Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan

Kol Women: Equal Partners, Unequal Rights

Chitrakoot : With agriculture as the main economic activity in this district, issues of land and water are of prime importance for the kol women who inhabit many of its villages. Yet, women have traditionally been debarred from land rights and activities around check dams, irrigation ponds, hand-pumps and wells.

There are some efforts to involve women in some of these areas. Vanangana, a local NGO and Mahila Samakhya, a Central government initiative, have trained women as masons and hand-pump mechanics, thereby breaking into 'male' territory. Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS), another local NGO, has tried to involve women in the government funded watershed development project in village Tikaria by recruiting women members in the village level water-users association. Where once social norms prevented men and women from sitting together to discuss village matters, the formation of the committee broke this tradition.

Yet, these changes have only scratched the surface. Trained masons and mechanics get no support when it comes to being paid for their labour. The women often work for free or for a pittance. Women sat on the watershed committee and gave significant inputs on how to tap the flow of water. However, when it was time to do the technical survey and measure the area, only the men were recruited. Some of the illiterate men were taught how to measure but no one thought it necessary to upgrade the women's skill.

Fas just ended. On hindsight : activists of ABSSS acknowledge that some women are as well informed as some of the village men on matters such as slope of the land. "Women have often surprised us by having a better understanding as to where to harvest water, locate ponds, wells, hand-pumps and fodder troughs," said Rajabua, a senior worker of ABSSS. Again, though women handle at least 60 percent of the agriculture related activities, the ABSSS took as all-male 95 member contingent to agricultural institutes for an awareness trip.

Not surprisingly, in this highly feudalistic Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, even NGOs find it hard to break out of traditional mind-sets. Chitrakoot district, although carved out a new, reflects the social profile of the region. With a sharp economic divide between the rich and the poor, it remains dacoit-infested and ridden with poverty, corruption and violence. In the name of self-defence, gun licences are easy and murders intentional as well as accidental, are accepted without a blink. Even the land here is inhospitable - arid and inaccessible in many parts.

The kols are socially one of the most marginalised tribes (designated as Scheduled Castes in UP) of India. Survival for kol women means not only a struggle for physical resources but also for self-dignity. In a land where fathers strike compromise 'deals' with their son-in-laws following dowry deaths, it is not surprising that NGOs do not raise issue of land entitlement for women.

The ABSSS, for instance, has been working for nearly two decades to restore land title deeds or pattas, to the kols, but has begun talking about land entitlement for women only since last year. Now that rural women are being encouraged to participate in panchayats, it is time to empower the kol women by giving them control over land and water resources on which their survival depends.

This is a part of the series of articles contributed by Aditi Kapoor based on her research project on 'Women and Environment'. The research is funded by a fellowship grant from Leadership and Environment and Development (LEAD) International, New York.

Aditi Kapoor, The Times of India, July 12, 1999

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