Assessing gender in the North East


Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Editor's note:

This work was part of the larger research on land and property rights supported by the Omidyar Network.

  • On July 19, 2019, Brookings India hosted a Development Seminar on gender in the North East, under its Property Rights Initiative and Gender Secretariat Initiative, which is a platform for developing and discussing research that fuels impact on policy related to gender in India.
  • Patricia Mukhim, veteran journalist and editor of Shillong Times, and a Padma Shri awardee, presented key insights from her book, Waiting for an Equal World: Gender in the North East, and discussed lesser known aspects of matriliny in Meghalaya.
  • Simi Malhotra, Director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, Namita Bhandare, award-winning journalist with nearly 30 years of reporting experience, and Karuna Nundy, Supreme Court advocate and international lawyer were the discussants. The panel discussion was chaired and moderated by Dr. Shamika Ravi, Research Director, Brookings India.
  • In attendance were academics, public policy experts, bureaucrats, representatives of implementation agencies and advocacy groups.

The other side of matriliny in Meghalaya

Patricia Mukhim opened her presentation by dispelling several myths about the overly romanticised concept of matriliny in Meghalaya. She pointed out that women in a matrilineal society are not necessarily better off and nor are they naturally empowered.  Mukhim highlighted a number of stark statistics such as 53% teenage pregnancies in Meghalaya (third only to 61% in Mizoram & 64% in Goa). Given the matrilineal organisation of the society, she highlighted the plight of young pregnant-drop-out girls who by default have to support and run their families single-handedly; she pointed out that often such girls are abandoned and their children land up on the streets.

Dr. Malhotra used folktales set in matriarchal Meghalaya to bring out the social anxieties around an alternative form of family organisation. She said, “it’s important to pay attention to the incipient messages which are embedded in folktales—of how gender itself is coded within the narrative rapporteurs which come from the north east”. Namita Bhandare bought to the table a number of key statistics that highlighted poor political participation of women in the Northeast.  Karuna Nundy spoke about the need to have consultative, essentially representative, methods of policy formulation. Dr. Shamika Ravi focused on the key aspects of public policy in the Northeast, including education, health, property rights, political participation and developmental spending.

Some of the key insights from the panel discussion are presented under:

  1. Political participation

Even though Northeastern states witness equal electoral participation by women in terms of voters (Table 1), the same does not translate into either rich candidature of women or elected representatives (Table 2 & Figure 1). Even in matriarchal Meghalaya, while women volunteers are extensively used for canvassing, they are not encouraged to participate in politics as candidates.

Table 1: Political Participation of Women as Electors and Voters

State/Union Territories Year Of Last General Elections Registered Women Electors (%) Women Votes Polled (%) Women Votes Polled As % Of Registered Women Elector
Arunachal Pradesh 2014 50.10% 49.80% 78.9
Assam 2016 48.26% 51.15% 90.38
Manipur 2017 51.03% 51.83% 87.99
Meghalaya 2018 50.41% 50.68% 87.23
Mizoram 2018 50.98% 50.65% 80.09
Nagaland 2018 49.22 49.50% 86.08
Sikkim 2014 48.55% 47.15% 81.4
Tripura 2018 49.15% 49.16% 90.4

Source: Election Commission of India
Author calculations: Shamika Ravi

Table 2: Women as Candidates and Elected Representatives

State/Union Territories Year of Last General Elections % of Women Contestants % Seats Won By Women
Arunachal Pradesh 2014 3.87 3.3
Assam 2016 8.55 6.34
Manipur 2017 4.13 3.33
Meghalaya 2018 8.86 5
Mizoram 2018 8.61 0
Nagaland 2018 2.65 0
Sikkim 2014 9.09 9.4
Tripura 2018 8.08 5

Source: Election Commission of India
Author calculations: Shamika Ravi

Figure 1

Author calculations: Shamika Ravi

While Mizoram has never elected a female member Parliament, perhaps the starkest example of the lack of female representation comes from Nagaland that has failed to elect a single female MLA in 55 years of statehood. Rano Shaiza, a member of United Democratic Party, was the first and only woman in this state who was elected to Lok Sabha in 1977. Recent years have witnessed widespread violence in Nagaland over the government’s decision to introduce 33% reservation for women in civic body polls.

Further, within matrilineal Meghalaya, traditional socio-political institutions like the Dorba-Shnong (village council) do not allow women to become village heads— the Rangbah-Shnong (headman) can only be a man. There is a clear disconnect between the matrilineal space of a house and that of public institutions of governance.

The panel was of the opinion that perhaps the solution lies is North Eastern women coming together as a voting blocks that support women candidates. Malhotra said that, “the paternalistic baggage of ethnicity, and hence the ethnic divide within the north eastern states, has been an impediment in this direction.  At the grassroots level, the women’s movement in the north east and associated synergies and outlets of solidarity have to be explored”.

  1. Landlessness

 The youngest daughter of the family, the Ka Khadduh, inherits all ancestral property. This shows up in survey data like the NFHS-4 where a greater percentage of Meghalayan women indicate ownership of land than the average Indian woman (Table 3). However, increasingly the non-inheriting daughters find preference in the marriage market. This indicates bad health of the social institution as well as that of the defined property rights. An asset is truly empowering when its innate value is economically transactable, and in the absence of property rights, this feature of liquidity in assets is inherently missing.  

Table 3: Percentage Landlessness by Gender

States/ Union Territories  Women Men
Arunachal Pradesh 0.5 0.22
Assam 0.55 0.21
Manipur 0.63 0.45
Meghalaya 0.58 0.53
Mizoram 0.85 0.7
Nagaland 0.75 0.4
Sikkim 0.79 0.25
Tripura 0.66 0.55
All India 0.72 0.5

Source: NFHS 4
Author calculations: Shamika Ravi

The socio-economic caste census conducted in 2011 revealed that 76% of rural Meghalaya is landless. A matrilineal order of society implies that land is owned by women, which leads us to conclude that landlessness in growing amongst women as well.

A cadastral survey is the need of the hour—a tribal society is built around equitable resource sharing and egalitarian social constructs, but in terms of distribution of real assets, this no longer holds true.

  1. Common property rights

On a related note, there is a need to define common property rights as well. There is ample international evidence around extractive governance and poor institutional health in resource-rich lands. Mukhim discussed how there is rampant extraction of coal and limestone mines in Meghalaya. However, in recent years, in the absence of well-defined common property rights, even water sources have been privately leased out. Apart from the market distortion and poor equilibrium such a setting leads to, it causes needless increase in drudgery for women who have to go fetch water from distant sources.

  1. Access to credit

Women in the Northeast not only extensively participate in the labour force compared to rest of India but also tend to own their enterprises (Table 4 and 5). Access to credit becomes a key factor in the success and growth of their micro and medium enterprises. 

Table 4: Labour Force Participation Rate by Gender

States/UTs Female Male
Arunachal Pradesh 53.2 75.5
Assam 26.7 75.3
Manipur 47.7 76.5
Meghalaya 53.6 77
Mizoram 60.4 77
Nagaland 59.6 74.1
Sikkim 55.6 78.1
Tripura 54.4 83.3
India 27.4 75.5

Source: Fifth Annual Employment -Unemployment Survey, Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour & Employment
Author calculations: Shamika Ravi

(2015-16); Note: 1. The rate is according to Usual Principal & Subsidiary Status Approach (ps+ss); 2. Total includes transgender.

Table 5: Distribution of Proprietary Establishments by Gender of Owner

States/UTs Male Female % Female
Arunachal Pradesh 76 97 56%
Assam 59434 29841 33%
Manipur 11275 45586 80%
Meghalaya 1689 2014 54%
Mizoram 1402 917 39%
Nagaland 2646 2119 44%
Sikkim 414 292 41%
Tripura 9445 1143 11%
India 1406873 396118 22%

Source: Sixth Economic Census (2014), Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation
Author calculations: Shamika Ravi

Mukhim noted that of the 4.6 crore population of Northeastern states, only 22 lakh have access to microcredit, mostly concentrated around Assam. Table 6 shows the linkages of self-help groups with banks—rural and co-operative. It is clear that compared to the rest of India, the Northeast is substantially lagging behind.

Table 6: Linkages of Self Help Groups: Loans

States/ UT’s Number of Self Help Groups Per Lakh Women linked to Regional Rural Banks Number of Self Help Groups Per Lakh Women linked to Co-operative Banks
Arunachal Pradesh 2 5
Assam 70 0.77
Manipur 18 0
Meghalaya 4 0.58
Mizoram 22 3.5
Nagaland 1.5 0
Sikkim  0 2
Tripura 5.6 3
All India 85 34

Source: NABARD as of 31st March 2017
Author calculations: Shamika Ravi

Financial inclusion is an important policy lever that has shown the ability to translate into tremendous socio-economic impact. Bangladesh is a worthy example that policymakers should try replicating and tailoring it to the needs of the tribal Northeast.

  1. Development and governance institutions

Ten percent of all developmental spending of central ministries was earmarked for the development of the Northeast. Ravi noted that the Ministry of Development of Northeast Region (M-DONER) and the Northeast Council should look at each state in the Northeast as a separate entities in order to develop nuanced development plans tailored to the states’ individual needs.

Author calculations: Shamika Ravi

Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram are governed under Schedule 6 of the Constitution of India. The tribal areas of these states have been constituted as autonomous districts. Each autonomous district has a district council consisting of 30 members, of whom four are nominated by the Governor and the remaining 26 are elected on the basis of adult franchise. Each autonomous district has a separate regional council. The regional and district council administer the area under their jurisdiction and make laws on certain specified matters like land, forest, canal water, shifting cultivation, village administration, inheritance of property, marriage and divorce, social customs and so on.  All such law requires the assent of the governor. [1]

“When the provisions of the 73rd Amendment (Panchayati Raj Institutions) on the powers, scope of function and financial support for the exercises of the powers and discharge of the responsibilities by the Panchayat bodies are compared with those attached to the District Councils under the Sixth Schedule, it is found that while the District Councils have several regulatory powers subject to state government control, the Panchayats are in more advantageous position in respect of developmental functions”, notes legal researcher Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury.[2]

The slow pace of development of the Northeast and the lack of female representation in district councils is a troubling trend. Rethinking how to harmonise the idea of a gender representative village/district councils that allow for the developmental function of Gram Panchayats through Gram Sabhas is advised.

  1. Crimes and Unregulated Tourism

Incidence of crimes against women (CAW) in the Northeast has closely followed the all-India rate of incidence of CAW. In the calculation of CAW, we have considered registered cases of rape, kidnapping and abduction, dowry deaths, cruelty by husband and his relatives, assault with intent to outrage modesty and insult to the modesty of women. Further, we have calculated incidence by using mid-year population estimates of state-wise female population provided by the Registrar General of India. These population estimates are also used by the National Crimes Records Bureau.

Author calculations: Shamika Ravi

Figures include: Rape, Kidnapping and Abduction, Dowry Deaths, Cruelty by husband and his relatives, assault with intent to outrage modesty and insult to the modesty of women

We can clearly see that Assam has a very high incidence of CAW per lakh women. However, seeing how the seven states of Northeast combined incidence of CAW closely map the all-India incidence, we find that women are no safer in these tribal/ matriarchal settings. There is a clear case for improving the law and order situation.

Further, Ms. Mukhim noted that given the remote and scenic nature of these states, there is a case for increasing state GDP through tourism, by developing clear policies around the sector. So far the sector remains unregulated and a number of negative social spill-overs have been reported. In other words, to boost the tourism sector, there is a need to improve the law and order situation as well as put a leash on unregulated tourism.

[1] Lakshmikant, M. “Indian Polity.” (2017).