Wednesday, June 24, 2020
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Photo credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh

Rapidly changing world is forcing pastoralists to settle down but it's the women who are affected the most

THE NATION watched the long march home of workers during the lockdown due to Covid-19 pandemic. But there was another vulnerable group that the cameras did not focus on.

Nomadic animal herders were stuck at several places with little fodder or water, many falsely blamed for spreading the virus.

Modern bias against pastoralists has been fueling for long. British labelled them as thieves and robbers and banned animal grazing to protect forest for timber and to expand agriculture into pasture areas for revenue generation.

Post independence, the restrictive conservation policies continue to exclude them from forests while open grazing grounds have shrunk due to encroachments and industrial takeovers. Farmers who used to await the herders for field preparations no longer need their support while climate crisis is disrupting the migration calendars.

All these factors have forced many nomadic familes to go for temporary migration or agro-pastoralism which is a mix of farming and animal keeping. This has brought dramatic changes, especially in lives of women pastoralists.

They have lost autonomy and financial independence while work responsibilities have increased. On the other hand, girls are able to access formal education even if for a limited period of time. These dynamic shifts at home and in field are making women re-negotiate their rights and boundaries.

Restrictive conservation policies continue to exclude pastoralists from forests while open grazing grounds have shrunk due to encroachments and industrial takeovers

Farmers who used to await them for field preparation no longer need their support while climate crisis is disrupting the migration calendars

More Work, Less Autonomy

There are around 35 million pastoralists in the country grazing farm fallows, grasslands and forests. Moving hundreds of kilometres with their herds, they are well informed about seasonality and changing climatic conditions.

Earlier, farmers used to await arrival of herds because animals consumed crop residue and supplied manure to the field. Preference for mono cropping, round the year crop cultivation, and use of chemical fertilisers instead of animal manure have broken this complimentary link between farmers and herders. Now, crop residue is burnt in the fields while herders find it tough to find fodder for animals. 

Emergence of wildlife sanctuaries have restricted access to forests while conversion of pasture lands into solar parks, industrial zones and plantations have undermined the productivity of pastoralists. Even though many have taken to settled livestock rearing, they face challenges accessing local village grazing grounds as well.

Settled living also leads to diversification in profession. Young men migrate to cities for alternate jobs or for higher education leaving women and girls with additional responsibilities, including grazing, lopping and finding new sources of fodder and water.

A film on women from Raika community, a pastoral group of Rajasthan, narrates: “As our men take up other work to enable survival, we are more intimately involved with the animals now. Right from dawn, our tasks go on endlessly. Cleaning the pen, bathing the animals, feeding them, milking, making buttermilk, then household chores. All of this is done before taking the animals for grazing. My daughter dropped out of school to help me. Her participation is a big support.”

A short video on Raika women by Kalapvriksh

Settled living leads to young men migrating to cities for alternate jobs or to pursue higher education leaving women with additional responsibilities, including grazing, lopping and finding new sources of fodder and water

Women from the Brokpa tribe of yak herders in Arunachal Pradesh have similar experiences. Rising temperatures due to climate crisis have impacted rearing of pure bred yaks which are sensitive to heat.

Availability of fodder and water in the pastures has also reduced due to shortened winter season and extreme weather events. While some herders are trying to adapt by keeping their herds at higher altitudes for longer time, many families settled down and took to rearing yak-cattle hybrids which can withstand higher temperatures at lower altitudes.

There was no gender division of labour during the nomadic yak pastoralism, and women had equal access to resources as men. But the recent integration into monetised economy has confined women to household chores. They get into the trap of unseen, unpaid work.

When these women started going for daily wage labour work, they were disappointed to know that women are paid less than men for the same work. This was never the case in their traditional occupation.

There was no gender division of labour during nomadic yak pastoralism, and women had equal access to resources as men

But the recent integration into monetised economy has confined women to household chores

Lost Financial Independence

The change from nomadic to settled form of pastoralism has in one way provided women the stability of a homestead, but also led to loss of autonomy in decision-making regarding economic spending and charting their future.

Selling milk and animal droppings as manure used to give pastoral women financial independence. When they choose a sedentary life, the milk from their animals goes to dairy cooperatives, money goes to men.

Women from Maldhari pastoral community in Gujarat feel that diversification of livelihood has reduced their access to economic resources. “Their traditional outfit had a pocket to store earnings from local sale of dairy products. Now they feel more dependent on men and thus a loss of self-esteem,” says Neeta Pandya from Maldhari Rural Action Group (MARAG), a herders’ advocacy group in Gujarat. “Their pride and respect, all come from their herds.”

Attraction of money has also reduced the quantity of dairy products women consume. The milk is sold to the cooperative and whatever is left is consumed first by other members of the family.

Pastoral women have been compelled to give up many practices that they were passing on to generations during their travels. Skills in making temporary shelters for family and pen for the animals, identifying medicinal herbs of different areas, and barter of goods had been meeting the survival needs of both family members and their livestock.

Selling milk and animal droppings as manure used to give pastoral women financial independence. When they choose a sedentary life, milk from animals goes to dairy cooperatives and money to men

Education and Gender Roles

Strong local networks and social circles that once enabled their survival and movement got disturbed with changing lifestyles and patterns of migration.

“Life cycle of these women revolved around co-existence but now their very ecosystem is changing, leading to shift of power to men," says Anu Verma from MARAG. "Strong, vocal and powerful women have now taken to domestic labour. They feel loss of dignity. Yet, they look for an opportunity to revive their traditional lives."

Agency of Raika women is undergoing changes as some of them get access to education and are finding avenues to express their voices and reflect on individual and collective freedom. To be able to ascertain the value of these transformations as negative or positive is very difficult, said this report compliing views of Raika women.

Women are finding ways to dissent with the existing systems, for example, by stealthily grazing their flock in village pastures where there is prohibition on grazing 

Raika girls perceive education as an important tool to navigate through various oppressive institutions and to secure better livelihood other than day labour jobs

These women are also exhibiting resilience. They are finding ways to dissent with the existing systems, for example, by stealthily grazing their flock in village gauchars (pastures) where there is prohibition on grazing put into place through committees where the Raika are not represented. 

Young Raika girls perceive education as an important tool to navigate through various oppressive institutions that they interact with on a day-to-day basis, and as a means to secure a better livelihood other than day labour jobs. However, women who have successfully finished with high school are usually discouraged from interaction with the outside world, including going to the nearest town to pursue higher education, through community rules dictated by men.

Many girls have to take on the existing gendered role within the household, which includes taking care of animals and taking on all those activities that contribute to pastoralism. In absence of young men who leave house for better job prospects, the lives of younger Raika girls are tied down to pastoralism.

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