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‘Pluralism, Equality and the State’. 14th National Conference on Women’s Studies

Natural Justice’s Vaneesha Jain attended the 14th National Conference on Women’s Studies in Guwahati, Assam, India, from 4th to 7th February 2014. The conference was organised by the Indian Association of Women’s Studies in collaboration with Gauhati University Women’s Studies Department, TISS Guwahati Campus, Cotton College State University and North East Network. The title of the conference was ‘Pluralism, Equality and the State: Perspectives from the Women’s Movement’.
The conference had a total of 10 sub-themes, and Vaneesha presented a paper entitled ‘No Woman’s Land: Exploring Women’s Relationships with their Land and their Legal Entitlements’ under the first sub-theme. Participants in this sub-theme shared theory and field experiences in various Indian states on the subject of women’s access to land and land-based resources. The NJ presentation was well-received, and generated particular interest in its reference to the recent Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement legislation.

Among the numerous points of importance raised, were the following:
  • Formal legal title is not empowering if it fails to ensure participation in decision-making and real control over the land. For example, Assam, despite having a matrilineal society, vests decision-making power in the hands of the mother’s brother.
  • The uniform treatment of all under State law can be problematic where communities are not homogenous – in such cases, customary laws may recognize entitlements through different subject positions through life, for example, as daughter, wife, second wife, widow, etc. Of course, this latter is problematic for perpetuation of patriarchal structures.
  • Land as identity: Members of several communities have their village names as part of their own names, and identify with the land of their origin on a very personal level. Hence, denial of land rights is liable to render the subject identity-less.
  • If traditional attitudes of nature conservation are not made a state priority, and if their social imagery and value decreases, then women and youngsters would obviously be more inclined to be stakeholders in the growing political economy and work in industry rather than be ‘left behind’.
  • With the long-term goal of equality and empowerment, it is important to recognize the role of women in agriculture, and reverse the trend of bringing this role within the ‘domestic’, unpaid work that women do. Thus, the real question to focus on is how far land ownership can lead to a real change in gender relations.

Upon reflection, it is fascinating that nearly all these observations are also equally relevant in the struggle for recognition of community rights over forestland.

10 February 2014

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