By: Rucha Chitnis, Director of Grantmaking (@ruchachitnis)
Manipur, a state in India bordering Burma, is part of the “Seven Sisters” — seven contiguous states in Northeastern India, known for their rich ethnic diversity, bountiful natural resources, as well as political conflict and turmoil. For over 50 years now, Manipur has been bound by the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which grants extraordinary powers to the Indian armed forces to suppress separatist insurgencies in the region. This act has been fiercely criticized by human rights groups for its abuse by the Indian Army through arbitrary killings, torture, enforced disappearances and violence perpetrated against women.
Northeastern states, like Manipur, are also ecologically fragile lands, and are part of the Eastern Himalayan tracts that are considered a major biodiversity hotspot. In recent times, big dams, mining and oil exploration activities and rapid forest degradation have deeply concerned environmental advocates, especially as the impacts of climate change are worsening economic and food security in the region.
Earlier this year, I traveled to Manipur to learn about the emerging priorities and strategies of women’s groups to promote sustainable development and livelihoods in the midst of political tensions, militarism and ecological vulnerabilities. Our grantee partners in Manipur, Rural Women Upliftment Society (RWUS) and Weaker Sections Development Council, (WSDC) are using holistic multi-pronged approaches to promote food security, advocate for peace and security, and raise awareness on climate change among vulnerable Indigenous hill tribes.
WSDC raises awareness among women widowed by gun violence and HIV/AIDS on their rights and entitlements from the state, including widow pension and food security provisions. They are also training communities on organic farming practices, raising awareness on the rights of small farmers, and are supplementing women’s income through diversifying their livelihoods by soap making, weaving and artisanal bamboo products.
Shangnaidar Shangdar, leader of WSDC, is passionate about highlighting the role of women in Manipur to forge long-term movements to bring peace and security in the region. Historically women in Manipur have also led brave social movements, including fighting British imperialism. Known as Nupi lan, or women’s war, women in Manipur led a successful brave agitation in 1939 protesting exploitative British free trade laws that precipitously raised the price of rice by increasing exports, and adversely affected local communities and small traders through food shortages. Sadly, these crucial resistances by Manipuri women are largely invisible and unknown in mainstream India’s historical chronicles.
During my visit, Shangnaidar took me to Ima Keithel, also known as Mother’s Market, which is a sprawling market in the capital city of Imphal, where all stalls are run by women. Mother’s Market stands out as a proud, unique heritage of Manipur, which speaks powerfully to the crucial role women play in socio-eonomic realms here.
Both of our grantee partners recognize that empowering women, and promoting their political, social and cultural rights, is crucial for peace building and strengthening civil society and ushering sustainable development. WSDC and RWUS also organize trainings and educational activities to promote women’s role in governance and in conflict resolution.
Recently RWUS conducted several workshops to raise awareness on climate change among women in the hilly tribal areas of Churachandpur, the largest district of the Manipur.
“Being largely an agrarian economy, climate change is affecting the economy of the state over time. Unnoticed by the policy makers, one of the major victims of climate change have been the marginalized women of the society, who have always suffered for being financially weak and also for lacking the power of decision making in the society.” RWUS further notes that climate change is affecting water availability in the region and is making agriculture increasingly harder for small farmers.
A small grant from WEA is enabling RWUS to organize women in 15 vulnerable tribal villages affected by climate change. With WEA’s support, RWUS is raising awareness on the crucial need to protect Manipur’s forest biodiversity and other natural resources, and the key role women can play in protecting their environment and promoting sustainable livelihoods.
“The impact of climate change has already forced many to abandon their existing professions and search for alternatives. Many women particularly youth are forced to move out of home to seek employment elsewhere because agriculture has become unsustainable,” notes the RWUS team.
In the near future, RWUS plans to organize workshops for women on dams and mining and how they impact Indigenous livelihoods, culture and way of being, as well as continue their assessment on the impact of climate change on women and promote women’s role as environmental advocates.
RWUS shares how one of the participants of the climate change training called Sangpui, a mother of three, began taking personal responsibility to protect the environment. Sangpui went on to plant over 1000 saplings and is slowly recognizing how forest degradation affects her community. “Each time I plant a tree, I realize I am contributing to sustain the livelihood of forest dependents, like me,” she says.