New Delhi: With a matrilineal society, where daughters inherit property and children take on mother’s surname, it would be presumed that the picturesque state of Meghalaya would perform well on a gender equality index.
However, in the first edition of the federal think-tank Niti Aayog’s North Eastern Region District Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Index, which measures the region’s performance on various socio-economic and human development indicators, Meghalaya has fared poorly on gender equality.
All 11 districts of Meghalaya scored between 36-59, falling under either the ‘aspirant’ or ‘performer’ categories. The districts have been placed in one of the four categories: aspirant (0-49), performer (50-64), front-runner (65-99), and achiever (100).
In the list of 103 Northeast districts, the top 13 belong to Arunachal Pradesh — scoring between 93 and 99 (front-runner). All four of Sikkim’s districts have scored between 83 and 92.
The performance of Assam districts varies within the front-runner category — the best performer being Karbi Anglong (87), and worst being Dhubri (65). All eight Tripura districts fall in the same category, scoring between 86 and 74 while four of Nagaland’s 11 districts have secured a place in the front-runner category, scoring between 80 and 71.
All Meghalaya districts are at the bottom of the table, finding company with districts from Mizoram, which is the worst performer.
Niti Aayog released the first focused report on the Northeast, comprising the eight states of Assam, Tripura, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, last week.
The report calculated the gender equality score based on five indicators — crimes against women per 10,000 female population, sex ratio at birth, percentage of sexual crimes against women to total crimes against women, unmet need for family planning for currently married women aged 15-49 years and exclusive women Self Help Groups (SHG) in bank linked SHGs.
‘Meghalaya’s matrilineal society is infused with patriarchy’
Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills performed the best with a score of 59. It was followed by West Khasi Hills, West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills and South Garo Hills at 54, East Garo Hills at 53, Ri Bhoi at 51, East Khasi Hills at 50, and North Garo Hills at 49.
South West Garo Hills and South West Khasi Hills had the worst score at 47.
Meghalaya is home to the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes, all of which have a matrilineal society, perhaps the last one in the world. This tradition finds its roots in the battles that Khasi men fought where some died while others resettled elsewhere.
“Left without their partners, Khasi women would remarry or find other partners, and it often became difficult to determine a child’s paternity,” a BBC report said.
However, patriarchy remains infused in several cultural practices in Meghalaya’s matrilineal societies. Joy Grace Syiem, who leads the Meghalaya chapter of the Northeast Network, a women’s rights organisation, is not surprised by the state’s poor performance.
“That a matrilineal society has empowered women is an assumption that is made nationally and globally. A holistic and inclusive understanding of gender and patriarchy has not been undertaken when it comes to Meghalaya,” she told ThePrint.
She underlined how the youngest daughter isn’t the inheritor of property in the Khasi tribe, only the custodian. “Any decision that has to be made will be made by the maternal uncle and clan. This is a very patriarchal norm, but it has been misunderstood and misread,” she said.
While women are able to join the workforce in the state, there appear to be some unsaid restrictions on their political participation. “We have never had a women CM, women remain absent from the political or decision-making area,” Syiem added.
Rakhee Kalita Moral, head of the Centre for Women Studies at the Cotton University in Assam’s Guwahati, echoed the concerns. “While you practice matriliny, the highest ever representation in political participation in Meghalaya has been just four (in 2018) women in an assembly with 60 seats,” she said.
According to the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, district councils were set up to protect land of the indigenous tribes as a third tier of governance.
In Meghalaya, this is carried out by the Dorbar Shnong or the village council, led by a headman. “Dorbar Shnongs, the village councils, are exclusively male domains. Even the women who nowadays are represented get nominated by the men. They are only allowed to participate in the meeting, as a mere tokenism, and are never part of the decision-making process,” Moral said.
The Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) passed the Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) Amendment Bill, 2018 in October, three years ago. It essentially prohibits Khasi women from marrying non-Khasi men or taking the father’s name.
“Customary laws decree that you will give your land to your own clan or it will be inherited by your husband on your death, and in many ways is thus only a custodial right. The formal ban in recent years by the KHADC on Khasi women marrying non-Khasi men is a further attempt to suppress women’s liberties and maintain ownership of land,” Moral argued.
Gaps in data?
The Niti Aayog report does not specify the exact source of the data. Under the ‘Methodology & Results’ section, it simply notes: “Of the 84 indicators considered for computation – 40 per cent have been sourced from Union Ministries and national level surveys; and 60 per cent from State sources”.
Syiem noted, “The government data is not even close to the reality of the situation. It may seem that women have the freedom of mobility, but that doesn’t guarantee freedom from violence.”
For a more accurate understanding of gender equality in Meghalaya, Syiem believes one must also look at what the state is doing for the women. “Indicators should include gender in governance and gender budgeting,” she argued.
“This is a matrilineal society — as opposed to a matriarchal society — where women remain restricted socially despite having the right to property. They are traditionally forbidden from expressing their sexuality or leading liberated lives. Women practice trade, they occupy a lot of the public places and are seen in the unorganised labour sector but a woman is only important because she may be your agency for inheritance,” Moral said.