It was on March 19, 2011 that the first of International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated. One hundred years of IWD and we still need to be reminded of the importance of women in society. Before we come to women in Sikkim, let’s talk India.
Indian case is rather unique. India has worshipped women in the form of Goddess Durga, Laxmi and Saraswati. The ancient Indian value system stresses more on women than in any other culture. “Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra devatah” (God dwells where women are worshipped), wrote the famous treatise Manusmriti. Ironically, the current reality in India is a far cry from this. Increasing case of violence against women and the use of sex and sleaze only prove it further.
Sikkim and the northeast
If we take the case of northeastern states, these states are economically poorer compared to the rest of India but male oppression in the northeastern society is lesser. One gets struck by the strength and public presence of women cutting across age, class and community in Mizoram, Manipur, Arunachal and even the rest of northeastern states including Sikkim. Northeastern states, in terms of treating their womenfolk equally, are very close to better developed South Indian states.
Sikkim’s case has been little different from the rest of northeast. Domination of ethnic Nepalese where culture is mildly patriarchal and of Buddhist Lepchas and Bhutias, makes it less of a tribal breed than other northeastern states. The status of women in Sikkim has its origin in the mixed culture it has borrowed from the plains and mountains, though Sikkemese women are much free compared to the rest of India. Societies based in plains have traditionally suppressed its womenfolk more than those on the highlands.
Women in Sikkim
“Women in Sikkim enjoy many freedoms and have recorded significant gains in human development. However, like in many parts of the world, they still live in an unequal world”, wrote the Sikkim Human development report in 2001.
According to NFHS 3 report the sex ratio at birth (female per 1,000 males) for all births in Sikkim is 974 compared to the national average of 920. Only Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal and Jharkhand have healthier sex ration than Sikkim. But the percentage of women in the age group 20-49 with 10+ years of education in Sikkim is 24 which is less than half of their counterparts in Delhi.
There have been cases of violence against women but Sikkim’s comparatively peaceful society is reflected in the high percentage of women (20.9) in age group 15-49 who are allowed to go alone to places like market, health facility, and outside the community. 20.9 is also the percentage of women with a bank or savings account that they themselves use. Both these data are highest in the whole of northeast. Only Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala, Goa and Himachal have higher percentage of women in these categories. This represents that the current Sikkimese society is open and trusts its women.
Traditional education in Sikkim was practical and experience based. The famous Nepali saying ‘pari guni ke ham, haolo joti mang’, meaning ‘What is the use of reading and writing as ultimately you have to plough the field’ reflected the general mindset about education. That situation is changing with more and more girls getting educated.
Traditionally there was no social discrimination against girl child in Sikkimese society. Girls and boys are considered equal and we don’t notice cases of female foeticide. But when it comes to decision making by communities through the traditional institution of ‘Dzumsa’, women do not get a fair treatment. The inequality is visible in the current political situation. The stipulated one-third reservation for women in Panchayats has been fully implemented but there are only four women MLAs out of 32 in the Sikkim Legislative Assembly, a pathetic 13 % approx.
The level of violence against women in Sikkim has always been low. Nevertheless, girls in Sikkim are underprivileged in terms of their education, early marriage and health.
Gender equality and women‘s empowerment is key not only to the health of nations, but also to social and economic development. The government and the civil society of Sikkim need to do much more than it has been doing to make Sikkimese society a truly fair and just society.