In India, women forest dwellers saved the trees, lost the woods, saved the woods, lost the forest

In 2006, India passed The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, known as the Recognition of Forest Rights Act. While not perfect, the Act was a step in the right direction. It was “a weapon for democracy in the forest”, because, for the first time, the State recognized and secured community and individual rights over common property resources; rights in and over disputed land rights concerning land use; right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage the forest; right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity; rights of displaced communities; and, finally, rights over developmental activities. That act came after decades of struggle by forest dependent communities. Women were at the core of those struggles. This week, with one court decisionmillions of forest dependent communities, often called the most vulnerable of thevulnerable, were informed that they were to be evicted by July 24. It is estimated that as many as 2,300,000 families will ultimately be affected by this decision. Who are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable? Women and children.

From the moment its inception, the Act was challenged by mining, agricultural and so-called development interests. More recently, some conservationists argued that the forests were dwindling and that the forest dependent populations had to be moved to save the forests. In the case decided this week, the key was the provision of the act by which forest dependent families had to formally lay claim to land. This proved difficult given low levels of formal literacy and often impossible bureaucratic processes. For women, the issue of land titles was complicated by even lower levels of literacy and local traditions that precluded women having title to land. The State colluded with those local traditions. For example, many, if not most, forest households are women-led, because male partners have left, for work or just because, or have died. The State never addressed the particularities of women-headed forest households.

While the conditions for women forest dwellers have been particularly harsh, with increased industrial and State violence against forest-dependent women, women have consistently engaged in individual and collective direct action and mobilization for tribal rights and for tribal women’s rights. From Odisha to Chhattisgarhto Rajasthanand beyond, women self-organized to defend their commons. They carry the legacy of the women’s Chipko movement, from the 1970s in Uttarakhand. On March 25, 1974, Gaura Devi, the leader of the Chipko movement, led local women to confront logging companies about to chop down the trees. Calling the forest her mother’s home, Devi wrapped her body around the trees. The women persisted, and the loggers left. That was the early 1970s. In 2013, a reporter returned to the site and saw that the women had saved the trees … but lost the woods. Now only elders, women, and children live there, since the men have gone, either to find work or just because. Six years later … 

Forty five years, almost to the day, after Gaura Devi and the women of Reni village stood up for the dignity of Niluribhur forest, those women, their daughters and granddaughters have been informed they have five months to vacate. While the world press is paying some attention to this crisis, thus far almost none have noted, or wondered, “Where are the women?” 

Feminist activist scholar Swarna Rajagopalan has asked and answered: “What does it really mean to be an internally displaced person—or a refugee, for those who cross borders in flight? … As a woman, you did not get to go to school for long and you studied another language. How are you to navigate this state’s administrative offices and claim the paperwork, the food and medical assistance and other entitlements that are your due? You fled to survive, but now you have to fight to survive each day … As a woman, maybe stepping out of the house for the first to find employment, you can do domestic or care work. Sometimes you beg; sometimes you trade sexual favours to feed your family. Living on the margins, crowded by strangers, you are visible and vulnerable in so many ways—on the way to a communal toilet; to fetch water; to earn a living; and in your interactions with officials and house-owners. But disadvantaged as you are as a woman, you are not weak. You and your sisters asked questions, protested and stood your ground until the ground itself shifted. Now, after one… two… three displacements, the fight is going out of you …. Some women will miscarry en route; some will give birth in camps. Those children may grow up as ‘IDPs’ or ‘refugees,’ living in camps or IDP settlements all their lives. Small gardens will be planted, rangolis drawn, makeshift temples and churches set up. But they will always remember home. They were once from somewhere else—a lost forest home where they belonged and which truly belonged to them.”

Where are the forest dependent women in the Indian Supreme Court’s decision, in national and regional policies, in press accounts? Everywhere and nowhere. The Forest Dwellers Act recognized the rights of over 200 million individuals living in more than 170,000 villages. This week’s decision is a step in the removal of all 200 million. At every step of that plan and at every instance of resistance, ask, and demand to be answered, “Where are the women?” Everywhere and nowhere is not good enough.

(Infograph Credit: Business Standard) (Photo Credit: Guardian / Anupam Nath / AP)

National Women’s Day 2018: Where are the women prisoners?

Yesterday, August 9, across South Africa, people acknowledged, in various ways, National Women’s Day, the annual commemoration of the 1956 Women’s March on the Union Buildings, in Pretoria, to protest the pass laws and much, much more. On August 1, across South Africa, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of women and gender non-conforming people engaged in an “intersectional women’s march against gender based violence” and stayed away from all work and commerce. This was under the banner, #TotalShutdown. Organizers asked people to find ways of supporting those women who were forced to work that day. Additionally, for women in rural areas, where a march to a High Court might not be feasible, women were asked to `simply’ stand together, to unite and stay away from work and commerce. In between August 1 and August 9, on Sunday, August 5, Barbara Hogan, anti-apartheid activist and politician, returned to the Women’s Jail, now turned into a museum, on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Hogan remembered her stay in that prison from 1982 to 1983. On Women’s Day, in Women’s Month, and in the #TotalShutdown, where are the women prisoners? Where are South Africa’s women prisoners, generally, and where are they in the movements for women’s emancipation and power?

According to the most recent Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services Report, covering April 2015 to end of March 2016, South Africa has 236 operational prisons, of which 9 house women prisoners. Only 2.6 percent of prisoners are women. As Johann van der Westhuizen, the inspecting judge of Correctional Services, noted, this is “one of the lowest percentages in the world. Not bad for a population that is just more than half female. This means slightly more than 4 000 women are in jail — some with their babies.” Not bad? No. Johann van der Westhuizen continues, “Women’s prisons are also overcrowded. I was told that a cell for 25 with 37 inmates was not overcrowded. And that, in other instances, additional mattresses were put on the floor, almost doubling the number of inmates.”

The number of women in prison is low, and yet the women’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded. How can that be? Part of the answer appears in van der Westhuizen’s report, “Due to the high turnover rate of remand detainees, remand units were found to have deplorable health conditions and dilapidated infrastructure compared to those occupied by sentenced offenders.” Pollsmoor Remand was 251% overcrowded, and was “short” 2448 beds. According to the Department of Correctional Servicesmost recent annual report, 2012 to 2017, the number of male remand prisoners has declined fairly steadily, from 44,742 to 41, 397, while women’s numbers have risen, from 998 to 1,128.

What does that look like “on the ground”? For women prisoners, and especially for those awaiting trial, from overcrowding to access to healthcare to food to hygiene and sanitation to access to education, reading materials, decent work or any work, exercise and recreation, to contact with the outside world, the conditions are “horrifying.” At Pollsmoor, for example, more than half of the women prisoners are awaiting trial. Many wait years for a trial that is often thrown out or postponed indefinitely.

Reflecting on her experiences in prison, Barbara Hogan commented, “Prisoners do not need to be told that policeman beat up prisoners. They know it.” Last year, in August, the Women’s Jail opened a new exhibition, paintings from that jail by anti-apartheid activist Fatima Meer. The paintings’ very existence testifies to the myriad forms of women’s persistent, resistant and defiant organizing. At the same time, they speak to the ongoing squalor and dehumanization of women behind bars. The conditions of women prisoners, in particular women remand prisoners, is not an oversight. Those women have not been forgotten. They have been dumped, disposed of, and that’s public policy, not some accident. Prisoners do not need to be told that, but the public does. Someday, along with the Union Buildings and High Courts, women and their supporters will march to women’s prisons across the country to acknowledge, learn from, and build on the intersectional women’s organizing taking place each and every day among those women who are forced to sleep standing but never surrender.

 

(Paintings by Fatima Meer; Mail & Guardian)