Monsoon floods continue to ravage India, and the Brahmaputra basin has already witnessed its annual phenomenon of flood due to incessant rainfall. The water flowing from two major rivers in the state, Brahmaputra and Barak, and from Arunachal Pradesh, has devastated 33 districts.
A 2017 study looked to understand the vulnerability and adaptive capacity of women from the flood affected communities across the Brahmaputra, from Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Traditionally, men have dominated water management, with very little or no concern for vulnerability of women to floods, especially within the affected marginalised communities. The study intended to capture the voices of women having a direct or indirect association with the river and understand their issues independent of the other sex, through narratives collected from both men and women of a household.
The Brahmaputra originates in South Tibet as Yarlung Tsangpo and flows through Arunachal Pradesh in India as the Siang and the Brahmaputra in Assam, before flowing down to Bangladesh as Jamuna and emptying into Bay of Bengal. With climate change, the frequency of occurrence of more intense rainfall events is increasing, causing severe floods, erosions and landslides. The marginalised suffer the most during such climate-induced hazards. The diverse communities of the region, predominantly speaking Tibeto-Burman languages, practice ‘swidden’ cultivation and wet-rice terrace farming. The women from these communities are also diverse, and this reflects in the roles they play in their homes as well as in their localities/villages. As a community, women are often considered to be more exposed to risks in terms of their ability to adapt, resist and recover from extreme events.
This is because they are marginalised across all communities on social, economic, religious and cultural constructs which are based on gender. For instance, they restrict women’s and girls’ mobility, their access to emergency communication and their role in household decisions about using relief assets as well as voluntary relief and recovery work. Women also experience increased domestic burden and hardship and difficulty in access to evacuation shelter and relief goods as well as in getting involved in disaster planning, relief and recovery programs. Lack of proper sanitation and hygiene facilities during disasters is also a concern.
Women’s concerns are usually overlooked as their participation in public meetings (like village council meetings or public hearings) is less, not only as participants but also as leaders of the community. This is usually due to lack of time, and also due to men monopolising the outcome of discussions by obstructing women’s voices.
As a result, women’s concerns and perspectives do not find a place in the water governance system of the country and decision making remains disconnected from realities on ground. While the river brings destruction, communities across the basin agree that the river is also necessary for the survival of its marginalised groups and for their livelihood sustenance. They have adapted to floods and erosion, by acquiring necessary skills to survive (like swimming), designing housing structures appropriately, and keeping proximity from the river.
Although both men and women are heavily dependent on the river for daily activities, it is the women whose association extends from domestic to outdoor activities. Again, their role varies across communities. While work conducted outside is more visible and recognised, domestic work is considered to be part of a woman’s life and hence not acknowledged as unpaid labour, by both men and women of the community who still live by patriarchal social norms. The burden on women increases even more if it is a female headed household. Also, just because women are present in public spaces, it does not mean that they have control over resources like land or water, or a role in public decision making.
In Arunachal Pradesh, women occupy workspaces only when they are required to, or on the terms of the patriarch. In no way do they challenge traditional norms. Women barely acknowledge the land rights issue; their choices about claiming land ownership would be socially unacceptable. Sometimes the value of the land near the river itself is questionable, but women are not encouraged enough to voice their opinion against the unjust norm.
However, some communities such as the Mishing women in Majuli are fairly clear about these differences and the social positions that come with it. Even most men are in agreement with this view. But the gender division of work diminishes during the floods. For the rest of the time, like when getting prepared for the flood, women are responsible for the majority of the work. Char dwellers in lower Assam have limited hope about accessing infrastructure. This is partially due to the transitory nature of the space they occupy, and partially due to their alienating social status as they are still considered outsiders.
One significant difference which sets them apart from others is the overt patriarchal norms which allow women no involvement in either the agricultural field activities or fishing activities and bind them within their household. The primary goal of a woman’s life, as per the assertions of the elderly male respondents, is ‘to get married and look after their family’; any other aspirations are either openly discouraged or are second priority.
Women from other communities in the lower Assam region are expanding their prospects slowly, even though only under the pressure of dire financial circumstances. The physical environments are different in these two cases, as the char restricts the space for women as compared to living in the mainland near a large town with opportunities of paid work. Although both groups are marginalised, they are marginalised differently due to differences in intersection of gender and religion, and gender and caste.
The traditional and cultural norms under the patriarchal form of society have changed and developed over the time to suit the needs of the men. They have left women with almost no freedom and ownership over property. They have also shaped gender roles, often overburdening women with work and leaving no time for social interaction or participating in meetings/decision making (like flood preparedness programmes). This makes women, the second sex, more vulnerable to disasters as their struggle – be it in health, dealing with trauma or lack of ability to influence decisions in both public and private space – is not recognised. Plural patriarchy expresses itself in these spaces, either in a soft or hard form, varyingly across the basin.
However, not all hope is lost. Women across the basin have been taking initiatives for change, as they have realised that they deserve more than what they have been receiving in both, home and community. They have formed self-help groups and awareness committees addressing different issues prevailing in their locality. Communities in the Brahmaputra basin have been adapting to floods and river erosion for a long time now. However, women’s voices still need to find space for the adaptation they seek both horizontally as a group and vertically, as individuals.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.