Sunday, July 21, 2024
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Gendered Poverty in a Matrilineal State

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By E Revathi and Govind Kelkar

Meghalaya is a matrilineal society with land and lineage in the women’s names. The youngest daughter (ka khadduh) inherits the family land and house, and she is the custodian of it, also bestowed with the responsibility of taking care of her parents and other family members. The female labour force participation rate in the state is the highest in the country at around 60%. Agriculture engages 80% of the population in 4.5 lakh households in the state but contributes around 18% to GVA (Gross Value Added). One can easily perceive from this scenario, that the per capita income of those depending on agriculture is very low compared to the state per capita income. Landlessness has been growing in the state for the past two decades or even more. According to the SECC (Socio-economic Caste Census) 2011 data only 24% of households own any land in the state. The more recent NFHS 5 data show that 65% of women owned a house or land alone or jointly with others. From the growing landlessness, it could be understood that women mostly owned houses and not land. Around 34 % of rural landless tribal households derive a major part of their income from manual labour.
Meghalaya ranked 3rd in the percentage of the total population who are multi-dimensionally poor at 27.79%, only after Jharkhand and Bihar, according to the National Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index (MDPI) Report 2023. The MDPI, a non-income poverty measure is based on the NFHS 5 (National Family Health Survey) data collected during 2019-21. The reduction in MDP compared to earlier NFHS 4 (2015-16) is marginal at 4.75 %. It was 32.54% in NFHS 4 and reduced marginally. Generally, a higher population in poverty would also mean a faster reduction in poverty numbers, but the case of Meghalaya has been an exception. While the headcount ratio has fallen, the intensity of poverty has stubbornly remained the same. The MDPI has fallen because of a reduction in the headcount ratio but not due to a fall in the intensity of poverty.
Multi-dimensional poverty and its indicators: The MDPI has three dimensions- health and nutrition, education, and standard of living, each contributing equally to the index. The number of indicators varies- while the health dimension has three indicators (nutrition, child & adolescent mortality and maternal health); education has two indicators (years of schooling and school attendance); standard of living has the maximum number of seven indicators (cooking fuel, sanitation, drinking water, housing, electricity, assets and bank accounts). The MDPI is measured in two components viz- HCR (headcount ratio) and the intensity of poverty. The MDPI has been assessed for the first time as a baseline in 2015-16 using NFHS 4 data, the subsequent editions are comparable to assess the improvement or decline in multi-dimensional poverty.
Multi-dimensional poverty in the State: An analysis of the multi-dimensional poverty in the state shows it is higher in rural areas, but the intensity of poverty has increased in urban areas compared to rural areas. A further dive into the indicators shows that the state has not fared well in nutrition and maternal health, education in both indicators of years of schooling and school attendance and housing (under the standard of living dimension). Still, around a fifth of the population is deprived of nutrition, maternal health, cooking fuel and housing. The under-5 mortality rate is as high as 40, with an Infant Mortality rate of 32 and a neo-natal mortality rate of 19.8, according to NFHS 5 data.
Among the three major tribes of the state – the Khasis, Jaintia and the Garo, the Jaintia tribe living in the West Jaintia Hills district ranked lowest, with a high MDPI (poorest) followed by Khasis in the West Khasi district. East Jaintia Hills district and South West Khasi also rank low after West Jaintia and West Khasi Hills districts. Garo community has the lowest MDPI in the state, indicating a lower percentage of a multi-dimensionally poor population. Ribhoi district, which had the highest MDPI in 2015-16, could improve its performance in lowering the number of poor by 14% in 2019-20. This may be due to the fertile lands and its good productivity, earning it the name ‘food basket’ of Meghalaya.
Loss of land and livelihoods: The structure of land holdings has been undergoing transformation. Clan land meant for the use of clan members and community land meant for the use of members of the village or group of villages have been on the decline. Major chunks of such land have been converted into private land with the support and/or connivance of Village Council leaders or distributed among the powerful clan members. An elite class has emerged, especially among Khasis and Jaintias, which could control land by way of private property, especially in urban areas. Land has also been given by the Autonomous District Councils, which have control over land for mining, buildings, roads and other infrastructure – broadly for development purposes to the Government. As most of the development projects or activities are predominantly male, they could get employed in such activities. Landlessness among households implies women became landless as land mostly is in the name of women. Thus, women left with no land either work on leased land with a very low share left for themselves as they have to part with at least 50% of produce to the land owner or alternatively are forced to work as casual labour in farm or non-farm sector in rural areas with daily wages anywhere between INR 250 -300, while men get INR 500.
Data shows that only 40 per cent who worked in the last 12 months were paid in cash; in the case of others, it is mostly unpaid labour. Most of the women work in the informal sectors like petty trade, street vending and so on, with inadequate and unstable incomes. Moreover, women bear the brunt of unpaid care and domestic work. According to NFHS 5 data, 16.9% of women married before they were 18 years old; the total fertility rate or children per woman was 2.9 (higher than the national average at 2); teen-aged mothers account for 7.2%; 54% of women aged 15-49 years are anaemic. Increasingly, women have become single parents due to the ‘brittleness’ of marriage in the matrilineal system. The ‘Exploratory Study on the Socio-Economic Status and Problems of Single Mothers in Meghalaya’ conducted by the State Commission for Women in 2022, reports there were 3,078 single mothers in seven of the 12 districts surveyed. Their level of education is low- 46.2% of them were illiterate while 28.4% just had only primary education.
The loose structure of marriage with fluid relations between men and women more as partners leaves scope for men deserting or abandoning wives and children and not taking care of them. Polygyny is still not uncommon. Women carry the burden of running a family. All these point towards what is called ‘gendered poverty’, where poverty is more concentrated among women, who are ill-equipped – with low levels of education, informal employment, unstable incomes, malnourished and burdened with family care. Moreover, women are unable to articulate their needs and demands due to the culture of keeping them out of village/community decision-making – the Dorbar Shnong. Women, however, are excluded from participation in the traditional political system. Only men are allowed to hold office in the Dorbar Shnong.
The way forward: Poor women are indeed at a crossroads with neither clan nor community support nor family support. The coming together of women may show a way towards collective activity in the form of Self-help groups (SHGs). Elsewhere in the country, especially in the southern states, SHGs have made a rapid stride in bringing women together, primarily catering to their economic needs but also expanding their space into social and political spheres. What is urgent today for the poor women in the state is to give them a stable livelihood which may eventually prevent inter-generational poverty. Coming together of women may also lead to a new thinking of claiming their space in governance structures changing adverse social norms of their exclusion from decision-making. Many in the women’s movement have been arguing for women’s unmediated right to land as a critical component of women’s socio-political equality. However, the example of Meghalaya shows women’s land rights is only half of the story. The two other critical components of such empowerment are women’s equal participation in the decision-making at the community level and at state structures of governance in ending both gendered poverty and discriminatory social norms.
( E Revathi is a Development economist and Director Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad and Govind Kelkar is Executive Director and Professor of GenDev, Centre for Research and Innovation based in Gurgaon).

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