By Patricia Mukhim
On November 22 last, Asian Confluence the think-tank hub saw some path-breaking women from rural Meghalaya assembling to speak of their achievements and challenges. In attendance was Ms Veena Sikri, former High Commissioner to Bangladesh who also wears many hats today. Currently she is on the Ford Foundation endowed Chair, Bangladesh Studies Programme, Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. It was Veena Sikri who proposed that following the trajectory of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) alliance a joint effort be made to start a tourism circuit around the above countries, which would involve women as primary stakeholders. Sikri works closely with Bangladesh and came in contact with the Khasi people there, who she said, felt alienated from their ancestors in Meghalaya and yearned to connect with them if only to keep their culture and tradition alive. It was this that triggered a thought in the former diplomat to connect the Khasis of Bangladesh and Meghalaya using the tourism circuit.
The women who assembled at Asian Confluence came from diverse backgrounds but had been exposed to government programmes aimed at empowering them in providing healthcare, managing small enterprises and to run self help groups among others. The women spoke of the organisations that enabled them to serve the community around. These organisations were named in their abbreviated forms hence it was difficult for listeners to know exactly their full form and intent. However, they all seemed to be part of the state government’s outreach programmes to train and empower young entrepreneurs and other village leaders to take up different responsibilities.
One by one the women narrated how they started off from a point of complete helplessness and how they have now found their feet. One woman, now running an export business, boldly narrated how her husband, a violent man would beat her up in front of their two daughters and how he would warn them not to tell a soul, else they would face similar or worse consequences. One fine day the man took all the money earned over several years with him and left the family, never to return. The woman decided to carry on the export business and continues to do that even while she also teaches at a local school.
Another young lady said she is a jeweller dealing with gold and silver ornaments. Normally this is a trade that is male-centric and it was so in this case too. The husband of the lady was the jeweller but he passed away. That’s when she decided she was going to carry on with the trade. She must be the first woman jeweller not just in Meghalaya but perhaps the country too. When asked if she faced any challenges in this trade, the lady said she only faces problems when scouting around for stones and gold when she has to take the help of her male colleagues.
And so it was that about 20 women told their moving stories. They were stories of struggle and pain but also of small victories in overcoming those to chart out a new life. There was limited time allotted for the programme else we would have gone on listening to each of these vibrant women whose age ranged from 25-35 years. You could see they were all eager to tell their stories; eager to be heard and eager to start life afresh, given an opportunity. And it is at this point of need that the government can step in to hone their skills and scale up their little start-ups. Some of these women had become mothers early. It was evident in their visage and the stories of their journeys. And that’s Meghalaya for you! Motherhood starts early; sometime as early as 15-16 years of age and by age 25 such women have collected basketfuls of experiences from which they have learnt to negotiate the pitfalls of life.
These women have realised the power of Voice as agency. What’s needed now is for them to know how to use that Voice; to figure out what gives Power to Voice; why Voice must focus on issues that matter to them and why that Voice must find its way into the corridors of power; into the State assembly where one is used to listening only to the cacophony of male rhetoric. How can these Voices be aggregated to form a strong coalition of women’s articulations for their rights to better governance and where their bodies must stop becoming the location for violence and the orthodoxy of culture.
Women’s voices are absent in policy-making. Take the Tourism policy for instance. Did any women-related issue figure there? Who were the main stakeholders in the crafting of that policy? Obviously, the educated male elite from the city. There were no stakeholder consultations at the villages. If at all there were consultations those would have been with the tour promoters or the village leaders, who are all male. How does the female perspective get into any policy-making then? Or are we suggesting that a policy does not lend itself to gender nuances? Gender blind policies result in further pushing women to the fringes of the economy. Including women as stakeholders in the policy-making process can expose policy makers to complex and nuanced issues that have been previously overlooked. Ensuring that policies use a gendered lens can make such policies not only more successful but also more meaningful since women, men and other genders have different needs which remain unmet for the simple reason that government policies have always remained gender blind or gender neutral. So far governments have believed that only the Health Policy should be more women-centric. That’s wrong and way off the mark. Every policy from education to policing to tourism, environment and forests, mining and geology, finance, sports and youth affairs must have a gender perspective. No wonder most policies fall flat.
Merely raving that there are enough women in administration or those heading important public institutions is meaningless if such women are schooled in the crucible of patriarchy. That goes for the much-touted, much romanticised matrilineal society of Meghalaya too where far too many women in the backwoods have fallen by the wayside and carry burdens that are invisibilised in the economic charters of the Government. Just imagine this: a serious discussion happens in the Meghalaya cabinet. How much of diversity of thoughts are allowed in such meetings? Yet diversity of thought is arguably the most important diversity. When perspective are unrepresented in discussions; when some kind of thinkers are not at the table, that room becomes just an echo-chamber, rather than a sounding board of contesting thoughts and we all lose. A successful Chief Minister has to make decisions while radiating hesitancy, stay open-minded in the face of new evidence and not fall into the trap that afflicts those with excessive self-confidence.
Veena Sikri has taken that first step to create a hub for women to share their stories and this is a powerful way in which women empower one another and benefit from cross learning. Before women can lead tourism ventures they need to be skilled in the multiple demands of the tourism industry. So much has to do with culinary skills; of hospitality; of story-telling; of creating narratives and making the tourism experience immersive. Women cannot always be relegated to cultural icons who can only dance, sing and play musical instruments or to be showcased as weavers or turmeric growers and processors. They have more latent skills that have not been explored. It is important to explore those skills instead of stereotyping what women can and cannot do. If you ask me, there’s nothing women cannot do!