Faint but firm footsteps by women of Ladakh
Over a thousand kilometers away from mainstream India as we know it, defying all claims that brought shame to our country by being labeled the world's most dangerous place for a girl child, is an age old tradition in a little-known land of desert and snow that treats its girls in a manner worthy of emulation.
Ladakh, in the northernmost Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, is one such pocket that breaks the pattern of shameful inequality. Practices like female infanticide and other atrocities on women makes for frequent news reporting in our metropolitan cities, but in Ladakh the status of a woman is akin to a vibrant streak complementing the otherwise arid milieu of the region.
When you first step into this high altitude region, you will be greeted by the wide and candid smiles of the Ladakhi women. Not peeping from the windows or from behind the veil - they stand strong in the agricultural fields, with poise, self-respect and strength of character on their faces, reflecting the strong cultural position they enjoy in their community.
Traditionally, the household was the focus of the economy in Ladakh, and the core of informal sector was spearheaded by women. It played a much larger role than the formal sector, giving women a respected status in the entire region.
Till date, the tradition is alive in the cold desert in form of the Self Help Groups that are active in the wide-spread interior villages of the region and are run chiefly by the women members. With the opening up of the region to the outside world around 1974, there was a massive impact on the economic, cultural and political aspects of the traditional culture of Ladakh. This produced a need among the community to protect its culture, a need met by the birth of the Self Help Group movement in the region.
In Ladakh, a small group of local women varying in numbers from six to fifteen come together with dual aims - to empower the women in the changing times and to strengthen the indigenous culture and agriculture. Most of the women, being house wives, complete their daily chores and then contribute to the group. Spinning wool, knitting woollen clothes (sweaters, gloves, caps etc.), and dyeing the woollen clothes in a traditional manner.
The most hardworking period for them is the season of farming. Following the trend set by the older generation, everybody helps everybody else in the agricultural field. This community task becomes priority for these hard working women in this season as the agricultural produce sets the base of many SHG products. Apricot jam and seabuckthorn juice are the highest income generating products. Besides, decorative home items and local winter clothes are also manufactured in these SHGs which are sold in the Leh market. The income thus generated is used for the benefit of the members and society at large.
One such small alliance of women is the 'Shashi Self Help Group' that started with six women members in the Chashut village. Today, it has around fifteen members actively involved in the group's activities. The role the SHGs play is benefitting not only the women but the community as well.
Sharing the success of her group, the proud and enthusiastic President, Amina Khatoon said, "After working for five years in this village, we have achieved a lot of improvement not only in our work but the lifestyle of the villagers. We have started spreading awareness among the villagers on crucial issues like health and sanitation. We are working with various government agencies to improve the living standards in the village."
The communities, with support from various non- government organizations, are working towards reviving the ethnicity of the cold desert region. In almost every village, efficiently working away is the Women's Alliance of Ladakh, locally known as "Ama - Tsogspa" that was started in 1991. Members of the alliance are involved in certain income-generating activities like weaving, knitting, gardening and sewing.
Elderly women actively participate in various social activities, thereby imparting their customary knowledge to the younger generation. They maintain a healthy coordination with their male counterparts in such fields.
However, the intentions of these self-reliance groups face a setback due to the remoteness and lack of resources and raw material. Wool, pashmina, apricot and seabuckthorn are available locally but the products they generate are sold in Ladakh only and not in the national markets. The quantity produced is therefore unable to create demand at the national level.
"I learnt to make handicraft goods from my friend from the southern region. When I came back to my village , I contributed to the group the skills and later became the instructor here. But here we don't get raw material for making the handicraft items. We are always in search of alternative source from where we can get raw material ," said Zara Bano, Instructor at the Shashi Self Help Group.
In the month of February and March, workshops were organized by Handicraft Department, Leh and by the Textiles Development Commissioner of the Government of India and the Handicrafts Marketing and Services Extension Centre, Leh . These workshops witnessed huge participation from these SHGs who took it as an opportunity and wanted to make the most of it. Such is their yearning to learn.
These SHGs have been a vector of change in the lives of the Ladakhis. If provided them training and a platform to sell their products; they can bring about social reform in the society. Their history has always been like that of a warrior - strong and committed towards their society.
The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that by improving their efficiency, their potential can be tapped for the benefit of the society. A little support from the administration will strengthen their faint footsteps to give a lead to future generations.