Leaving the women in the woods

  • 29/09/1994

Leaving the women in the woods When a village watchman self-righteously stopped Navlibehn from cutting firewood in the forests adjoining Kotha village, she retorted, "To kya main apne haath jala kar roti pakaun (Should I burn my hands to cook food)?"

In Boriya village, Manibehn and her sister-in-law were caught redhanded cutting wood. The watchmen seized their tools and the firewood they had collected. A humiliated Manibehn burst into tears and bitterly told the watchmen that they could "use the confiscated wood for their own cremation".

Instances of villagers being prevented from cutting firewood are all too common. But in both Kotha and Boriya, which form part of a cluster of villages in Santrampur taluk of Panchmahals district in Gujarat, the watchmen did not belong to the forest department -- they had been appointed by the villagers themselves.

Until the early "70s, the hills surrounding the Santrampur villages had a fairly dense mix of teak forests. But around 1972, with a dam coming up on the nearby Panam river, a road was built. Within a few years, the forests disappeared, the timber illicitly cut and carted away by trucks bringing in material for the dam.
The need for forests Around 1985, a sharp drop in the water table and soil productivity, combined with a scarcity of timber for house construction and agricultural implements, alarmed the village leaders into regenerating the forests before even the rootstock vanished. The village agyavaas (respected and trusted local leaders) discussed the matter in the gram sabhas and it was decided to totally close each forest patch for 4-5 years. Entry into the protected areas with implements was prohibited, although fallen twigs, branches and leaves could be collected by hand.

Two to 4 men were assigned to keep watch on the forests and each household was asked to contribute 5-10 kg of grain annually to compensate them. Anyone violating the rules was to be reprimanded by the watchmen and those refusing to heed their word would be brought before the gram sabha. Adamant violators would be handed over to the forest department.

After 5 years of closure, families were given chhutti (permission) on specified days to cut as many bushes as they could for firewood and a limited amount of timber for house construction and repair. Today, 17 villages in the cluster have regenerated their forests in an impressive example of autonomous "community" forest management.

Besides Gujarat, such community initiatives have taken place on a significant scale in Orissa and Bihar, and have begun in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. In fact, many forest protection committees in West Bengal now registered with the state joint forest management (jfm) programme -- where the forest department enlists the cooperation of the community to manage forests on a benefit-sharing basis -- began as grassroots initiatives. Similar movements are also being formalised in Bihar and Orissa, among other states.

The methods used by the villagers provide valuable insights into how grassroots organisations function and how much the state-sponsored jfm can learn. However, despite the good intentions of forest protection, community forest management inevitably sidelines women, burdening them with additional hardships -- so much for forest protection, whether it is by department officials or the community that depends on the forests.

The primary role of women -- as gatherers of a wide diversity of non-timber forest produce -- is well known. However, when the stern and impressively determined male leaders of the Gujarat villages were asked whether women had participated in the gram sabhas at which forest protection decisions were taken, the men were surprised. Women? Why call them? they had asked.

But weren"t the women breaking the rules to collect firewood and fodder? Reply: If any woman breaks a rule, we question her man.

But how would firewood requirements be met if the forests were sealed off? The men nonchalantly replied that the people would get by with what they had on their private lands. Women from 3 of the Gujarat forest protection groups confirmed that they had merely been told about the closure of the forest areas and that was that.

The same questions elicited similar responses in south Bihar. In some cases, the entry of women into protected areas is totally banned. As Loknath Prajapati, secretary of the van samiti (forest committee) of Ramua village in Hazaribagh district, Bihar, says, "Hum mahilayon ko to jungle mein ghusne nahin detey. Woh to sab ped kaat dalengi (We do not let the women enter the forest. They will cut all the trees)." Such trite talk, normally attributed to forest department officials, is now being spewed out by the village men.

The forest "shutdown" plans brought about some drastic changes in the mundane but vital routines of the women. They now spent more time and labour collecting firewood. The women of Chari village in Gujarat, for instance, used to collect 2 headloads a day in less than 1 hour. But now, they said they had to leave at 4 am to Bhatakpura village 5 km away -- where forest protection was not in force -- and return after 5 hours with only 1 headload. Because of the distance, the girls and older women of the village did not make the trip as they normally would and some women lugged heavier-than-usual loads to avoid making additional trips. In winters, the women collect firewood daily for a month to stock up for the year. The small quantities gathered during the chhutti days are kept for use in the monsoon. The rest of the time, the women scrounge around for dung and twigs. Most people do not have irrigation, and with just 1 crop grown in the year, only a fortunate few get agricultural residue for use as fuel.

Similar encumbrances were revealed by the women of all 4 forest protection committees in the south Bankura forest division of West Bengal in January 1994 (see table 1). The cooking fuel scarcity was also evident in parts of south Bihar. What community forest protection essentially did was to effectively increase the burden of women and concentrate it on the shoulders of younger women.

The forest protection rules were not uniformly rigid in all cases. In West Bengal and Bihar, there were instances of the forests not being entirely closed off to the women. In most cases, the women were allowed to collect dead, dry and fallen twigs and branches, a standard forest department prescription that is violated frequently simply because there isn"t enough firewood. Only in rare cases are women trusted to cut dead and deformed trees. Alternatively, trees, except "valuable" species like sal and teak, can be cut.

In exceptional cases, some of the cooking-fuel gathering responsibility has been transferred to the men. In Laskari village of Barkatha block in Hazaribagh district, where the van samiti started forest protection 20 years ago, men now fetch 3 or 4 cartloads of branches once a year for the household.

Recent workshops with 2 groups of 20-25 representatives of autonomous van samitis from Hazaribagh and East Singhbhum districts of Bihar confirmed the pattern of women switching to inferior fuels like leaves, husk, weeds and bushes or having to spend greater time and effort in obtaining firewood, or resorting to both. Many women in Patamda block of East Singhbhum district now go to the Dolma sanctuary area, spending upto an entire day to fetch just 1 headload.

The formalisation of some of these groups under the jfm has not changed things much. Procuring firewood from outside village areas merely transfers the pressure elsewhere. And the women remain losers -- their work burden increases and the quality of their life deteriorates.

Except for a few cases in Hazaribagh district where a local NGO has promoted both women"s and men"s participation, all van samitis have only male members. The traditional exclusion of women from community decisionmaking fora remains firmly entrenched.

The women suffer various other incidental hardships. When traversing beyond their village boundaries, they become more vulnerable to humiliation by outsiders├┐as well as their own people. Manibehn and her sister-in-law were doubly humiliated -- by the forest watchmen and later by their husbands, who chided them for not conforming to the rules.

However, an immediate gender-differentiated impact of community forest protection (whether autonomous or formal jfm) is a considerable, if not total, reduction in the availability of firewood from the protected areas. With the ban on the use of tools, leaves have to be plucked by hand. But with the protected trees getting taller, the leaves go out of reach. This has reduced the number of leaves available and increased the time and effort needed to collect them.

Fear of men
Asked if they had protested when the men announced the closure of the forests, the women said they feared being "beaten with thick, heavy dandas (sticks)" if they did not obey (none have actually been beaten up). This contradicted the version of the men, who said there was initial resistance by some of the women.

It is quite clear that beneath the facade of community forest protection lies a gender conflict. Cultural taboos prevent most women from talking openly against their men -- especially to outsiders -- and their views would not have come to light but for the relationship built up with the women by the staff of sarthi├┐(Social Action for Rural and Tribal Inhabitants of India), an NGO .

Much has been said about the harassment and humiliation faced by rural women when collecting firewood. Previously, when forest department staff stopped the women, they could at least cry foul and expect the sympathy and support of their men. In turn, the forest staff talk about the equally strong fears of being accused of molestation by apprehended women "offenders". Now, however, with the village men themselves having taken on the policing role, the women"s voices have been stifled and the conflict has moved into the home.

The traditional gender division of labour made men obtain timber for house construction and agricultural implements -- needed only once in a while -- and women gather cooking fuel, which is needed with unbroken regularity. Although the men worked out ways to honour their commitments, they overlooked the women"s requirements entirely. The social processes that forced a blatantly unequal share of the burden on women -- supposedly for the "family good" -- are powerful. Women are least able to fight back in the home: challenging household men is not only socially unacceptable but can threaten their place within the home. It was only to help themselves fall in line that the women conjured up images of being beaten up and they continue performing the tasks expected of them, plodding those extra km every day.

The issue is whether community or joint participatory forest management has anything to offer in terms of making women"s tasks less arduous and more sustainable. Obviously, merely shifting the protection role from the forest departments to the community does not provide any remedies. Further, the gender-differentiated impact is not restricted to firewood -- it applies equally to other forest produce.

Benefit at what cost?
The increased availability of forest produce due to forest regeneration is generally assumed to benefit both women and men. However, preliminary field investigations suggest that the primary focus on regenerating timber under both jfm and community protection may be at the cost of reducing the availability of some of the more important forest produce to women and other disadvantaged groups.

For example, protecting sal trees results in the leaves getting out of reach. This affects the sale of sal leaf plates, which is a common source of income, primarily for poor women in many parts of West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar.

Similarly, the tendu leaf, again an important source of seasonal cash income for women, tends to decline in a regenerating forest because tendu bushes get shaded out by the growing trees. Tendu bushes also need to be pruned annually for good leaf growth, something that no partner community in the jfm has been allowed to do so far.

Each forest management decision implies different costs and benefits with an impact that is likely to vary according to gender. Undoubtedly, although both women and men have to incur some opportunity costs to rehabilitate their forests, both are likely to make different choices if they are aware of the options.

The snag is that women are seldom consulted or informed about these options; and despite incurring disproportionate opportunity costs, they have no clear entitlements even to long-term benefits. They are merely assigned the role of passive executors of decisions and "educated", "motivated" or simply "pressured" into conforming for the "family good".

An additional role imposed on them is to turn away women from outside trying to collect wood from the protected forests. This so that the men are protected against accusations of attempted molestation. Community forest protection has not only turned women against men but also women against women, without providing a solution to the problems of either group.

The benefits of forest regeneration (excluding the more intangible environmental benefits) through community protection are in the form of produce for direct consumption or those that can generate income.

In jfm, the entire income or a share of the produce goes to the institution"s common fund or all or a part of it is distributed between individual members. (Benefits exclude forest produce collected individually.)

Where there is no provision for the equal distribution of income among the members (as proposed by Haryana), members are entitled to loans from the common fund for investing in productive assets or for emergency needs. However, where distribution of cash is provided for, it becomes a personal entitlement for each member. Membership, therefore, has a direct bearing on benefit share.

In this respect, women"s rights and entitlements have been almost totally overlooked (see table 2). Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Tripura provide for the membership of only 1 representative per household; Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra have left the matter open; Punjab has no provision for a general body at all, and in Jammu and Kashmir, it is unclear whether it is both a man and a woman or either who can represent a household.

To heavy a load
Collecting cooking fuel is more of a burden on women after "participatory" forest protection
  Time/distance for gathering one headload  
village Before protection After protection Frequency of collection

WEST BENGAL(South Bankura forest division)

Kamardanga   4 to 5 hrs 5 days/wk, except monsoons
Bhadli   4 to 5 hrs NA
Barapaccha   3 to 4 hrs daily, except monsoons
Karapara   8 to 9 hrs NA
GUJARAT   (Panch Mahals district)
Vena   3 to 4 hrs 1 week/month
Chari   4 to 5 hrs daily for 1 month/year
Malekpur   whole day NA
SOUTH BIHAR (Hazaribagh district)
Banaso (Entry to protected area was totally banned for first 5 years)
Better half, worse off
Women"s representation in community institutions and entitlements to benefit-sharing in JFM resolutions
State Eligibility for membership in general body Minimum representation
of women in managing commitee(MC)
Benefit-sharing entitlement
Andhra Pradesh 1 female & 1 male per household 3 out of 9-13 members Unspecified
Bihar 1 representative per household 3-5 out of 15-18 members MC to decide
Gujarat Any interested person 2 out of unspecified total To be "suitably" distributed
Haryana All adults 2 women: all could be women Equal access to loans for men & women
Himachal Pradesh 1 female & 1 male per household 2-3 out of 9-12 members For all villagers
Jammu & Kashmir 1 female or male per household 2 out of 11 members Institution to decide
Karnatka 1 representative per household 2 out of 15 member Among "beneficiaries"
Madhya Pradesh 1 representative per household Not specified Equitably among members
Maharashtra Unspecified 2 out of 11 members Per household
Orrisa 1 female & 1 male per household 3 out of 11-13 members Equal shares for members
Punjab No general body 1 women Per household
Rajasthan Not specified Not specified Equal shares for members
Tripura 1 representative per household Not specified Disturbed among members
West Bengal Joint membership of husband & wife Not specified Either husband or wife
Tamil Nadu 1 female & 1 male per household 50 per cent women Basis unclear

Entitlements overlooked
Thus, in 9 of the 15 states implementing jfm, there is no clear provision for women"s membership. In cases where 1 person can represent a household, it invariably ends up being a man (except in the case of widows with no adult sons). This happened in Sukhomajri and Nada in the early "80s, due to which Haryana"s membership has now been opened to all adults.

Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu have attempted to overcome this shortcoming by providing for 1 male and 1 female representative per household and West Bengal for a joint husband-wife membership. Although these are improvements over the usual formula, they still exclude several women and men, as in the case of joint or extended families.

Even where membership has been opened to 1 man and 1 woman per household, in many cases the distribution of income is still based on household units, unspecified or left to the discretion of the community or forest department. The question of equal rights for women and men in the distribution of cash requires careful consideration. So far, such benefit-sharing has taken place in only 2 cases: Arabari in West Bengal and Soliya in Gujarat. From next year, several hundred forest protection committees in West Bengal will become eligible for benefit sharing.

In this context, the question of who -- husband or wife or husband and wife jointly -- should get the share was posed to men and women members of 3 forest protection committees in south Bankura division in January. Surprisingly, few seemed to have given much thought to the matter. However, once the women understood the question, they all felt that the shares should be divided equally and given separately to both husband and wife. There was no vote for joint accounts or husbands being more eligible as the head of the household. The women are responsible for a major share of household sustenance and they want control over their share of the income, especially when it is they who have incurred most of the opportunity costs of forest protection.

The right to benefit
With state involvement in jfm, several membership and procedural provisions can be incorporated to create space for more meaningful participation for women and the protection of their equal rights to the benefits. To instance dispensing with the household as a unit of membership to make the separate identity of women visible in the general body membership of the community institution. As membership is linked to benefits, the only satisfactory provision compatible with the equal rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India is keeping membership open to all adult women and men.

Increasing women"s representation in the decision-making bodies of community institutions to 50 per cent. The present nominal provisions for 1 to 3 women out of 9 to 18 members leaves allows only a tiny minority of women in a male-majority forum to represent women"s interests.

To ensure these provisions do not remain meaningless "names on lists" and structuring regular access to information and decision-making fora for women by making the quorum for meetings include the requirement that 30-50 per cent of those present be women. Specify clearly the women members" independent entitlements wherever there is a provision or distribution of benefit shares in cash or kind.

Finally any joint forest protection measure by analysing the dependence on forest produce in terms of gender and socioeconomic status and assessing the short- and long-term alternatives to meeting the most essential of those needs.

Although a vast range of additional inputs are required to genuinely empower rural women, the inclusion of these basic provisions will structure gender equity into jfm and at least ensure that women do not get designed out of it even by default.

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