When studying the status of women in Garhwal and Kumaon, we must disentangle the realities from the myths, including those that have emerged from the Chipko Andolan. ‘Development’ has sidelined women even though they have formed the backbone of the subsistence agriculture of this region. The hill women are becoming more, not less, dependent upon their menfolk.
Over the last two decades, the ‘gender perspective’ has become an accepted part of mainstream development thinking and rhetoric. However, in looking back over the experience of the hill, districts of Uttar Pradesh, one is forced to conclude that women here remain ‘invisible’. One reason the marginal status of women is being perpetuated seems to be the apparent reluctance at the policy level to learn from a wealth of empirical and conceptual insights about the gender implications of development efforts gained in other agro-ecological contexts. Policies that are made remain insensitive to women’s contributions to the rural economy, their access to productive resources, and the constraints they face in performing their roles as agriculturalists and subsistence providers.
It was the 1975 United Nations International Conference on Women that brought women’s issues to the forefront of governmental, academic and activist concern. Two parallel developments during the 1970s also injected a greater “gender sensitivity” to the study of Himalayan communities. The first was there cognition of the ecological and socio-economic crisis facing these mountain areas, which was reflected in over-exploitation of the natural resources, a widening gap between subsistence production and consumption requirements, increasing dependence on the external market economy and, alongside, increasing out-migration of males and the emergence of the ‘money-order’ economy.
The second development was, of course, the Chipko Andolan, a grassroots initiative at gaining people’s control over forests in pockets of the Uttar Pradesh hills. The fact that women were so often at the forefront of community organising in the Andolan highlighted their ability to mobilise to protect the sources of their subsistence livelihoods.
Given such abilities, why do the women of Kumaon and Garhwal remain ‘invisible’? The fault, in part, lies in the dominant images of the hill women that have shaped popular and official perceptions. Unlike Nepal, for which significant information exists, much of the knowledge on India’s Central and Western Himalaya has, directly and indirectly, been informed by assumptions drawn from the Chipko experience.
The Chipko experience highlighted the ways in which environmental degradation has made the conditions of women’s subsistence work more arduous and less productive. It was because of their location in a specific sexual division of labour and because they were so susceptible to adverse changes in the available natural resources, that women were so receptive to the local-level collective action of Chipko.
This ‘sexual division of labour’-levelanalysis informed three related assumptions about pahari women. Firstly, women were viewed as the primary exponents of traditional agriculture and the knowledge systems which form an integral part of subsistence livelihoods. They were thus seen as prominently ‘conservationist’. Second, their roles as preservers and sustainers of the natural resource base were seen to imbue women with greater sensitivity which helps them to recognise the threats posed to their subsistence livelihoods. A third aspect of this is a gender dichotomy of interests which pitted women’s subsistence and regenerative concerns against men’s more commercially-oriented interests.
Like all stereotypes, these images are accurate at the superficial level. The challenge emerges in disentangling the realities from the myths and recognising that many of these assumptions are highly subjective and are built upon a remarkably fragile empirical base. We must recognise that because the Chipko experience is itself located in a historically and regionally-specific context, it cannot adequately assist in analysing contemporary responses to processes of socio-economic and ecological change. This historical and regional specificity of the Chipko Andolan might explain why the potential for greater in-depth study of the changing contexts of mountain women’s lives has remained unfulfilled, and a highly romanticised image of the female in Garhwal and Kumaon has got projected.
A partial explanation as to why the unrealistic and romantic conceptual lenses need early replacement might be the hill districts’ changing relationship to the wider political economy. Since independence in 1947 and particularly over the past 20 years or so, mutually-reinforcing trends have given rise to new arenas of tension between different socio-economic groups and, although perhaps less visibly, between the sexes. The declining viability of local subsistence has forced hill households to become increasingly dependent on external markets for fulfilling consumer requirements. This tightening link to the market economy has been reinforced by ‘development interventions’, which have reshaped local production by making them more dependent on externally-acquired inputs, services, information and marketing outlets. The strategy adopted by households for domestic economic survival has been to become involved in income-generating activities in the off-farm sector.
This process of monetisation and the introduction of new values have led to the marginalisation of pahari women. There is a widening gap between their tremendous contribution to the agrarian economy and the low status that is accorded to them. Due to a complex web of ‘structural’ and cultural factors, women are unable to respond to opportunities the new rural economy brings with it.
Women’s marginalisation is multi-faceted, and is reflected in their economic, social and political status within households and the community:
- An inevitable aspect of monetisation of the rural economy is that money and items commanding an exchange-value have assumed greater importance relative to use-value items on which traditional subsistence practices were based. This differential valuation of what is monetised and what is not also extends to the tasks and, by association, to the people who perform them. As a result, women’s work, which is largely centred around the subsistence domain, is considered less important relative to that performed by men in the income-generating sector.
- As local institutions and relations have become more market-oriented, there has been a gradual realignment of the “spaces” in which men and women participated within the agrarian economy. Men’s work is increasingly focussed on the commercial domain: they participate in the external labour market and also mediate for resources and services that have become an indispensable part of local subsistence activities. This expansion of men’s roles has taken the place of the “spaces” in which women have traditionally participated. For example, while women’s traditional roles in, the selection and storage of seeds, composting and their knowledge of grasses and leaves for animal husbandry, are still crucial, they are nevertheless perceived as less prestigious now that it is possible to purchase agricultural inputs in the market
- Lopsided access to the commercial domain has resulted in a gender (male) monopoly over information. Because men are more freely able to involve themselves in the marketplace, they are better situated to gain information about seed and fertiliser varieties, selling and buying prices and improved cropping techniques. Because of the belief that women are ignorant and unable to learn, men typically do not disseminate information that they gain to their womenfolk.
There has also been a gradual devaluation of traditional knowledge (of which women have been traditional repositories) because, of the introduction of new information. The traditional knowledge is not being passed on to the younger generation of women and girls to quite the same extent today. This is a matter of concern because, despite the increasing use of externally-acquired agricultural inputs, subsistence production remains by and large dependent on these practices.
- Hill women, like their plains sisters, work “double days” in trying to provide subsistence to the family. Unfortunately, the basic premise of government policies for the hills is that women’s labour is readily available to help free up male labour for the off-farm sector. As a result, these policies reflect little understanding of the burden that rests on women. One implicit rationale for the diversification of agriculture through the introduction of cash crops in certain parts of the Garhwal hills, was to stem the flow of male migration by providing local income-generation. Instead, the migration has continued unabated while the women have more work to do.
- The introduction of new values and mores has further obscured women’s roles in the rural economy. For example, the wide-spread adoption of acommoditised form of dowry dining marriage has meant a huge drain on households’ scarce resources. Now, more than ever before, girls and women are looked upon as financial liabilities rather than as valuable workers.
- Even though they are de facto heads of households and managers of land, women are becoming increasingly dependent on men in order to gain access to the resources and information they require. Structural and ideological constraints prevent women from gaining independent access to new productive resources such as wage labour and credit.
- Despite rhetoric to the contrary, there is little evidence that the role of women as farmers is taken seriously. Women have poor access to, say, banks, informal credit organisation, agricultural extension agencies, seed fertilizer merchants, traders and so forth.
- Even when a household’s economic situation improves, money is rarely made available to women to hire labour to perform highly labour-intensive tasks such as collecting fodder and fuelwood. This is true even in the cash-crop producing areas where extra domestic paid labour is only used for men’s tasks. Because of the off-farm economy’s growing importance, a growing proportion of a household’s resources are being channelled towards educating boys who are viewed as an investment in future financial security, This is, however, only possible by reallocating the work burden to those members whose labour is considered expendable: women and girls.
DEVELOPMENT FOR WHOM?
It would, of course, be simplistic in the extreme to suggest that socio-economic change has bypassed women altogether. Women do share in a household’s improved standard of living up to a point and certain interventions like the setting up of medical facilities, electrification, and supply of piped water have improved aspects of their lives. And by and large the women of Garhwal and Kumaon seem supportive of the changes. Nonetheless, the chasm between male and female ‘life options’ is widening. Men, through education and migration, have more options available to them. Women, regardless of access to education, typically can expect little more than a life confined to the parameters of their villages.
New directives in hill development policy and the rapid socio-economic and ecological transformation of the mountains beg for a reassessment of that oft-asked question: development for whom and at what cost? Failure to do so will only spell out a grim future for the hill communities and marginalisation of women.
Both official and popular perceptions of mountain women have to recognise the new imperatives that shape contemporary realities. It is no longer enough to discuss the drudgery of women’s work, to assume an inevitable conflict between subsistence and market-oriented interests, and to perpetuate well-meaning but often misguided notions about women’s roles as resource managers based on scant or out-dated empirical evidence.
The reality is that, with few exceptions, mountain households are dependent on the external economy. The question, then, is how to make that interaction with the market more suited to the needs of villagers and specifically, village women? A more consciously systemic level analysis has to be developed in order to understand the hill household and its relationship to the wider political economy. This would help clarify why women’s high work involvement even in the domain of agricultural and market-oriented surplus generation typically fails to translate into improved status and recognition of their contributions.
A research and action-oriented agenda on the subject would, first, seek to develop a better understanding of how the sexes are positioned within the domestic economy, and second, examine the economic and extra-economic imperatives that compel households to participate in the external economy and which, in turn, affect the organisation and goals of agricultural activities. This macro perspective would also provide greater insight into the factors that shape and constrain women’s participation in subsistence and market-oriented domains and which result in reinforcing their dependence on men, as well as help generate possible solutions by taking technical, institutional and cultural factors into account.
Those responsible for guiding hill development are still a long way from understanding, at a practical level, that development is a multi-faceted process and that however beneficial it might appear in a broader sense, there are inevitably unintended and often indiscernible consequences that emerge on the ground. In this respect, it would be well worth examining the gender-structured consequences that emerge on the ground. Most importantly, it will be necessary to examine the gender-structured consequences of development activities in other regions so as to better understand the impact of the process of monetisation on the women of the U.P. hills, as well as the differences that arise due to the agro-ecological specificities of mountain regions.
Mehta is a Ph.D. student of anthropology at the University of Boston in the United States.