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Indigenous women’s struggle for forest rights in India

25 July 2022

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India’s environmental policymakers must do more to offer Indigenous women opportunities to affect forest decision-making processes, Dipika Adhikari writes.

In India, Indigenous forest-dwelling groups officially documented as ‘Scheduled Tribes’ or ‘Adivasis’ have historically been dispossessed and excluded from their traditional homes in forests.

The passing of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dweller (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 in India – the Forest Rights Act (FRA) for short – was meant to tackle historical injustices by recognising Indigenous people’s rights. These included rights to certain land, rights to access, use, and dispose of minor forest products, and rights to manage and conserve forests.

The FRA has the potential to be a powerful piece of environmental justice legislation, but its abysmally slow implementation continues to threaten Indigenous people’s survival, as does its lack of gender responsiveness.

Indigenous women are at the forefront of the fight for their community’s forest rights. They often take this massive responsibility without substantial policy support or incentives.

Within India’s decentralised environmental legislation, there are few gender-specific provisions in forest policies and laws, and the regulations are not sufficiently gender-responsive.

Some forest policies attempt gender inclusivity, but even these limit themselves to a nominal representation of women.

For instance, the FRA does contain gender-aware provisions such as a mandating that one-third of members in decentralised institutions be female. It also accounts for joint land titles and the recognition of women’s land claims in single-headed households.

However, these are surface-level fixes that struggle to affect deeper problems, like inequity, participation, agency, and long-term effective involvement in forest decision-making.

The policies remain highly male-centric and often disregard young women, especially those who are separated from their husbands or widowed. Without land rights, they are marginalised and put at the mercy of other social actors.

Because the FRA is the most significant law covering forests, its shortcomings mean that Indian forest policies more broadly lack gender responsiveness. Policymakers must do more to offer Indigenous women opportunities to influence and engage with forest policy.

Additionally, they must do more to address entrenched socio-ecological gender inequities that affect women’s livelihoods and their ability to care for the forest. Falling short in this space is a no-win situation, leading to the FRA failing at both of its goals – of achieving socio-economic progress and protecting ecological sustainability.

Still, despite a lack of policy support and unfavourable conditions, many women are fighting to reclaim their forest rights.

The Van Raji people are a small forest-dwelling tribal group that inhabit remote, isolated, and ecologically fragile areas of Uttarakhand, a northern state located in the foothills of the Himalayas.

With critical support from a progressive local non-government organisation and active local leadership, Van Raji women have been able to raise their concerns to state authorities.

Indigenous women participate in decision-making bodies such as a sub-divisional forest committee and Gram Sabha (village assembly) level Forest Rights Committee, where they get the chance to vocalise their concerns and protect their rights and entitlements.

However, currently their participation comes at the cost of their daily livelihood and household and care responsibilities. The physical and emotional hardships these duties bring is a major hurdle to their opportunities. This makes participation an economic risk that carries with it social and emotional challenges.

These risks don’t always pay off – even having made sacrifices, their voices are often ignored by dominant social and state actors with their own scheme of interests and goals.

The Van Rajis’ experience shows that women’s fight to protect the forest is unnecessarily gruelling in the absence of policy support. The biased socio-economic and political environment entrenches unequal power and, despite the FRA’s good intentions, prejudice often squashes and disables Indigenous women’s efforts to achieve its goals.

To tackle this issue, policymakers must engage with local decision-makers to reform their processes, giving particular attention to marginalised Indigenous groups. Present gender-responsiveness efforts are simply inadequate, and do not do enough to redistribute the responsibilities and benefits associated with having a voice in forest policy-making.

With India celebrating the historic election of its first tribal woman as president on 21 July 2022, a great deal of attention must now be devoted to including Indigenous women in local decision-making processes in forests.

Further efforts must be extended to invest in training and capacity building – not only to support Indigenous women’s efforts, but to assure Indigenous communities’ entitlements in forest-related decisions more widely.

Hopefully, such an approach could foster more gender-responsive forest policy in India into the future. Then, it could achieve socially just and ecologically sustainable outcomes in the face of the mounting challenges of living in a changing climate.

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