Cultural Trends/Popular Culture

India's Forest Law Leaves Women Feeling Cut Out

Sunday, April 20, 2008

India's land rights act enacted Jan. 1 was considered a major milestone for tribal and forest - dwelling communities. But women's activists say it fails to protect the property rights of women, some of whom are forming collectives to hold on to land.

Baiga women bring in forest produce.NAGPUR, India (WOMENSENEWS)--After spending most of her 45 years fighting for tribal people's forest rights in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, Pushpa Toppo should be happy.

On Jan. 1 the government began to implement a landmark law designed to protect over 10 million tribal and forest-dwelling people from evictions, developmental neglect and violence at the hands of the Forest Department.

But Toppo is far from pleased about the Forest Rights Act.

On one hand she is quick to defend it from attacks by conservationists and resort owners who say protecting forest and wildlife--particularly the endangered Bengal tiger--is incompatible with the type of human habitation, including farming, that the law protects.

At the same time, however, she is furious that the law--crafted by legislators, officials, analysts and representatives from local groups--only provides for the issuance of deeds to single men or married couples. It is silent about the rights of single women, whether widowed, deserted or not yet married.

Toppo says this is actually a step backward for women in tribes where custom requires their husbands to give them a share of land for independent control. When a man has more than one wife, some tribes require him to provide a plot of land to each for her sustenance.

No Space to Exercise Rights

"We had expected that a legislation that talks about rights of forest-dwellers would strengthen such positive customary practices where they exist," says Toppo. "On the ground, however, this act does not recognize these practices at all, and women are left with no space to exercise their rights under them."

Soma KP, who has abbreviated her last name, is a researcher of women's land rights from Delhi and she agrees. "Previous experience shows that unless they are explicitly stated, women's land rights--both in paternal and marital homes--tend to get invisible."

Adds Pramila Swain, an activist in Orissa in eastern India: "It is very likely that the land rights of widowed, deserted and unmarried women will get usurped by male family members at the time of rights settlement."

Nita Hardikar, a member of a rural development group in western India, takes special issue with the law's failure to protect the most marginalized of all tribal people: widows who survive by collecting firewood, cigarette leaves, flowers, fruit, bamboo and herbs from the forest.

In some tribes, she says, it's customary for families to sell their produce collectively and give a widow's share of income to her husband's relatives.

"We demand that women's groups and collectives--especially groups of single women, and women from landless families--should be given priority in minor forest produce collection, management and livelihood options," says Hardikar.

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