(Guwahati) “I am the Executive Director of a non-profit organisation. A friend and I started this organisation in 1995 in Guwahati. Now we have six offices, two offices each in Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Our organisation works on a few key themes.
One is gender-based discrimination and violence against women. We are astounded at the extent of domestic violence taking place in North-East. There is patriarchal functioning even in the matrilineal system. Men have decided that they rule the roost. All the idioms and phrases or any norm that is followed in the society is highly patriarchal in character. I talked to a lot of rural women and saw good leadership qualities in these women. So, my colleagues and I taught them how to research on issues related to domestic violence and the same women wrote a wonderful book called “Unheard” which compiled and noted all cultural references, idioms, phrases that are used in Assamese language, which look at women very negatively, because whenever domestic violence takes place, men usually try to justify the abuse by quoting these very phrases.
We are also working for the safety of women from witch-hunting and rights of women who are internally displaced. Further, immediately after the Sexual Harassment at Workplace law was passed in India, we got letters from various organisations inviting us to become a part of their Internal Complaints Committee. We had never been invited like this before and every time we go to these places, we distribute a copy of a short guide on the new law. I hope people become more conscious. I still think our work is like a drop in the ocean because every time we take a step forward we take seven steps backward.
One of the important ways to find a solution to mitigate violence is definitely through training, screening of films, writing about the issues and making more women at the grassroots level part of the movement. They are the ones, who, if influenced, can bring a stop to violence against women.
The second theme is Governance and Accountability. We are working on the problem of women not being part of the public bodies like the Panchayat. We try to bring women into the political process. We are also enabling women to study the budget and also teach them to analyze resources being allocated at the Block and Village Level.
In the arena of natural resources management and livelihood issues, we are digitally archiving women’s work in agricultural sector. We are compiling information related to the local seeds, promotion of millets and documenting the indigenous system of farming, which is slowly dying. We also want to talk about the good things of the North East, for example, its natural resources and how we can preserve them.
Another tough task we took up was the need to address the disparity in wages in Nagaland. We have more women farmers in Nagaland than anywhere in the world. It is a highly agrarian society and economy. Women are up at 4:30 am, and do all the labour, but their wages are much less than men. In 1998, we talked to the Village Council Head to demand equal wages for women. But the local governing bodies would explain to us that God has created men to be stronger than women and men work harder than women. But through our actions and continuous intervention, people in the rural areas understood that the worth of women here. Finally, in 2014, in front of the entire village, the Village Council Head announced the wages of men and women will be equal. I would say that it was our team efforts in Nagaland that actually got these people to change their mindset. I am very hopeful that women will be better off.
We also work with women weavers to help them earn cash. But we don’t let women weave during agricultural season so that they can work in their fields too without fear of losing their jobs. When women earn, I find husbands are helping more with household chores. I think that not only just the issues of violence should be addressed, we should also address the issue of economic sustenance, ecological balance, bio-diversity, digitally archiving photographs and documents of the good things that are going on in North-East India.
Women at the grassroots level have a huge potential. Through collective strength, women at the grassroots level can be sensitized about improving their status, and also demand from the government to be perhaps more transparent.”
“As a young girl, I didn’t believe there was domestic violence or any other kind of violence against women. This was may be because I had a wonderful childhood and belonged to a very protective family, I was exposed to the concept of women’s rights when I joined Delhi University. When I started working in a women’s organisation, I understood what violence was, and once I came back to Assam to work in the villages, I started realizing there is violence against women everywhere. I started my work with an NGO where I learnt how to write proposals and ask for funds.
I started working at a young age and the person that I married knew what I was like. That’s all I can say. He was very supportive and has always been. I have two children and they always saw me working or traveling for work. I used to always feel guilty because of that. My husband had told me that anytime our children cried for their mother, he would let me know. I used to be really distraught with the feeling that I was being a negligent mother the children were all right. I was an indulgent mother. Of course, they are out of the nest now.
My organisation has been a life commitment for me and the good news is that it has now come up with the next generation of leaders.”