Women in this Naga village have started shaping their own future and… that of the village too
Tucked in a remote corner of the Northeast is a village in Nagaland that has witnessed a silent revolution in socioeconomic reforms and environmental protection. And at the forefront of this unique movement are women who decided to tread the unconventional path for bringing far-reaching changes in the mountain hamlet. These Naga women, always respected, have now created a hitherto denied space in the governance of the village and its economic uplift.
Chizami is located in the Phek district of the border state and is inhabited by Chakhesang Nagas. The village consists of around 600 households with a population of 3,000, largely dependent on Jhum cultivation, a slash-and-burn type of agriculture that is traditionally practiced in the hilly terrains of Northeast India. Although women have traditionally enjoyed a respectable position in Naga society, their roles are marginal and often without a say in the governance of the village. This is more perceptible in the backward eastern districts like Mon, Longleng and Tuensang than in the western zone where literacy rate is higher.
Monisha and Seno
The winds of change started blowing in Chizami in the mid 1990s when women’s rights activists Monisha Behal and founder of North East Network (NEN) started community development for women in the village with a local activist Seno Tsuhah. Between 1998 and 2004, the work focused on improving reproductive and community health, sanitation and nutrition. By the end of 2002, the village council donated land to NEN to set up a resource centre, which was completed three years later. A vocational training centre also came up after a few months for skill development programmes to the residents of the village.
The overwhelming response encouraged NEN to expand the list which came to include bamboo craft, food processing, organic farming, rooftop water harvesting and low-cost sanitation. The main challenge for Seno and Behal was to bring about socio-economic changes and empower the youth, which was not an easy task.
But within a short span, the decisive impact of the programmes was apparent. As in all Naga habitats, governance is vested in the village council comprising male representatives of khels (the Naga word for clans within the same community). The council members assist the “Ang”, or village chief, in decision-making and implementation of programmes.
Seno, along with some other women, began to demand equal pay as men in unskilled farm labour. In January 2014, in a landmark move, the village council passed the resolution for equal wages in agricultural labour and next year, another milestone was achieved when two women were allowed entry as members in the Enhulumi village council.
Recalling her experience at Chizami, Behal said “To some of us, empowerment is when a woman is free to follow a life that does not label her as bad when she expresses her viewpoints within her family and her community. The success of North East Network in Chizami is that of the team’s commitment to women’s development and the process in which we value their work. This simply means that women farmers, weavers and homemakers should be regarded as people who should have the freedom to be cooks, actors, boxers, taxi drivers, mechanics or even lawyers and politicians. Women should have space to participate in public discourse, village councils and have the choice to make their own decisions. Finally, women must have access to justice as most societies in hill states of our region are highly patriarchal. Nagaland is no exception.”
Weaving a Brand
In 2008, NEN launched the flagship scheme Chizami Weaves, which now has a strong network of more than 300 women in the village. The programme promotes textiles manufactured by one of the oldest looms - the loin-loom or the back-strap loom – often seen in most villages in the Northeast where textiles are produced. Though Naga shawls and the traditional mekhela (wraparound) enjoyed cult status in the apparel market, traditional weaving in the villages had suffered a setback due to lack of viability and entrepreneurship.
From weaving, the scheme expanded to include products such as stoles, cushion covers, belts, bags and table mats that are now shipped to emporiums in all the major cities of the country. Experts were roped in from New Delhi and Mumbai for new designs and colours into the items, apart from the traditional Naga red, black and white. Buoyed by Chizami’s success story, 10 other villages in the district have decided to follow the same path and spread the silent revolution.
The message was spreading fast and it was only a matter of time before the weavers began to usher in new perceptions of gender justice. The weavers now support their families through their work and they are also making their presence felt in the community’s public spaces by raising their voices on issues of health, livelihood, and environment.
Most importantly, they stepped into issues related to food security, which assumes importance, given the fragile mountain ecosystem in Nagaland and the impact of climate change, which has been quite evident in the irregular pattern of rainfall and rising temperatures. Traditional farming practices have also suffered in the hill state with the advent of the more lucrative cash crop (cardamom, for instance). NEN has firmed up plans for cultivation of millet in different villages of Phek since the crop had been an integral part of Naga culture and highly climate-resilient.
A prime consequence of all these activities has been the prohibition on hunting and trapping of birds and animals which is quite unusual for Naga villages. The village council imposes strict fines on those violating the norms. The importance of conservation is slowly taking over the village as its rich biodiversity is under threat due to rampant hunting, large-scale commercial logging and unplanned development—making the region highly vulnerable to climate change. Chizami has emerged as a beacon of hope for a state that has witnessed militancy for the past six decades or so. The message about how these women scripted a success story is fast spreading and students and research scholars are often found landing at Chizami for a peek into the unique model of development.
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