Women of Assam - Women Empowerment


International Women’s day is celebrated every year on 8th March to mark not only the strengths and triumphs of women but also to draw attention to their causes. However, the degree and the gravity of this celebration is more in the developing world when compared to the global north. In Assam too, this day is celebrated with great enthusiasm, albeit the celebration remains restricted to a handful of philanthropic and women’s organizations, saddled often by the yoke of political motivations. But what does this day really implicate in terms of women of Assam? Is it just another year of celebration? Or does it really carry some meaningful explanations? Can we really measure the narratives of progress (more specifically empowerment) of women of Assam through this day? In order to answer all these questions, we need to reflect back to see how far women’s lives have changed in the past decades, or look around us at the struggles which still dominate many women’s lives. We guess it is better to reflect on both the versions of the glass: glass half-empty and the glass half-full.

It is well documented that Assam is a home to startling, visible squalor, a place where chronic poverty and deprivation are clearly seen almost in every geographical confines. Appalling statistics unpacks that 36.09% of the total population of Assam continue to live below the poverty line, a figure appreciably above the national average of 26.10 %. Importantly, the percentage of people living below the poverty line in Assam is highest among the seven States of the North East India. Arguably, poverty has a women’s face- out of every ten poorest persons of the world, six are women. It is in this said context, we argue that it is the women of Assam who bear this brunt of poverty. At the same time, there remains a consensus that women of Assam have generally enjoyed greater freedom in their daily lives compared with Indian women as a whole. This is generally because Assam is historically a society free from dowry and Sati. There is nevertheless evidence that there are gender-related discriminations within the society of Assam. For instance, despite varied legal provisions, women of Assam continue to remain victims of male violence: the statistics produced by National Crime Records Bureau, 2008 demonstrates that the rate of crime against women in Assam is 27%. As defined by Crime Records Bureau, rate of crime against women means number of crimes against women per one lakh population. The same set of statistics also unravel that the number of incidence of all crimes committed against women in Assam stands at 8122. 

Strikingly, Crime Records Bureau fails to record statistics related to rape and street sexual harassment (eve teasing) against women of Assam. Recent research on eve teasing demonstrates that women are eve teased in the streets of Assam every 51 minutes, and in this way shackles their freedom of mobility. Undoubtedly, ubiquity of such malaise is ‘a wall of shame’ for Assam and Assamese community as a whole.

Notwithstanding, Indian women’s movement has paved the way for women’s continued access to higher education. Current statistics produced by Statistical Handbook Assam, 2009 suggests that of the total enrollment of students in higher education, the percentage of women stands at 33.63.

It is evident that women accessing higher education are participating in the public sphere as active agents of transformation rather than simply being recipients of higher education. However, these women belong mainly to middle class or elite section of Assamese society. But empowerment should be prerogative to all section of women. With the launching of programmes like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Mid Day Meal, Right to Education, there have been spectacular achievements in literacy among girls: with startling increases in enrolment rates. Despite these great efforts to tackle illiteracy, the statistics produced by National Family Health Survey, India, 2008 suggests that in Assam still 30% women within the age-group 15-49 have never attended school, while, only 19% women have completed at least 10 years of schooling. Even unemployment remains a major problem. According to the latest figures, the registered unemployed stand at 2.1 million, which undoubtedly exacerbate poverty. Importantly, educated unemployment is increasing alarmingly- graduates account for 20%, and school leavers account for 57% of the registered unemployed persons. Nevertheless, according to Economic Survey, Assam, 2009-10, women constitute 32.5% of all organised sector workers, as opposed to only 19% for all India in the same sector. Interestingly, since the year 1990, women’s employment in the organised sector has been approximately around 30%, which is alluring for a developing state like Assam. However, this trend of women’s employment is only a ‘feel good factor’, euphoria for the women of Assam. The reality speaks a different language: the vast majorities of women employed in this sector are employed by the Tea Industry which is one of the largest organised sectors in Assam, either as permanent or temporary/casual labourers, and are a marginalised section of Assamese society. 

Now if we look into the health sector, recent statistics produced by Nutrition in India, National Family Health Survey, India, 2009 demonstrates that in Assam, more than 60% of women within the age-group 15-49 are anemic, the rate being much higher than her sister states Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and even Arunachal Pradesh . The report also suggests that more than half of all women in Assam are malnourished. .

Notwithstanding, the rural health care, especially the National Rural Health Mission holds the key to achieving cherished goal of health for all women of Assam: the schemes like Mamoni, Majoni, Mamata are significant ventures in providing economic aid to pregnant women, but the extent of the success of these ventures will be clearer in the years to come. Importantly, about 30, 000 Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) have been employed across Assam for improving healthcare for mother and the child. However, at the same time, the report State of the World’s Children released by the UNICEF unpacks the practice of child marriage being prevalent in parts of Assam. Statistics reveals that every third girl in Assam gets married before reaching the legal marriageable age of18: 38% girls of Assam were married off before reaching 18 years, although the figure has dropped down from 44.4% in 1992-1993.

In short, this essay sheds light on some of the indicators related to women’s progress and or relapse. Organisations celebrating International Women’s Day must address ‘equality’ in their agenda, so that these organisations are at a position to suggest measures as to what should be done to achieve equality. In so doing, the organisations must be able to analyse which indicator has achieved what in terms of progress and which are the ones that have been either lagging behind or are completely off track. In this way, perhaps the state or the funding agencies will have a clear vision and will be able to allocate focused resources to those indicators or direct aids to the remote rural areas and slums where chronic poverty remains rife. Perhaps such steps would be able to bear fruits of success rather than just adopting the failure as an established mechanism to leverage unregulated aids and resources from the funding bodies.


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