. Women work through these mahila samitis to meet their socio-economic demands, particularly at the village level, which help in translating their ideas into action.
2.4 Activities of Mahila Samitis
For years the activities of Mahila Samitis have revolved around the objectives stated above. Several schemes, reaching rural women were initiated and they were centered on nutrition programmes, weaving projects under bank loans and so on. The Krishi Charcha Mandal, of the Agriculture Department, was also implemented with the help of the mahila samitis. Cases of some mahila samitis which, in 1958 -59, started community kitchen gardens through the agriculture extension staff of a block at Narayanpur (Lakhimpur district), are worth mentioning here. The officers had demonstrated new methods of cultivation of vegetables, to women exclusively. From kitchen gardens these women graduated to paddy cultivation. The Narayanpur Mahila samiti took a piece of land on a share -cropping basis from a landlord and started a demonstration plot. Thus the samiti earned between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 6,000 every year. This mahila samiti soon became a training ground for improved agricultural practices and inspired many women to participate in it. We know that the work discontinued because the scheme was a failure elsewhere in India. The example mentioned above is a success story. Unfortunately there are more stories of disappointments and frustration expressed by mahila samitis which got nothing from state agencies in the past. The Dibrugarh Mahila samiti is a case in point, where, in the 70s, most of the 300 primary mahila samitis under it were languishing; 150 of them were kept alive in the hope of getting subsidized yarn from the Government. Tragically, the trend of doling out money under IRDP etc. resulted in mahila samitis looking out for doles and ‘anudans’, gradually making them puppets of state schemes. They would only work if money would be extended to them. It is no surprise then that when researchers or socially concerned individuals visit mahila samitis, the first thing some members ask is whether money is going to be given to them and if so, how much. Again, an organization of post 1990s known as the Rural Women Upliftment Association of Assam, is working with farm women in agriculture and allied sectors by creating an employment cum income generating unit. Training is its main input. Indeed, some rural mahila samitis do use their position as a prop to their economic activities. This feature has its roots in the traditional work pattern of women referred earlier in this article.
2.5 Present day Realities:
As noted earlier, the functioning of a majority of the mahila samitis in Assam is dependent on the welfare programmes of the government since the 50s. This mode of functioning tends to ignore the more critical issues – women’s potential earnings in agriculture productivity, women’s access to safe water resources, access to yarn banks, access to health care, and knowledge of their legal safeguards against desertion or violence and so on- in relation to poverty in rural Assam. A superficial welfares’ ideology still exists within these samitis, where women’s socio-economic problems are discussed without addressing the root cause of it.
The question why mahila samitis have not been able to move away from a welfares’ perspective should be seen in the context of their own functioning first and then in relation to external factors. Conceptually speaking, almost all mahila samitis maintain a middle position in being apolitical to situations that need public opinion and serious questioning. Another problem that is seen in the internal functioning of mahila samitis is the utter lack of documentation of their past efforts. However, women of mahila samitis are not usually a part of their internal management system. This relates directly to democratic decision making. Under normal circumstances we find that women have less institutional power than men to meet needs and realize interests. We find that their vulnerability lies not only in differences of roles and responsibilities but also in hierarchies of power and privileges. In a narrower sense, it is startling to find that something similar happens within the internal functioning of mahila samitis of Assam. Finally, heads of samitis like presidents and secretaries hold the reins of power for too long. This discourages democratic functioning as well as a host of potentialities, such as younger women joining the fold. Speaking of external factors, mahila samitis have to be analysed in relation to State delivery systems – what works and does not work for civil society, and women in particular. This encompasses issues like healthcare services, free flow of rations under PDS and so on. It should also be seen in the context of how women are positioned in local governance. And finally it should be seen in the context of rights that women ought to know and wield in their favour. Domestic violence and violence against women, (VAW), in conflict situations are 2 categories that overlap, making analysis obscure rather than focused. For instance, a woman in Kokrajhar, who was assaulted by two army men, was rejected by her husband on grounds that she complied to ‘their wishes’. She was beaten up by him before being sent out of the house. Did women of mahila samitis address these problems or were they sent away by the family on the pretext that this was a personal matter? We know that the All Bodo Women’s Welfare Federation addressed the issue but added that popular support from the public and the government was lacking. There are examples of young women leaving their villages because of factional fighting between militant groups or because of the army who conduct frequent house searches. To avoid any kind of violence in such situations these young girls often migrate to cities like Guwahati and find employment as maids. Research by several NGOs like DAIPARC, GOLD, NNS and NEN has found that maids often run away from their employers and finally land up as sex workers in the process of looking for alternative employment. Though influential in some aspects, most women’s organizations and groups have no decision making powers in local governance. This is one of the main problems of women’s organizations all over the north east. Acute problems of communication have prevented some of the dedicated members in reaching out to village-level mahila samitis. The distancing of the middle class from the realities of rural life – its culture and socio-economic situation -has widened the social disparities. More stress has to be laid on the part of the apex and district level mahila samiti members to involve rural women in direct economic action programmes and discussions on gender inequality, non-recognition of women’s work capacity. Almost all of the 5000 odd rural mahila samitis in Assam, are not getting access to information about struggles and successes that other organizations have experienced in the rest of the country, let alone what state agencies have to offer them. New women’s groups have been formed in recent years which have rightly made attempts at mobilising women both at the urban as well as rural level. Several of these organizations have emerged, perhaps, as a reaction to the inertia of existing mahila samitis, which they criticize as lacking in ideological consciousness. Some have emerged in response to the increase in alcoholism and drug abuse amongst the youth. Needless to say, the rate of crime against women has gone up. It is of vital importance, therefore, to revamp the district and primary mahila samitis, whose weak functioning, is not just a result of women’s immobility or the inherently repressive social system, but of poor documentation, poor financial or infrastructural functioning, total lack of exposure to the rights issues and lack of self-esteem amongst a majority of the women.
Finally, We hold the view that complete ignorance or disregard for women’s rights, (which encompasses the right to information, to food security, to health and so on), reduces women’s potential, as groups, in building confidence and solidarity amongst themselves and to question armed conflict and the factors that follow therein.
3. HEALTH STATUS OF WOMEN IN ASSAM
3.1 SEX RATIO:
The sex ratio in Assam, as per the 2001 census is 932 against the all India average of 933. This is an improvement over the sex ratio in 1991 by 9 points against the all India average improvement of 6 points during the period.
3.2 Inter district disparities in sex ratio
In 2001, Karbi Anglong with the highest sex ratio at 992 and again N.C. Hills at the lowest with 883. Rural sex ratio was the highest in Lakhimpur with 958 and the urban sex ratio was the highest in Cachar with 955.Whereas the State registered an increase in sex ratio in the last decade (1991-2001) from 923 to 932, the districts of Dhubri, Jorhat and Karimganj showed a decline in the ratio during the period.
3.3 Child Sex Ratio
Comparing the sex ratio of total population, child population and population aged 7 and above in Assam with the all India average figures for the census years 1991 and 2001, it has been observed that the child sex ratio in Assam is much higher than the all India average in both the census years. However, there has been a decline in the ratio over the last decade. In 1991 the child sex ratio for Assam was 975, which decreased to 964 in 2001. But the sex ratio of population aged 7 and above (12) showed an increasing trend for both India and Assam. The ratio of Assam increased from 910 in 1991to 926 in 2001 while that of India in 1991 increased from 923 to 935 in 2001.
3.4 Inter District Disparities in Child Sex Ratio
Dhubri registered the highest rural sex ratio of child population at 986 among the districts of Assam in the 2001 census. Whereas it was at the 10th position with the rural sex ratio of 729 in the 1991 census. The district of Jorhat registered the lowest sex ratio of child population in the rural areas at 895 in the 2001 census.
3.5 Birth Rate and Death Rate
In 2001, the rural birth rate in Assam with 27.8 was higher than the all India average rural birth rate of 27.1 although the birth rates for urban areas for the same year was lower in Assam with 18.5 against the all India urban birth rate of 20.2. The SRS data for the period 1998-2001 confirm that the birth rates in rural Assam continued to be higher than the corresponding all India rates, whereas for urban areas it was the reverse. SRS data (2008) says CBR for Assam is 23.9 whereas national CBR is 22.8.
In 2001, the rural death rate in Assam was 9.8, marginally higher than the all India rate of 9.0, while the death rate in urban Assam was 6.6, 0.3 per cent higher than the all India rate of 6.3.At present CDR is 8.6 for Assam and 7.4 for India.
3.6 Fertility Rate
The Total Fertility Rate for rural Assam in 1992-93 at 3.68 was higher than the than all India value of 3.67 while according to SRS 2008 report it is equal to national TFR of 2.6. The highest rate has been registered in Karimganj and the lowest in Dhemaji, Kamrup and Dibrugarh appear among the districts with lower fertility rates while Karimganj is joined by Barpeta and Nalbari as the districts with high fertility rates.
3.7 Age at Marriage
The age of marriage of girl child is important issue as it has direct consequences on her health and reproductivity. Assam had a history of ‘Baalyo Bibaah’ and girls were married before attaining puberty. However things have changed a long ways since the effective age at marriage of females in Assam in 1991, 1992 and 1993, though showed a little variation, remained almost the same during the years at 20.5, 21.3 and 20.9 respectively but were higher than the all India effective age at marriage in the respective years at 19.5, 19.5 and19.6 respectively as found in ‘Economy of Assam’.
3.8 Districts with Mean Age at Marriage below 18
The districts of Dhubri, Rural Bongaigaon, Goalpara, Rural Kamrup, Rural Darrang, Rural Barpeta and Rural Nagaon have mean age at marriage less than 18 years with rural Dhubri having the lowest age of 16.74 years. However, in all these districts the mean age at marriage has improved over the years.
3.9 Maternal Mortality Rate
Assam has a high maternal mortality rate and there has been an increase in the rate over time. Presently it is 480 compared to all India MMR of 254. The situation is worrisome and insurgency has been accounted as major factors. The workers at tea plantations also have high MMR and IMR.
3.10 Infant and Child Mortality
Infant mortality rates, under five mortality rates and mortality rate in the age group 5-9 continued to be higher in Assam than the all India average up to 2001. The infant mortality rate used to be higher among the males but the mortality rate in the age group 5-9 and under 5-mortality rate, specifically in rural areas, happened to be higher among the female. At present IMR is 64 compared to all India average of 53 (SRS 2008). In the post 1991 period, however, the position showed some improvement. For the period 1991- 2003, in all the years except 1993,1994 and 1995, the IMR in urban areas of Assam remained lower than the all India average IMR. But the downward trend in the urban IMR also had a reverse turn in 2003, the number again increased to 38. Assam at a lower position in terms of neonatal, post neo natal, infant and under five mortality rate and only marginally better than the all India average figure in terms of child mortality rate.
3.11 Inter district differences in child mortality rates
Among all the districts of the State, Dhubri registered the highest child mortality rates (both male and female) in the age groups (0-1),(0-2) and (0-5)years while Jorhat was better of all.
3.12 Expectation of life at birth
The expectation of life of female at birth in Assam during the period 2001-2006 at 59.3 is lower than the all India rate of 64.2 and is only better than Madhya Pradesh at 57.9. A woman in Assam has higher life expectancy than her male counterpart (58.6) within the State in both rural and urban areas, but in both cases she has lower life expectancy than her average Indian counterpart. (All India male- 62.6, female-64.2 as per UN World Fact Book 2009)
3.13 Expectation of Life at the age of 50
Women in Assam can expect to live only 5.2 years less than their female counterparts in the rest of the country. This has been disclosed in the Assam Human Development Report (HDR), 2003, brought out by the State Government. The report reveals that the infant mortality rate in the 0 to 4 age group is higher among girls than boys. But from the age of 5, the trend is reversed. This is true till the age of 50 or so, when the trend again reverses with the death rate among men becoming higher.
4. HEALTH INDICATORS OF ASSAM
Table I: Demographic, Socio-economic and Health profile of Assam State as compared to India figures
Total population (Census 2001) (in million)
Decadal Growth (Census 2001) (%)
Crude Birth Rate (SRS 2008)
Crude Death Rate (SRS 2008)
Total Fertility Rate (SRS 2008)
Infant Mortality Rate (SRS 2008)
Maternal Mortality Ratio (SRS 2004 – 2006)
Sex Ratio (Census 2001)
Population below Poverty line (%)
Schedule Caste population (in million)
Schedule Tribe population (in million)
Female Literacy Rate (Census 2001) (%)
Theme: Role of Women in Local Governance
Role of women in electoral democracy at grassroots level is the focus of this report which includes women’s political participation as candidates, motivation for joining politics and problems faced during elections and overall obstacles encountered by women representatives. As the topic is broad so we have limited our study only to the state of Madhya Pradesh. The reason for choosing Madhya Pradesh is because MP has always been regarded as being at the forefront of decentralized system of government with 50% reservations for women candidates in the local electoral body. So it becomes interesting to know the role that the women play in politics there.
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2.Local Governance & Panchyati Raj:
Government in its most discrete form is present in the form of the local electorate body. The local electorate is the one to which the people could directly identify with. While laying the foundation of our nation, de-centralization of power and governance was the core of the whole idea of democracy. In this respect the term “Local governance” holds the utmost importance in the view that it was one of the founding principles of the country. This theme research tries to search some of the broad questions related to the impact and functioning of the Village Panchyat as it is the local electorate body at the village level. In addition to that we would also try to know whether this whole idea of de-centralization of power was successful at all and if it has given some fruits or not. Reaped any fruits or created more chaos in the system. For women, successful grassroots experience has meant a chance to form coherent voice, to be heard and to make a difference in their communities.
3. Participation of women in the local bodies would include:
â€¢ Women as voters
â€¢ Women as members of political parties
â€¢ Women as candidates
â€¢ Women as elected members of local government bodies taking part in decision-making, planning, implementation and evaluation
â€¢ Women as members of women’s organizations, their association with voluntary organizations
â€¢ Women in developmental works and dealing of priority issues in the village level.
Gender empowerment is determined by the degree to which women and men participate actively in economic, professional and political activity and take part in decision-making. Women themselves had been strongly influenced by male-dominated village communities and had little faith in their own capacities to take on leadership roles.
4. ISSUES AND PROBLEMS IN WOMEN PARTICIPATION IN LOCAL GOVERNANCE:
Though participation of women in local governance is supported by various constitutional amendments and recommendations, resulting in a far greater number of women in local governance, still the condition do not facilitate smooth involvement of women. The various problems faced by women are broadly discussed in the following paragraphs.
The 73rd Constitutional Amendment was a landmark in the process of empowering women as it created space for them in the form of at least 33% reservation in the government body. This has led to increase in the number of women in the local bodies.
However, constraints posed by the working of these Acts in a highly patriarchical society prevents the full utilization of their potential which results in a vast difference in the promises made by the Acts and their actual realization.
4.1 Patriarchy, socialization and women’s self image:
A skewed portrayal of women in rural societies has been taking place through various myths, institutions and values that paint women as inferior. The irony of the situation is that women herself considers herself as inferior to man and considers herself as the machine to bow to all his whims and wishes. The subdued mentality makes the women incapable of taking decisive actions within the family as well as in the society.
Even when women reach a position of power, she feels herself to be shadowed by her husband. When a group of researchers working in the Bara Panchayat of Shivpuri district tried to question the female Sarpanch there about her role and work, her only reply was “Ask my husband.”
The process of socialization clearly demarcates spaces: private for a female, public for a male. Thus, any initiative taken by women to assume any role of power is treated with various levels of hostility. The widespread view in the community was that women are neither capable nor interested in attending Gram Sabha and Panchayat meetings.
Moreover, women were portrayed as submissive. They are not meant to be active and outspoken, particularly in the presence of men and elders. Though the Panchayati Raj institutions are based on democratic values and equality, any attempt by a woman to go against male dominance results in usurping of their power. The following case clearly showcases the social dilemma and discriminations braved by women who have made an attempt towards this direction.
4.2 Dependency on male members:
The role of women as a prominent public figure is marred by her dependency on male members. Her activities become secondary while the central position is occupied by her husband or other male members of the family. The dependency is mainly due to illiteracy, lack of confidence, lack of experience and general isolation from public life. The prevalent social cultures and norms also make the functioning of women in these positions difficult.
For example: if a wo
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