Blog / Journal Articles


Patriarchy and Sexism Cannot Stop Indian Women: The Economics Of Resilience
Jul 16, 2018
The female labor contribution is just 24% in India making it the worst in South Asia. Education attainment is not the underlying cause- its patriarchy and sexism in our work spaces. We will move from one milestone to another, together and fighting for our rights to equality.

Even though the survival and smooth functioning of the household centers around women, and now the Government of India is increasingly recognizing her contribution and making efforts to focus all government programs around the mother, women are not sufficiently protected by laws to ensure their employment, participation and growth at work. Patriarchy being the root cause, everyday is a fight for women in India to keep her job, sustain business or earn a livelihood .
Even in the incident where the man fails to earn for his family, the women can never sleep till her children and family have been fed.
The wealth of women in India is the resilience with which she navigates around patriarchy and sexism and secures a footing in the society, never giving up but fighting back to reclaim her space.
According to the annual economic survey conducted by the Ministry of Finance the female labor force participation rate in India is just 24%- the worst in South Asia and among the G-20 nations only beating Saudi Arabia.
Nearly 20 million women left the workforce between 2004-2012. These women included illiterate and the most educated women in India because they had to choose between children and a career. Childcare is the responsibility of women alone; women in India do 10 times as much unpaid care work than men. Indian men on average chip in 31 minutes a day of unpaid care work at home.
The glass ceiling is a reality for women working in banking, politics, education and corporate industry; females are paid lesser in the same job profile because of the tradition where women's roles in the community services are underpaid and women hold less than 10% position of Board level and Director level.
Laws against sexual harassment at workplace and the Maternity Benefit( Amendment) Act were seen as a progressive direction for women's rights but in reality, employers are less likely to hire women due to their concerns about the demands imposed by the act.
In such a socio-cultural context, do equal education levels, skills, competence, exposure and aspirations yield equal opportunities for women and men in the workplace?
In India where even getting education(what subject, how much or how little, till when), acquiring skills,competence and exposure and choosing aspirations, organizations and who(persons) to work with are all controlled by patriarchy; what is the response of Indian women?
We are fighting back, stronger than ever before.
We are getting together in groups at different levels, extending and asking for support from each other to overcome barriers.
The rural woman and the urban woman, the frontline worker and the academician, the government official and the Self Help Group women, the lawyer and the victim, the teacher and the girl student, the doctor and the foot soldiers( ASHA workers), the social worker and the bureaucrat are all entering partnerships at individual levels, understanding that only when we work together will we succeed to overcome the hurdles from generation's long rule of patriarchy and be able to be financially independent and socially secure.
Understanding of the different faces of patriarchy and subjugation of women, the solutions and the group approach to address them is increasingly occurring at large scale in India across sectors.
There is a new found desperation in women across industries and geographies to achieve equality.
I found myself in the middle of sexism at my work place and the biggest revelation from this experience was to find women colleagues have empathy for me and acknowledge that what was happening clearly should not happen and at the same time, not do a thing to either support me against this man or express their stance.
A male boss is a boss later and a man first- confident to the level of brimming on arrogance of his superiority and right to dominate and control.  Also true is, a female boss or colleague is a boss or colleague later and a female first- voluntarily sharing power and information with others, always with both her feet for compromise even at work place, having less value of her own contribution.
The organization was dominated by women employees and there were very few men yet the women refused to take a stance, each worried about how this particular man could harm them either personally or professionally. Women are defensive never assertive.
The man in this context heads the India chapter and when I was employed, I was under the mentor ship of a woman senior, a visionary in the organization but based abroad in the same department and in a higher position that this man. My work, success, efforts, partnerships and even personal peace in the office all became to be negatively impacted by this man because he was not ready to accept the leadership coming from a female who he thought is always inferior to a man and not deserving of support or sanction. Additionally, the man boss has harnessed contempt for the lady senior who I reported to and who was my mentor.
Men are used to being around women who are their girl friend, wife, sister, mother all of who dote on him, India values its son beyond unthinkable limits. Son can never do wrong, he can never be bad. The man maybe able to relate to a woman at work in that pulse if she too hangs on his every word hero worshiping him. The conflict arises when he finds an equal partner.
The efforts of sabotage, character assassination, gossiping became so profound and I took several moments to reflect on my course of action. 
I had two choices at my disposal- keep quiet, pretend nothing happened, wait for a better season and accept patriarchy and sexism to be able to keep a job or  resist the social evil, escalate the case to the internal authority to address conflict, make a benchmark. 
I made the second choice. When I came across injustice and a larger social evil where a male leadership is committed to subdue female leadership within the organization and ensure programs for women and by women do not take off, this needs to be fought against head on and addressed because it is unacceptable. The norm of having men take lead in all programs  needs to be replaced by nurturing female leadership.
I found most of my female colleagues step back from a situation where they could be asked for their testimony. At the same time, they kept their bridges to me so that if the complaint raised turned in my favor they could benefit from the conclusion and enjoy work with a male dictator out of the scene. I do not know which is worst- the male dictator or the spineless women in my workplace.
Renown social activist Kamala Bhasin said,' I know enough women who are totally patriarchal, who are totally anti-women; who do nasty things to other women, and have known men who have worked for women's rights their whole life. Feminism is not biological: feminism is an ideology.
Female contribution in the labor force will improve in India not just by having laws and policies aimed at equality unless equity is brought in because women and men do not start from equal grounds owing to patriarchy and sexism in our society.
The wealth of women is not just the success of her efforts to fight patriarchy and sexism at workplace and outside but her will power to resist it and confront it for herself and other women in the society. 
Recently, the Supreme Court on Monday, 9 July upheld the death sentence awarded to the convicts in the Nirbhaya gang rape and murder case. Three of the four adult convicts had filed review petitions seeking reduction of the death sentence to life imprisonment. Mr. AP Singh, counsel for the convicts, said that the verdict was given due to political, public and media pressure.
It was owing to the mass collectivisation of women in different parts of India to decry rape and call for the most stringent punishment for rapists that brought justice for Nirbhaya.

We will move from one milestone to another, together and fighting for our rights to equality. 

Urmila Chanam

I Became A Global Grassroots Leader Through The Power Of My Words
Jan 31, 2018
"Writing gave me a chance to be heard when no one was listening to me. Writing gave me equality, it allowed me to finish what I had to say without interruption"

Your conversations are cut in between, your points of view are overridden, easy references to your personal life are made in connotation to the current debate and you see yourself lose status in your family, friend circle, workspace and society at large. All your qualifications fade in comparison to not having a husband anymore!
 
It was during this phase in my life way back in the time between 2008-2012 that I first started writing columns and articles in an English daily in Manipur, the Sangai Express which still has the largest circulation. Writing gave me a chance to be heard when no one was listening to me. Writing gave me equality, it allowed me to finish what I had to say without interruption. My weekly column by the name ‘Sunday Sentiments’ not just gave me many followers and admirers, but it gave me my lost respect. I healed from my personal loss after I began writing. I had no time left with me for indulging in self-pity or regrets. I had so much to look forward to with each new article in my head.
 
Gradually, over the years, through changing jobs between 2012-14, writing became a means to explore the world outside of my own life and I stepped onto the different issues of social justice in our society. I began writing for development media platforms like World Pulse, India Water Portalthe Alternative, Northeast SUN Magazine, the Women International Perspective as I delved deeper into issues affecting girls and women while keeping a 9 to 5 regular job. I began reading more. My world broadened. This was soon to be followed by the inevitable; the duality began to affect my health and peace and coincided with the time, my article on the silence and shame surrounding menstruation won me my first journalism award, the UNFPA Laadli Award for Gender Sensitivity in 2013. I was ready to go one step further from writing to begin to work around finding solutions and that is why I say, words are not thoughts but action in the making.
 
It was the following year in 2014, I began my global campaign ‘Breaking the Silence’ to end myths, taboos and stigma on menstruation through on-ground outreach, educating girls and women in different parts of India and an active digital action campaign using technology and internet to influence mass perspective. Writing took me from journalism to social work but what amazed me was I never lost touch with my writing which remained at the heart of whatever I did.
Thick into social work now, my work takes me to different regions and cultural context and different levels from strategy, vision building, research, advocacy with the government and multiple stakeholders, training and capacity building, public speaking, program management, knowledge management besides behaviour change communication. And with each passing year and a new skill learnt, writing still remains my biggest strength in my work. While many can implement programs and activities, very few can write or write to do justice to the work that has been carried out.
My boss from my first job in rural development once said, “No matter how great the work has been, if it has not been captured in writing it has no meaning because its impact remains limited to the few beneficiaries of that intervention while writing and sharing about it, would have led to the possibility of replication and scale.”
From writing articles and columns in newspapers, magazines and web-based media platforms, I began writing for other reasons at different times. Writing has saved a project from being shelved and brought continued funding thus making it possible for girls and women to receive education on menstrual health, brought team members from other countries and continents closer to each other’s vision and activities (through Twitter and tagging colleagues) and helped built team spirit, aligned like-minded people to come together and join forces to strengthen each other’s goals and brought the possibility of fighting for our rights outside of courtrooms and finding justice.
I have used my writing to share experiences, insights gained from the field and furnish recommendations to the government through my articles. There is a lot of secondary research/reading a social worker and development professional does before starting work in a region that aids reflection on the right approach and strategy. For instance, before meeting government officials in a district in Haryana I used my waiting room time to read about the gender profile of the place and read several articles online. Writers feed doers, policy makers and implementers, even motivation comes from the written word we are surrounded with on a daily basis. I am sure the writer of that article that helped me formulate my strategy will never know her contribution to my work on menstrual hygiene management.
The impact of writing can never be measured, no, it’s not possible but it can be sensed.
Besides that, writing on menstrual hygiene management has raised awareness among others and I find many more champions have risen who are advocating for a world free from stigma on menstruation. This is where I say again that writing gifts your experience and energy to others who then take the torch ahead to run into different directions on the earth. Change travels through the power of written words.
I started my journey with Youth Ki Awaaz in 2017 which I found is not about articles, it’s about people. For YKA, an article written by me on Community Radio and Racial Discrimination is not just about media and equality but also about me, how a woman who has walked my path views radio and discrimination. At the base of it lies acceptance, empowerment, freedom and a spirit of youthful hope to overcome everything. I have found editors who empowered me rather than limit me to a theme and Youth Ki Awaaz is an enabling environment for a writer.
I can be most honest when I write than when I speak because this is that one space in time where I know I will not see the face of criticism, suspicion or interruption. It is just me and what I have to say and a tunnel that opens to a person who is keen to listen to me. I can afford to stammer, be tongue tied or shy and yet complete my thought process through my written words.
Writing has healed me, built my life, given me aspirations, made few of my dreams come true, made me confident, enthusiastic, positive, loving and beautiful inside and given me friends and admirers. Writing has given me a tool that can open many doors with ease.
“I still remember your story titled What’s your name, Sir. It was so funny,” a stranger told me when introduced in a function and my mind raced to the year I had written that. 2011. Writing is eternal; it has no shelf life.

Urmila Chanam

When Rejection Is More Lethal Than HIV
Dec 01, 2017
"The virus does not ‘kill’, because treatment is available and free (government-sponsored). But the rejection does."

Additionally, insurance companies often refuse to cover persons with HIV under their health insurance – even when they suffer from non- HIV related ailments. If we are hospitalised for an accident, we have medical insurances to cover our expenses. But an HIV patient gets no financial support from any scheme. To add to this, there is this insensitivity in our healthcare system and allied industries, whereby doctors, nurses, paramedics and health facilities are known to often refuse treatment if they come to know that a patient has HIV.
This is the combination of stigma and discrimination, due to which the opinion (or fear) of one segment of society affects the survival of the others. Can we check our fears and knowledge at personal and professional levels, so that people are not denied the right to health?
A 13-year-old girl, both of whose parents had died, lived with her father’s sister, her husband and two children in a remote village in Karnataka. Her grief on the loss of her parents was mixed with the fear about what would happen to her. Who would care and protect her? Who would pay for her school and clothes? These are things that no child needs to worry about when they have their parents.
One day, she fell sick and was taken to hospital by her father’s sister. The doctors did some tests and found out that the little girl was HIV-infected. Whatever little support the child had enjoyed after she lost her parents (in terms of living with her aunt) dwindled overnight.
At home, her aunt and her husband started to keep her away from their children. Every time she was sick, she was pushed away – and nobody came near her. The frequency of meals lessened, and she would often hear the fights between her father’s sister and her husband. He would charge, “Why does she have to live with us? She might infect our children. I have heard that even coughing and sweat spreads this disease.”
Their fear was real. She was miserable in their house.
Fear killed the love they had for this orphan.
In a year, they had dumped her in an orphanage for children with HIV. They also discouraged her from visiting their home during holidays. The next year, they stopped visiting her in the orphanage. Among the 100 odd children in the orphanage, she was one of the few who had no visitors during the academic year.
The trauma of rejection by families initiates destructive behavior in children, especially in their adult lives, when they interact with people. Next to treatment, the biggest problem faced by persons with HIV/AIDS is the fear people have of being infected by them. They also shun them at every level – in personal and family relationships, and when it comes to employment opportunities.
Fortunately, the organisation that looks after her is exemplary. I am so happy there are a few such organisations. Some organisations which are doing great work with HIV/AIDS-afflicted children are: the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh), Snehagram (Tamil Nadu), Sneha Care Home (Karnataka), Bangalore School Sports Foundation(Bangalore), Carmel Jyoti (Manipur), Snehalaya (Maharashtra) and St. Catherine’s Home (Mumbai).
If you are an adult, and have a child (or children) in your life, please don’t leave them behind (by distancing yourself or deserting them, committing suicide or leaving them alone to fend for themselves). It is heart-breaking to see children wade past their lives alone.
Children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS have an inherent ‘triple vulnerability’ – being a child, an orphan in case of their parents have died from the disease (most infections in a child are passed on from parents, unlike other routes of infection in adults) and that of a person living with HIV/AIDS.
On World AIDS Day 2017, let us get accurate information of the routes of infection so that we can put our anxieties (of being infected by people with HIV) to rest. Let us also extend our love, support and help – especially if we are healthcare providers or personnel, employers, or just family-care givers for children orphaned due to HIV/AIDS.
The virus does not ‘kill’, because treatment is available and free (government-sponsored). But the rejection does.
 

Urmila Chanam

A Love Beyond Rakhi: How My Brother Stood By Me In The Toughest Of Times
Oct 22, 2017
“We don’t need a day to show I care and will always protect you,”

I found my brother caring for me through all my ups and downs. I found him protecting me from the blows life threw at me. And there were many. He took me out of environments which were fatal for me. My call center job used to crush me but I used to come home to hear him say, “This is going to teach you how to be great in communicating over the phone without meeting the person.” He bought me a DSLR camera years ago and that was how I gradually diverted my troubled mind outwards, towards the wonder of this world. My first backpack from American Tourister was a gift from him and I started travelling from then on until travelling became a part of my life. I stepped into another industry, one step at a time with caution, patience and faith.

After my divorce, I lived with my brother and sister in law for eight years! My daughter’s formative years were spent in their love and care. I remember one of his friends in the congregation tell him about the regret he felt for not having helped his sister, who had undergone a very painful separation and was deeply touched to see my brother share everything with me and my daughter.

My daughter and I were loved by his friends and their families and now our friend circle includes them too.We got to live a very good life style – big homes, good food, entertainment, holidays, good clothes even when we could not afford it, because we were provided for. I remember there was a phase too when my brother would give me bus fare and money for meals daily to cover my expenses in my struggling years and when I had to step out of home to do stories( I used to write in the local daily). It has been years since then and now my daughter and I have found our own ground but it’s also largely because we received all the love and care when it mattered the most. We did not get here on our own miraculously.

Today is Ningol Chakaouba the biggest festival of brothers and sisters in Manipur, where fathers and brothers invite married sisters and their children to a lunch and give gifts to them and the sisters carry fruits and sweets and the ceremonial coconut for father, mother and brothers. I have no where to go today but it does not matter a bit. I have a brother who loves me and that’s all that matters.

Urmila Chanam

Lessons from my ambassadorial year
Aug 31, 2017
The biggest resource we have is OURSELVES

I was not in San Francisco at that time but I could still feel the wave of joy. I wanted to accept this responsibility placed upon me to advocate for digital empowerment of girls and women but coupled with this moment of joy was also a little voice of uncertainty of how I would carry out my role, if I would match up to expectations. To be able to do justice, the conviction that's needed to back your dedication comes from reports on how the gender digital gap is growing wider with Africa reporting the largest divide at 23% and America the narrowest at 2 %(https://webfoundation.org/2016/10/digging-into-data-on-the-gender-digita...) making it all the more important to bring more girls and women 'online'. 

My message to women who will come after me as ambassadors is at times you will wonder how a program could be organised unless you have funding, would people be interested in your message, who are the people most likely to be receptive, is it possible to even carry out all the activities and initiatives while you have a full time job( like I did), run your own organization or have family commitments.The 'how' will become a constant but let it not be a barrier because this is what I discovered on what could be your message, the do's and don'ts, what approach works and what you eventually will walk away with at the end (read on) .

The year I spent as Ambassador of World Pulse was super eventful. In the last twelve months where I represented World Pulse in international and national conferences as a speaker, my message was to increase the use of internet by girls and women and building connections between them as a vehicle to address social norms that lie at the crux of the many social problems in India or elsewhere.To champion digital empowerment of girls, women and the marginalized it is critical to connect the dots between these social evils to women not using their voice to end them. It is important to get more girls and women online so they can tell their stories( and issues pertinent to their community, political background or cultural setting) and pitch for the change they want to see.

One such conference was the UNICEF National Consultation on Social Norms and the Rights of Women and Children attended by close to 100 academic professionals on 27-28 March 2017 in Bangalore, India where discussions centered around impact of social norms on the development of children and women, on antenatal period in a tribal woman's life, on child birth practices, on feeding practices,on education, on gender based violence, on menarche and the culture of silence, on addressing challenges on maternal, child and adolescent health as experiences by Health Department, gender stereotypes in media.

Initially, you would have to work a little to come up with how use of internet could be seen as a related subject associated with a solution to wide number of problem. It took me a day to come up with how I would fit the vision of World Pulse and use of internet into a discussion on social norms and in this forum meant for sociologists, development communication experts, social researchers and program practitioners I pitched for the role media(World Pulse) and citizen journalism(stories of women by women and for women) could play in changing negative social norms to positive social norms and designing outcomes related to the rights of women and children. 

After the first time, it comes easy to visualize the depth of internet use in every possible space of intervention. This is when you truly become an advocate of digital empowerment of women.

I always like to quote Chi Yvonne (https://www.worldpulse.com/en/community/users/leina) and what she achieved using digital skills. Look at the social evil of breast ironing in Cameroon where mothers believe this measure will prevent rape of their daughters. Chi Yvonne who is the Founder of Gender Danger, an NGO working on education towards the eradication of harmful traditions against women and girls in Africa (http://genderdanger.webs.com/) used internet, digital skills of writing her story, her recommendation on how and why to end breast ironing using her computer to post it online on World Pulse website(https://www.worldpulse.com/fr/node/182) and other web-based platforms like Facebook and even on her organization's website and succeeded to bring global visibility  to this inhuman practice, campaign for its eradication, aligning like minded individuals and organizations to support her and in the process develop a resistance to practices that are harmful for girls.

World Pulse envisions the transitioning of a girl/woman from an existence of being a mere spectator to being vocal and suggest solutions and lead her community to change in partnership with other women around the world.

My learning  from this is you do not have to set aside a program specifically for advocating use of internet; you can integrate this message in many of your current activities and public appearances during your job, your own organization work too. Additionally, if you need a success story of a woman change maker who uses internet to enhance impact, you will not face any difficulty in identifying her because World Pulse is an encyclopedia of women leaders. I found Olutosin Oladoshu Adebowale from Nigeria, Zephaniah from Pakistan, Neema Namadamu from Congo, Beatrice Achieng Nas from Republic of Uganda and so many other inspiring women!

If you do not have staff or a team to help you, do what I did! I reached out for help from World Pulse sisters I was close to and who helped me with their expertise. Busayo Obisakin from Nigeria helped me out during the Women Digital Skills Training I conducted in April 2016 for a small group of 10 women sales professionals in Bangalore (https://www.worldpulse.com/en/community/groups/voices-our-future-virtual...) by being my co-facilitator using Skype to connect to us in India and sharing her experience in using internet, World Pulse and digital skills to enhance her work. Olutosin Adebowale, Stella Paul and Upasana Chauhan- all World Pulse women extended their support by being panelists on the International Women's Day Skype Program held on 8th March 2017 where close to 30 callers from around the globe joined the skype based conversation and many viewers connected to our Facebook Live streaming(https://www.facebook.com/events/195342270949672/)

During the Nepal National Training on Menstrual Hygiene Management held in Nagarkot in February 2017 I conducted sessions on digital tools to enhance program implementation on menstrual hygiene management program to 60 participants from Nepal and Pakistan who were government officials from different departments. The participants shared how useful that session had been to unlock their own apprehensions on sharing on social media or on online portals for fear of loss of privacy, lack of idea on benefits of networking and thinking it was only for the new generation to be online.

Noteworthy are accounts of two of my colleagues who were also trainers like me in that program who shared that the session had completely changed their view on being connected to others.

Abdulwahid Ahmed Jama working with Kenya Red Cross Society shares his experience of attending the digital skills session and says,'This training was extremely useful in instilling in me a culture of sharing information in real time. I found there is no greater advocacy than using social media to push for a cause.'

Ayesha Riaz, another participant from Pakistan who works in the Education Department says,' Digital skills training was so inspiring because no body receives training on this topic unless your line of education is this.People might buy the latest gadgets but how many know how to use it well and for good?

And then there were ample opportunities in my friend circle, among colleagues, with family where I could give hand-holding support to set up a Skype account, or an e-mail, take a picture and share it with friends and so on. You will be surprised to find the number of people who find the confidence to be online through your help.

Take every travel opportunity to meet World Pulse sisters who live there or are in transit. Meeting women of World Pulse and being personally known to them encourages us all when we see the numbers we are and the collective strength in us! I remember how difficult it was for me and World Pulse Kashmiri journalist Aliya Bashir https://www.worldpulse.com/en/community/users/aliya-bashir to meet in  Mumbai where we both had gone on work. It had been a time when the entire country was facing a unique crisis of demonetization and we had no cash at hand. Aliya Bashir was staying in a hotel 15 km from mine. I had more cash with me than Aliya had so I decided to make the effort instead and took a cab to her hotel. I waited in the lobby of the five star hotel looking out for her as known from the pictures I had seen of Aliya. We have known each other for seven years on World Pulse but this was the first time we would be meeting. When I saw her coming with her arms open, my heart knew no joy greater than this.

I also met Paulina Nayra https://www.worldpulse.com/en/community/users/paulina-lawsin from Philippines and Phionah Musumba https://www.worldpulse.com/en/community/users/phionah-musumba from Keyna in a conference in New Delhi earlier this year. We were meeting for the first time. We exchanged gifts, hugs, kisses and tears. The women sitting adjacent to us were impressed by our reunion and love for each other and one asked us, ' Can you please share with us more about the love you three have for each other?'. What better way than this to introduce World Pulse to others?

The journey that was meant to facilitate learning process in others also left me with lessons that will change my life forever, one being that the biggest resource we have is OURSELVES and with that alone, we can move mountains. The other learning is, digital skills are not stand-alone topics, subject of learning or occupation; instead it is a skill that can be used alongside any other activity in any industry you work in or in your personal life- everyone can benefit from it! I found several teams and persons I want to continue working with, a new confidence and peace of doing my best in my circumstances. I also drew closer to World Pulse sisters and take delight in being considered as a focal person or point of reference for other women who train others.

I thank all my friends, sisters, volunteers and others who supported me to accomplish the goals I had set for myself. Thank you World Pulse for giving me the opportunity to serve the global sisterhood and my World Pulse family. 

* Note: This article is dedicated to conclude a very important phase of my life of having served as World Pulse Ambassador and the lessons I learnt I share with others so that they can lead with enhanced efforts.

 

 

Urmila Chanam

Heroes Never Die: The Sundown Parade at the Wagah Border
Jan 24, 2014

 The cover from enemy fire at the position he decided to occupy was scant, exposing him and his buddy to extreme danger. But he would go ahead with his plan for he had a commanding view of the enemy as well as the men he had deployed in relatively safer positions along the south bank of the Kishanganga River. There were 17 trained Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists within range in the difficult high-altitude terrain of the Gurais Valley, but he had full faith in his men.

The sundown retreat parade by the Border Security Force soldiers from India and Pakistan. Wagah border crossing. Photo courtesy of the author.
The sundown retreat parade by the Border Security Force soldiers from India and Pakistan. Wagah border crossing. Photo courtesy of the author.
On the dark and silent night of 19th August 2011 in the Line of Control, Commando (Ghatak) Platoon Commander, Lt. Navdeep Singh, 26, did not waiver one moment before opening fire when he was certain the terrorists had entered his killing area. A third generation soldier, he was a son of the Indian Army.
His last command to his men in the eight minute gun battle that killed 12 terrorists was “I will open fire first.”
Lt. Navdeep Singh killed three terrorists with his initial burst of fire and shot dead a fourth terrorist at barely five metres. The fourth terrorist had injured his buddy, Sepoy Vijay Gajare and would have left himdead had Lt. Navdeep Singh not intervened. In doing so, a bullet pierced his head.

Another brave son of the nation fell that night on the soil of Kashmir.
-Adapted from a detailed account in an Army journal.
I grew up on the border in Jammu and Kashmir. My father was in the Indian army during the years when militancy in the valley was at its peak. Witnessing how officers and soldiers died in large numbers in the conflict, the saddest part of their sacrifice for me is that their existence remains in oblivion, for the country has never recognized their efforts. Once known for its natural beauty, which attracted tourism and revenue, Kashmir has returned to the dark ages, with mass casualties and thousands missing, in the two decades of armed conflict. In 1947 Pakistan and India became two countries during the partition of British India. Since then the two countries have fought four wars and many border skirmishes and military stand-offs.
The princely-ruled territory of Kashmir was given the choice of joining India or Pakistan during the partition. But both India and Pakistan laid claim to Kashmir, and Kashmir has become the main point of conflict between the two countries. India believes that the terrorism in Kashmir is sponsored by Pakistan and that the militants are trained on Pakistani soil, provided with arms and ammunition, and infiltrated into Indian soil to create mayhem in the valley.
The Indo-Pakistan border bears testimony to the history, pain, and trauma of the partition of British India and the creation of two independent nations out of one people. Leading politicians Mohammed Ali Jinah, leader of the All India Muslim League and Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress, believed that the partition should have resulted in peaceful relations, but instead it led to unresolved issues and conflict because the partition did not divide the nations clearly along religious lines. The Indo-Pakistani border bears testimony to the thousands of lives sacrificed to protect the sovereignty of India. Soldiers transferred to the border go there prepared to die. Their families back home either turn a blind eye or pray every day.
The Indo-Pakistan border at Wagah. Photo courtesy of the author.
The Indo-Pakistan border at Wagah. Photo courtesy of the author.
In the village of Wagah (Wahga in Pakistan), the only crossing on the Indo-Pakistan border, there is a parade at sundown. The village was split in half in 1947 with the eastern half remaining in the Republic of India and the western half in Pakistan. For the soldiers and their families from both nations, the sundown retreat parade is a mark of respect to all the martyrs. For others, the ceremony is a great patriotic occasion. Many are thrilled to be there, face to face with nationals from Pakistan. This is the one occasion that permits the common man to visit the ‘no man’s land’ and interact with people from the other side.
Hundreds of tourists flock to this historical place to see a majestic changing of the guards accompanied by the hoisting and retreat of both the Indian and the Pakistani flags. Border security forces of India and Pakistan drill with pounding long strides on the grounds as the two iron gates are shut with a final handshake.
One recent cold afternoon I made the trip to Punjab to see this ceremony. On the road between Amritsar city and Wagah, we stopped at a restaurant by the side of the highway for a quick lunch. There was a small boutique adjacent to the restaurant selling exquisite salwar kameez (traditional dress)from Pakistan. Here in this roadside cafe, we could feel both countries.
At Attari, just 3 kms from the Indo-Pakistan border, I am told this is the last Indian railway station on the rail route that connects Lahore in Pakistan with the Indian capital Delhi. Years back the train service, the Samjhauta Express, took this route all the way to Lahore in Pakistan but now it only goes until Wagah.
A massive crowd has formed at the gates to Wagah border.. We are all anxious to not be left out. We are all determined to buy our flags from the vendors at the gate, to get our face tattooed with the Indian tri-color, and to secure our seats in the stadium. If a stampede results from our enthusiasm, it would be out of feelings of patriotism and not selfishness, I think.
I sit still. I had run all the way from the gate to the stadium to sit in the front. The national song plays aloud. The soldiers of Border Security Force come marching in their sparkling armours to take their position at the gates of Wagah border. As they walked briskly past us with their head held high, they carry on their strong shoulders the faith of their countrymen. The sundown retreat has begun.
The crowd at Wagah Border gate in the evenings. Photo courtesy of the author.
The crowd at Wagah Border gate in the evenings. Photo courtesy of the author.
The atmosphere is electric, charged with patriotism. The moment is pure. I close my eyes and remember Lt. Navdeep Singh and the heroes of our nation- men who did not waiver a moment before making the ultimate sacrifice with their lives to protect us. The proceedings of the parade fade in the background and I find myself in another time, as if I am here to pay my last respects to a parting martyr.
When I shout with others slogans like ‘Vande Mataram’ I am louder than I could ever imagine myself to be. When I scream ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ it is for celebrating our heroes. This is my time to ‘give back’. My time to celebrate them.
In 2012 the President of India awarded the highest gallantry award in peace time, the Ashok Chakra, to Lt. Navdeep Singh. A proud father and a soldier himself, Lt. Joginder Singh (Retired) set aside his personal grief and received the award on behalf of his son who had been a young man when he died and could have chosen life over death had it not been for his love for the country.
On the chest of every officer passing out of the Indian Military Academy are inscribed the Chetwode Motto:
“The safety, honour and welfare of your country comes first
Always and everytime.
The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command
Come next.
Your own ease, comfort and safety
Come last
Always and everytime.”
Soldiers like Lt. Navdeep Singh give life to these words, even in their death. And their legacy carries on, their torch is passed onto new hands, new faces, new men.
urmila chanamAbout the author: Urmila Chanam is a journalist from the small state of Manipur in north-eastern India. In 2013 she was awarded the Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity and recognized for her efforts to bring forth issues revolving around women in India. Urmila is a columnist for the leading English Daily in Manipur, the Sangai Express. In addition to The WIP, she contributes to SUN Magazine, Chilli Breeze, and Global Press Institute, along with the journals World Pulse and Voices for Human Rights. Her dream is to be the 'Voice of the Voiceless.'

Urmila Chanam

How the Laadli Media and Advertising Awards started a journey
Jan 17, 2014

"I remember you today Priyanka. One year ago I met you in your school in a village in remote Maharashtra. What you shared with me, I carried 'far and wide' just as I had promised I would. I hope together, you and I, served the purpose to hope for a better world for adolescent girls and women who have not much idea about menstrual hygiene management." I spoke these words softly to myself while climbing the stairs to the carpeted stage when my name was announced as the winner of the Laadli Media and Advertising Awards for Gender Sensitivity 2013. In the glaring lights, the gifting of the elegant trophy and the spotlight over me, I thought to myself, "It had always not been like this." The journey till here began on the dusty roads of rural India. A world and a life that took lengthy descriptions and elaborations about how different it was, for the people who had abundance in urban space. When I had first sat to occupy the quiet desk in a corner of my home, I had been eager to carry to others the world where millions of adolescent girls and women live in complete darkness about menstruation in my country, wading through their childhood, adolescence, marriage and reproductive life of a mother , without once knowing what menstruation is. I had been keen to carry forth the backward status of majority of women in my country who thought menstruation was 'dirty', 'unworthy of discussion', 'not entitled to family resources', ' deserving of seclusion from family and society' and a 'justified reason for not being allowed to touch food or utensils during 'those days of the month'. Last year I traveled 60 days on road to cover major states and regions in India that face problems of water, sanitation and ignorance on menstrual hygiene management. The organizer of such a large touring intervention was Wash United, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), Arghyam, Water AID among other international donors and NGOs. In this journey a country-wide survey was done at every state and region we stopped to assess the status of water, sanitation and menstrual hygiene management among adolescent girls and women. Once the survey was wrapped up, trainings, informal workshops and focused group discussions were used to disseminate accurate information on hygiene and menstruation. It was the most enriching experience of my life to be meeting real people in their real environments which explained their situation and interact with so many women at the same time. I met Priyanka in one such travel to the state of Maharashtra. I was in her school with another lady facilitator, talking to all the adolescent girls in the school, conducting a survey on our tablets and then holding a focused group discussion on menstruation. About 'Laadli', the Girl Child Campaign: Laadli is a girl child campaign from Population First against sex selection and the falling sex ratio in India. In a country where there are reported to be less than 800 girls for every 1000 boys in 16 districts, this is an alarming truth about the way the Indian society is obsessed with the 'boy child'. The Laadli Media and Advertising Awards was instituted to propagate a genre of media reporting that gives attention to issues of the gender in the right perspective, allowing respect and dignity to the woman. When the award came for my work on taboos on menstruation in India and the state of reproductive health owing to these taboos and malpractices, I was convinced it was meant to strengthen my work on menstrual hygiene management. I take this moment in my life as an encouragement to keep going till a day comes when there is no taboo around any aspect of a woman's reproductive health. A space when women can freely tell their daughters about menstruation, there is no restriction on going and buying sanitary pads from shops or cotton cloth for absorbing the fluid and no girl is stopped from going to the kitchen or the temple while she is menstruating.A day when there is no event in their lives which stops them from getting an education-not menstruation at least!! I accept this award on behalf of all those girls and women who shared an aspect of their lives and helped me to carry the torch forward. (I now head a global campaign ' Breaking the Silence' and ' Celebrating the Red Droplets' engaging men, women, boys, girls alike through social media, training and capacity building and rally with a focus on raising awareness on menstruation and the need to manage it hygienically)

As I Remember Her: A Story of a Child Bride in India
Jan 08, 2013

I had heard about the prevalence of child marriage in India, but Nikita, 11, personalized the institution for me. I met her in a government school in the remote village of Doodiya, eight kilometers from Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Tiny, fragile-boned, and inhibited, she is a student of class six. In other parts of the world, Nikita would have lived the life of a growing child, but here in the heart of India, Nikita behaves like a small lady. She is soon to be married. A child bride at 11 years, soon to tie the knot with a 15-year-old boy, also in school, but certainly not an adult himself.
This is the tradition in this part of India. Children are married off when they should still be playing with toys. Boys and girls enter matrimony without knowing what marriage means. Their childhood and any life aspirations they might have had are extinguished by this age-old tradition. No one challenges it because it has become the norm.
 
In the school where Nikita studies, I notice many girls, younger or her age, with vermillion or mustard-colored paste on their foreheads. To my surprise, I also see the mustard-colored paste on the foreheads of a few boys. I later find out that these children are either engaged or already married. According to a teacher here, out of the 200 students in her school, 30 are married, but another source fears that the percentage may be much higher.
 
When I get the chance to talk to Nikita at her school, I take extra caution not to scare her off by asking too many questions. She is my getaway to another world, another time. She surprises me with her composure and maturity beyond her years, and I feel that she had been compromised by what lay ahead of her. She shows no resistance, no second thoughts, and no trace of regret. Regardless, the expectations placed upon her are too much.
 
I try not to sound too eager when I ask, “So are you happy to be getting married or you don’t want to?” I was hoping the answer would be the latter. She smiles and replies, “I didn’t think about that. I only know everyone gets married in my village when they are much younger. My uncle’s daughter got married when she turned five. In fact, I am late.”
Now this is something.
 
Nikita tells me she saw the boy she would soon marry once at a family get-together, as is the tradition. The families of the prospective couple meet informally over tea to mull over the possibility of marriage. A decision is made after the boy sees the girl and agrees that she is “fit” to be his wife.
 
Child marriages are so rampant and commonplace in central India that no one gives it a second thought. The tradition is that the child bride continues to live with her parents after the wedding until she begins to menstruate. In a ceremony that marks this stage in her life, she then moves into her husband’s house. Whether the conjugal rights of the boy over his child bride exist during the time she lives with her parents varies from community to community.
 
Parents worry that a girl will not find a good husband if she is not married by the normal age. Girls who do not marry early usually end up marrying men who have been divorced, widowed, or are physically challenged.
 
Most people who engage in this practice do not do it with bad intentions. Behind this age-old tradition is the ignorant and uncivilized father who wants the best for his daughter, not knowing any other way, not questioning its implications on the lives of these young children.
 
Mohan Dom from Bettiah in Bihar, father of a 5-year-old girl, says, “In my community it’s necessary to get our daughters married by eight years at the latest. Any delay in that means that we have not been able to find a match for her. If we do get a match, the man would have been married earlier and lost his wife to an ailment or accident. This is why we marry off our daughters very young, though they continue to live with us till they turn 18. In the final send-off, we do not compromise.”
 
Also from Bettiah, Bihar, Mohan Rawat is the grandfather of a 10-year-old girl. He says he is now paying for his decision not to marry off his granddaughter earlier. “I had decided that my granddaughter will not be married off at a very young age like it is done here, but today she is 10 and now when I am looking for a match I am unable to find one for her because in our Dom community, girls are married at four or five years.”
 
I also saw child marriages in almost all the government schools I visited in Bettiah, Bihar. There were some Muslim girls who were married and did not have any outward indication of their marital status, but whose names had “Khatun” added to the end.
 
It was easy to identify which girls were married due to the vermillion on their foreheads, but how many boys were married was difficult to ascertain. Though Indian law has made child marriage illegal, it is still reported widely from the rural parts of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgar, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh. Though some other third world countries practice child marriage, India alone houses one-third of all child brides.
 
This practice adversely affects the emotional, mental, and intellectual growth of children, affecting the education of girls directly. Child marriage is one of the major reasons why girls in India drop out of school and never return to pursue further studies.
 
Burdened with traditions, responsibilities, childbirth, child rearing, and domestic chores, child marriage is truly a violation of human rights. The nutrition, growth, and development of child brides are remarkably stunted. Maternal death is on the rise because girls who marry early in life are less likely to be informed about reproductive issues, making pregnancy-related deaths the leading cause of mortality among married girls between 15 and 19 years of age. These girls are twice as likely to die in childbirth than girls between 20 and 24 years of age. Girls younger than 15 years of age are five times more likely to die in childbirth.
 
Infants born to mothers under the age of 18 years are more likely to die in their first year than to older mothers, making infant health another serious impact of child marriage. If the infants survive, they are the most likely to suffer from low birth weight, malnutrition, and delayed or stunted physical and cognitive development.
 
A study conducted in India by the International Institute for Population Sciences and Macro International in 2005 and 2006 showed low fertility control within child marriages. Ninety percent of young married women reported no contraceptive use prior to having their first child. 23.9 percent reported having a child within their first year of marriage, 17.3 percent reported having three or more children over the course of the marriage, 23 percent reported a rapid repeat childbirth, and 15.2 percent reported an unwanted pregnancy.
 
On top of all this, young girls are more likely to experience domestic violence in their marriages. They are twice as likely to be beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands and three times more likely to experience sexual violence. Young brides often show symptoms of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress, according to a study conducted in India by the International Centre for Research on Women.
 
After spending some private moments with Nikita, I realize it is not right for me to goad her out of her environment and destiny, but at the same time I have trouble letting go that easily. I doubt whether I would ever return to that place and meet her again. I wonder to myself what I can do under these circumstances. I need a promise from her.
“Will you promise me that you will not leave school after marriage, and that you will never give up on your education?”
 
The small lady rises to my words. She turns serious and quietly says, “I promise.”
 
About the Author: Urmila Chanam is a journalist from the small state of Manipur in northeastern India. She is a columnist for the leading English Daily in Manipur, the Sangai Express. In addition to The WIP, she contributes to SUN Magazine, Chilli Breeze, and Global Press Institute, along with the journals World Pulse and Voices for Human Rights. Her dream is to be the 'Voice of the Voiceless.'

Sex Workers in India Move from Stigma to Empowerment
Jan 01, 2013
"I believe we still have not reached the last sex worker and we will walk until we reach her.” - Ashodaya Samithi member, Mysore, India

When they first began, sex work in Mysore was vibrant and mostly street-based. Condom allocation and availability was nil. There was just one Integrated Counselling and Testing Centre (ICTC) where the counsellor said he was seeing new HIV infections every month. To ensure sex workers use condoms, it was necessary to provide awareness of HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) to them, and provide condom and STI services. Added to this, there lay the himalayan task to overcome the power dynamics behind the sex workers’ helplessness to make clients use condoms.

The stigma was high. Violence from clients, goondas meaning hired thugs/rogues/hoodlums, police, and boyfriends posed a grim threat. All the money earned was taken away (by clients who stole it from them, boyfriends who tried to live off their earnings, police who exchanged money for releasing them from spontaneous arrests) and they often had no savings. Sex workers did not have bank accounts because every bank asked for identity and proof of address, something sex workers do not possess, largely owing to their high mobility. More and more sex workers were getting infected with HIV and were without sufficient information on its prevention, care and support. There was high incidence of violence against them and the vagueness of the law on sex work fueled the frequency. Sex workers did not have a reason to associate with others within the community. They were left on their own, with their small immediate groups, to fend for themselves.

Ashodaya Samithi changed all that.

What started as a sex worker's community-based organization, is today a powerful collective comprised of 336 members who are female, male and transgender sex workers as well as a network of volunteers operating in six districts of Karnataka. It reaches out to 8,000 sex workers through its different initiatives of empowering the community, such as providing knowledge of legal and human rights, HIV/STI knowledge to bring about a behavioural change, supporting the prevention and treatment of STIs and HIV, running drop-in-centres, operation of a crisis management unit, a restaurant, service apartment and a training academy predominantly run by members.

The HIV programme run by the collective focuses on two separate strategies: prevention through the encouragment of condom use and frequent visit to clinics for the uninfected, and treatment for infected sex workers provided in government hospitals and in Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART) centres. Their drop in centres look like a community club, but besides offering a safe space for the community to interact with others, rest and hold meetings, they also offer HIV and STI testing facilities, counselling and free condoms. For the sex workers who do not come to these drop in centres, Ashodaya uses a social network approach where those community members who are the most popular and influential are recruited as ‘peer educators’ who in turn help bring in new members and disseminate information of STIs and HIV to sex workers.

There are 650 female sex workers infected with HIV in Mysore alone, and Ashodaya makes it their goal to reach every woman to give information on HIV care and treatment, assist her in attending the Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART) centre, and follow up on her progress to ensure she takes the medicines and adheres to the treatment. Additionally, Ashodaya finances her trips to the hospital and counsels her on the use of condoms. Those whose HIV status is unknown are reached by peer educators and engaged in discussion on HIV to bring about change in terms of their risky behaviour, and encouraged to come to get tested at the drop in centre or testing centres in hospitals. Most of all, it aims at lowering the stigma associated with the life of a person living with HIV, attempting to create an enabling environment conducive to the well being of the sex worker.

This exercise has had a direct and steep impact; 90 percent of sex workers in Mysore have been contacted monthly, 70 percent of them have visited drop in centres regularly and 65 percent have become consistent condom users. Ashodaya Samithi has successfully reduced STI prevalence within three years from inception.

The collective has worked beyond simply providing information on HIV, STIs, and condoms to thinking and working towards their sustainability beyond the projects funded by donors. Reduction of stigma happened as a by-product of their efforts. For example, Hotel Ashodaya is a restaurant run by sex workers and a share of the profit is used to run the community care centre. The idea of starting a restaurant was a deliberate and innovative approach to address stigma faced by sex workers.

“The restaurant has given us an opportunity to interact with people from mainstream society and has improved their understanding of our issues. From the sales that has gone up by 50 percent over the last year, it shows that people come to the restaurant knowing it is run by sex workers,” one sex worker tells me.

The Community Care Home is where Ashodaya gives shelter to sex workers infected with AIDS, treating and caring for them. They receive free clinic facilities, three meals a day, hot water for bathing and a space devoid of the stigma that would have faced in a general government hospital. A sex worker tells me, “A sex worker could go to a government hospital and get all the HIV and STI related health services and need not necessarily go to Ashodaya had it not been for their crisis management program.”

What is interesting is that the sustainability of the care home is provided by resources generated by the women on their own, from the restaurant and from fund mobilization.

“Initially managing resources was difficult. We all sat together to discuss our options. We thought it was a good idea to approach the local people in the vicinity. We raised money for our food and other basic requirements. There are many good-hearted people out there,” one patient says.

Phone numbers are given to the community members which serve as help lines for a sex worker in distress. The crisis team responds to the situation and help is extended. This has provided a feeling of unity in the community of sex workers and there has been a 70 percent drop in violence. Most of all this has facilitated more sex workers to join Ashodaya, visible from a recorded 80 percent registration.

Ashodaya Samithi is a success story of a sex worker led, community based organization in India, which is strengthening community members to fight HIV. They have changed the landscape of the living conditions of sex workers in every aspect. People from different parts of the world are flocking to Mysore wanting to learn about the program and many go back and try replicating it in their own country. Ashodaya embraces this sharing. Besides building the capacity of its own community, it has gone ahead to build the capacity of others creating a large network with a sole vision and goal - to secure a better life for sex workers.

The adult industry was not invention of today’s sex workers. They are service providers of an age-old industry, culturally accepted from time immemorial. They are aware of their right to justice, safety, privacy, dignity, livelihood, health and education of their children. They want to play an important part in preventing the spread of HIV among themselves, their clients, spouses and their children.

Ashodaya dedicates its projects of HIV prevention to the 452 sex workers who were a part of the Community Based Organization since its formation but who died of AIDS. In every forum when a community leader gets up to talk, these men and women are remembered and valued even today.

“We strive to achieve, united by our sense of togetherness,” are more than just beautiful words on the wall but a value pulsating in every sex worker touched by Ashodaya.

By Urmila Chanam

Ima Keithel: A Symbol of Women’s Empowerment in Manipur
Jan 28, 2012

While the rest of India is fighting for respect and dignity of women, ‘Ima Keithel’ the all women market in Manipur symbolizes women’s empowerment. In this northeastern extreme of India, women enjoy a unique status in their homes, in the workplace and in the community, a trend found very rarely in the rest of the India. Every time I come to Ima Keithel, I find a new way of looking at these women. Through Ima Keithel, women in Manipur have carried the economic responsibility of trade and commerce for centuries, endured political and military upheavals, maintained the indigenous way of life, and remained economic pillars of their families and community. This undying spirit of powerful local women holds them together in solidarity for a better future. Pushpa Lairikyengbam Ongbi, 60, is the mother of three. She sells different varieties of laddoos - a popular Indian sweet generally made of flour, sugar, milk and made into bite size balls - some made of rice flour laloo, some made of beaten rice kabok. Her space in the market is a family legacy that has been passed down from her mother-in-law who occupied this position until she turned 80. Pushpa’s husband tells of the benefits reaped by the family, and how his mother supported the entire family on her income from selling edibles for 35 years. The children went to school, clothes were bought for them, food was abundant, the children were married off, and the familial house was constructed - all from this income. After her mother-in-law died, Pushpa says she was not in a position to take over the business right away. She had small children and domestic responsibilities. So during this period spanning over five years, her mother sold edibles from the space and paid monthly rent to Pushpa’s husband. Serial number 1, seat in shade number 13, has been lucky for Pushpa in the two years she has taken over from her mother as a vendor. “I am very happy here. I don’t want to stay at home doing nothing anymore, after having tasted this way of life,” she beams. When asked how many years she plans to sit in Ima Keithel, Pushpa refuses to come up with a number. “As long as I can, and my health permits.” Pushpa is valued by her husband and her children, all of whom look up to her as a pillar of strength. Nungshitombi Laishram, 45, earns Rs.4000 (USD$ 73) per month on average, which she uses prudently to run her entire household of five. Her three children are still in school. With these earnings she puts food on the table and pays for her children’s education, clothing, medical care, and social expenses. She sells indigenous fresh vegetables that include a special kind of chilli umorok, bamboo shoot soibum, lemon grass nakuppi, and ginger. Nungshitombi became the breadwinner for her family at 18 when she married her husband, a farmer. She smiles as she recalls, “I have been here for a long time. Twenty-seven years have just gone like that. In return I have found a stable livelihood, support that comes from belonging to this big women’s association of Ima Keithel, and confidence that I will be able to complete my children’s education successfully.” Pushpa and Nungshitombi are not the only women, of the nearly 4000 women vendors at Ima Keithel, who form the economic backbone of their families. The term ‘market’ is in fact highly inadequate to describe what Ima Keithel is and the role it plays in the local economy, culture, and society. The economics of such marketing is not just about the women who sell their goods, but it is also about the men and women who produce these commodities in communities stretching for hundreds of miles around the markets. In that sense, Ima Keithel is the site for the affirmation of women’s control over the production, the use, and the management of consumption patterns. Ima Keithel can be traced back to the 1580’s and has been under constant threat of displacement and relocation since the British occupancy of Manipur in 1891. The British were successful in controlling trade and commerce in Manipur by reducing the trading women to petty vendors. On at least two occasions, first in 1904 and next in 1939, the women rose against the exploitative colonial British policies and asserted themselves in what later came to be known as Nupi Lal or the ‘War of the Women’. It is most important to remember that the market houses poor women in livelihood pursuits in an environment where everything else seems to have broken down - from the economy of the state, to law and order. Manipur has been under the tight grip of armed conflict for decades, and years of strain have crippled its economy so much that the State Government of Manipur has not been able to pay salaries to its employees for months. Manipur receives power for just three hours a day, and unemployment is the gravest threat facing the youth, next to drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. “It’s almost like we have seen our good men being wiped away by either militancy or HIV,” says one woman vendor, leaving after selling vegetables the whole day. When asked what her husband does to earn an income, she says, “He is unemployed and helpless...” and adds, “…that leaves just me to do something to bring food on our plates. For the next few years till my son grows up I see myself doing this.” The woman gets on a public jeep that will take her to her village in Nambol, some 25 km away from Imphal city. Some women come from villages even further beyond. These women should not be mistaken for petty vendors as classified by municipal authorities. They have been known traditionally to manage trade and commerce and are the producers of many goods - including textiles, food, and earthenware - for consumption, local exchange, and the larger regional markets. They are active conservers of biodiversity (agro, wetland and forest), both through their farming practices, which nurture it, and also through their active promotion of the local cultures. The market is a society, an institution, a way of life. Throughout history, a favoured tactic has been to displace and relocate Ima Keithel - be it by the bankers and advisory to the ancient chiefs and their councils, the British colonists, or the recent demolition of the Keithel by the State Government to make way for a modern supermarket. In 2003, the government of Manipur planned to demolish Ima Keithel. The women’s association, the Khwairamband Keithel Nupi Marup, appealed to the government to preserve this institution and not replace it with a modern supermarket. They sat undeterred for the right to preserve their heritage, even under the threat of the use of force by the armed forces and government in 2004. In April 2005 the state government demolished the old Ima Keithel to build a modern structure, but owing to the protest of women of this market, shelved the original plan of housing a supermarket. Today this new structure is the new face of old Ima Keithel and one of the biggest tourism destinations of Manipur. Today Ima Keithel still faces an uncertain future. The systematic invasions of new products and technologies constantly seek to replace local production and eliminate local economy. If retail chains are introduced in Manipur the indigenous markets like Ima Keithel may not be able to compete. The loss will be all of ours, firstly for the women, then for the farmers and producers of the goods stretching over hundreds of miles around this market; and lastly for the people of Manipur, for the loss of an indigenous way of life and our history. The enemy is different now and the dynamics may change altogether tomorrow, but the women of Ima Keithel march forward. Together, in each other, they find the strength to carry on and remain the torch bearers of their society. Urmila Chanam is a journalist from the small state of Manipur in north-eastern India. She is a columnist for the leading English Daily in Manipur, the Sangai Express. In addition to The WIP, she contributes to SUN Magazine, Chilli Breeze, and Global Press Institute, along with the journals World Pulse and Voices for Human Rights. Her dream is to be the 'Voice of the Voiceless.'

Urmila Chanam