‘I wish I had educated my daughter’

    Hungkiamle Newme (78) is seen here at her home in Hejaichak village in Dima Hasao district, Assam, with her jhum harvest for the day. With no electricity in her village, she will go to bed by sunset, rise by sunrise and work her field and garden in between. (Morung Photo)

    Hungkiamle Newme (78) lives on her small piece of land in Hejaichak Village in Dima Hasao district of Assam—formerly called the NC Hills district. She cultivates food from jhum land, tends to a small fruit garden and feeds chicken from day break. Hungkiamle converted to Christianity 9 years back from Heraka. Only 3 of the 8 children she reproduced are alive, scattered in various places now; only her daughter keeps coming back. She fixes the bulb that produces some electricity from solar power—no electricity has found its way to the village till date. She mends this and that, and keeps her mother company when she can visit from her own poor circumstances in Haflong.

    “I regret not having sent her to school,” says Hungkiamle of her daughter, not bitter, not sweet, calmly rolling out red chilli seeds for the next season. “I wish I had educated my daughter.”

    Her voice resonates with the Zeme Pui Baudi (ZPB, or the Zeme Mothers’ Association) in Haflong. “Priority is still for sons to be educated,” admits ZPB president, Kirang Jeme (45). Faced with poverty, the Zeme Naga women in Dima Hasao, Assam, bear the burden of carrying heavy buckets of water through broken roads to houses with no electricity where they nurture and educate their children despite their own discriminated status. The markets are full of them selling vegetables, as are the fields. On the roadside, they hammer stones to chips.

    Development & political representation

    Maternal healthcare in the Zeme Naga areas of the district is a no-show. “Till today pregnant women, and other sick people, from some villages are carried on bamboo stretchers to hospitals in Haflong,” informs Kingaule Newme (33), a research scholar and women’s rights activist. Primary healthcare centres are either missing (though they exist on record) or deliver poor services. Death-at-delivery cases are common but no documentation exists. Even after a woman gives birth, she has to go back to the fields within a month. Younger women are then bestowed with childcare.

    “So either the girl is not educated, or she has to go to school with a child on her back. With no land inheritance pattern for women as such, she is too burdened and has no way to empower herself,” says Kingaule, of the Zeme woman who is unrepresented at any political level. The under-representation of the Zeme people themselves in the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council presents no irony.

    This shows up at both the level of the family and the community. Survivors of domestic violence hardly ever speak up—“either they are too ashamed or too scared (of familial repercussions mostly) to report cases.” At the community level, women have no voice at, say, Zeme Council (apex body) meetings wondering if it will be too bold a move—women speaking up at all-male-meetings is looked down upon. The Council has never taken up gender issues, whether related to representation of, or violence against, women.

    Peace making

    When conflict broke out between Dima Hasao resident communities in 2009, Zeme Naga men, through local institutions, decided to have a two-level village-guarding system during the nights. The first gate would be guarded by men; women would guard the next level. Women were simply asked to organize. At home, younger women would take care of the children. When they came back from their night duty, the women would get working to put the household together. For the sake of the community, no one objected.

    “Whenever the Indian army picked up our men on suspicion, we were summoned to make sure they were handed over to the police on time. We were there to shield the community from human rights abuse. We facilitated peace talks between the two communities,” lists out the president of the ZPB. “We are a consistent pressure group but our views are consistently left out of meetings where decisions for the community are made.”

    Fear, today, passes like an undercurrent between the two communities. The Indigenous Women Forum of North East India tried to bring women’s voices from the communities on a platform. That failed as male politics ruled the roost. After the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum was formed as a civil platform for non-Dimasa groups in Dima Hasao district, Kirang worked hard to organize the Indigenous Peoples’ Women Forum. When she went to pacify angry youth at a protest bandh in 2012, she was critically beaten with iron bars and bricks.

    With increasing cases of violence against women in Dima Hasao, both Kirang and Kingaule admit that a ‘solution’ to the problem, per se, cannot be had. “However, the contribution of women to modern society has to be understood as a first step, followed by an acknowledgment of the problems we face,” suggest the two women, speaking for half the Zeme Naga population in Dima Hasao.

    Source: The Morung Express