ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Exclusive Commons

The Erosion of Women’s Agency in North East India

Reflecting on the restriction of women’s agency to exclusive platforms in rural North East India, this article locates women’s agency in common resources, which define their sociocultural identities. The exclusivity of common knowledge, skills, practices, resources, and social security has restricted women farmers from accessing equitable power and decision-making. Women’s agency in common institutions is marginalised where patriarchal practices dominate. Exclusivity cannot replace empowerment outside common village-level institutions. The emergence of an exclusive strategy to marginalise women’s perspectives within the larger context of sustainability, policy formulation, political assertion, and ecological regeneration is examined.

This paper was presented at the National Conference of Indian Association of Women’s Studies in January 2017 at the University of Madras, Chennai.

Women farmers in Nagaland and Manipur have practised subsistence agriculture for generations. Ester Boserup in “Enquiry into the Status of Women in Nagaland” (North East Network 2016)1 claims that shifting agriculture is women’s agriculture. Since ancestral times, women have worked on the steep slopes of the Naga Hills in North East India, which ascend from the highlands of Nagaland and Manipur. As part of a PhD research study,2 during 2015­­–16, the author travelled through the hilly terrains of the Phek, Longleng, and Peren districts of Nagaland and engaged in fieldwork in Tamenglong, Churachandpur, and Bishen­pur districts and Jiribam subdivision in Manipur. During these extensive field visits and interactions with women, village institutions, key informants, women society members, women self-help group (SHG) members, and women farmers, diverse issues were discussed. The researcher captured field experiences and emerging concerns that were flagged during the interactive sessions, focus group discussions, and individual interviews.

Although rural women in Nagaland and the Manipur Hills have contributed to sustainable agricultural practices for many decades over several generations as part of their living customary traditions, their work has remained restricted to family or community work. Their work was not considered productive formal sector work that would lead to adequate employment and social security benefits. Women’s ecological practices uphold the community, tribe, and village identity, which have a collective relevance in the lives of Naga women. When a woman farmer offers a freshly cooked plate of food to a family member or guest, she presents not just a satisfying meal with intense flavours, but her labourious farm work, ancestral seed heritage, the time taken to prepare the meal, and willingness to share what she gathered, collected, sowed, harvested, or preserved through the whole season. Such actions signify a deep sense of solidarity with one’s living environment, community, and identity; these qualities characterise the essence of being a woman farmer.

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Updated On : 28th Feb, 2021
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