Beacons of gender parity

The resurgence of Koraga women against the disregard of matrilineal values gave those impacted by violence the self-assurance to plead their cases before the courts

When patriarchy in the Koraga tribe, a traditionally matrilineal society, began to manifest itself in myriad ways, including domestic violence, it sparked a quiet revolution among the women. Instead of waiting for someone else to make the difference, the women decided to take matters into their own hands. It was their courage to question the personal laws of the community and demand concrete mechanisms to deal with the problem of violence that led to the institution of a community court. With the court members being chosen by the community after being trained and vetted by the district legal aid authority, the women were satisfied that justice would be done to reinforce the gender equality that traditionally existed in the matrilineal system.

It was this resurgence of women against the disregard of matrilineal values that gave those impacted by violence the self-assurance to plead their cases before the court. The collectivisation also reaffirmed self-belief in many women that they always had the right to take their own decisions. This is when Manjula realised that she had not done herself any good by keeping quiet about the mental and physical torture by her husband. The support of other women gave Manjula the confidence to finally leave her violent husband. She has remarried since then and is happy she was able to take the decision to change her life.

In fact, when the going gets tough, it is the Koraga women who get going. This is exactly what Mamta Koraga did when she saw her husband sliding into indebtedness and poverty because of his alcoholism. Although alcoholism is a common problem among men of this Karnataka-based particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), Mamta decided it was time for a change. She encouraged him to join a de-addiction camp. Mamta came to know of the camp through an awareness and empowerment campaign run by the Koraga Federation, a community organisation, in collaboration with the Samagra Grameena Ashrama and ActionAid India, two non-profits working for the marginalised. Then, once he successfully completed the treatment, she joined him in cultivating jasmine as a livelihood rehabilitation option.

However, Mamta did not stop there. She ensured that they had equal decision-making powers in keeping with the progressive values of the matrilineal system and also shared household expenses.  A major part of the profits that her husband makes from selling the jasmine is ploughed back into improving cultivation. The rest is contributed towards household payments.

Mamta, too, contributes an equal share from the income that she earns from selling costume jewellery. She used the training given by the Government’s Integrated Tribal Development Programme to learn how to make and sell costume jewellery after the jasmine cultivation venture stabilised. While a part of her income is earmarked for the household, Mamta deposits the remaining into her bank account. With both working and sharing expenses, the couple no longer needs to take loans to make two ends meet.

Assertions of gender equality also came from younger girls and women of the community. Susheela always wanted to pursue academics but was persuaded by her father to agree to marriage. However, when realisation dawned that she would no longer be able to study if she got married, Susheela, then a student of Class VIII, called off her engagement. She knew she would be going against traditional societal norms and the diktat of her father. But so strong was her aspiration for education that she was willing to risk her father’s wrath. Her gamble and determination paid dividends. As the first girl in her village to acquire a postgraduate degree, Susheela is a role model for many other girls in the community. She doesn’t consider marriage the ultimate goal. It is possible to be single and happy, she tells other girls in the community as women in a matrilineal society have freedom of choice in all matters.

Manjula, Mamta and Susheela are part of larger groups of women who regularly meet to discuss how to preserve their culture, traditional practices and way of life, especially within the matrilineal system. They strategise ways to return to the practices which valued girls and which were an inherent way of life for them.

They want equal representation of women in the Koraga Federation, the nodal organisation comprising community members that takes key decisions. They see it as one way to sustain the progress achieved by their campaign for gender equality.

In fact, when Gowri Kenjur was elected the first president of the Koraga Federation, it provided a big fillip to their movement.  A vocal campaigner, Kenjur pressed for greater participation of women from the community and encouraged them to stand up for their rights. She motivated self-help groups (SHGs), formed with the assistance of Samagra Grameena Ashrama, to take control of their resources and fight for their rights.

So inspired were the groups that when local Government authorities overlooked their concerns while formulating plans for local development, over 42 women SHG members staged a sit-in protest. They sat on the dharna until the heads of the local Government agreed to develop an action plan in accordance with the suggestions given by the women regarding education and drinking water for the children.

The torch for gender equality lit by Kenjur was carried forward by Sushila Nada who became a household name not just in Nada, her village in Udupi district, but also in all districts in Karnataka where the federation works.

This was not just because she was an articulate and innovative federation president but also because Nada used her powers to promote gender equality. Concerned that the traditional matrilineal values of the Koragas were being eroded by patriarchal attitudes, Nada organised rallies on events like Women’s Day and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to sensitise the community.

She also represented the community at national and international fora to share how gender equality was an integral part of their matrilineal system. The Koragas celebrate the birth of a girl child  unlike the practice in other parts of India, including the Koragas’ home State of Karnataka, where girls are usually killed before birth because of the preference for a son. In fact, in Karnataka, the sex ratio at birth declined by 108 points between  2007-2016 according to the Office of the Registrar-General of India.

Incidentally, the sex ratio for Scheduled Tribes in Karnataka is 990 females per 1,000 males, which is higher than the national average of 964 for Scheduled Tribes as well as the State overall average of 973 girls per 1,000 boys.

Another big difference is that there is no system of dowry among the Koragas. So no Koraga woman was killed for bringing a poor dowry or for the lack of it. In fact, being a matrilineal society, the girl did not leave her natal home to live in her marital home after marriage. It was her husband who left his house to live with her. This system gave Koraga women economic and social empowerment.

However, the Koragas are the most backward of all tribal groups in southern India. Nada and the federation have fought hard for the restoration of pride among the community and to end the practice of anjalu in which Koragas are fed leftovers by upper castes to ward off  evil spirits.

Plus, being considered untouchable meant that Koraga children were denied admission to Anganwadis. Awareness campaigns by Nada, also an Anganwadi worker, and the federation, facilitated the entry of Koraga children to Anganwadis. Mamta Koraga was among the first to send her daughter to the Anganwadi in her village. Although her daughter was the only Koraga child there, she didn’t have to face any discrimination thanks to the enabling environment created by women of the community. Even older women who had dropped out of school because of discrimination have been inspired to restart their education.

What makes their movement laudable is that even while pushing for gender equality within, the Koraga women have been equally vociferous in drawing Government attention to the plight of the entire community. They have been at the forefront of the community’s struggles to reclaim their right to traditional land, even courting arrest by the police. They are the true beacons in the fight for gender equality.

 (The writer is a senior journalist)

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