Burning grass and breaking down walls

Sitting by the hearth of her home in Hari village at Ziro Valley in the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Hage Tado Nanya animatedly narrates how she along with around 30 women burnt large heaps of marijuana that was being illegally harvested a few years ago.

“Some of us even got high from the smoke,” she says.

Being one of the last generations of Apatani women to have tattooed her face as was customary, Nanya has crossed many milestones in her life. Last year, she shot into the limelight when she was crowned Mrs Arunachal- Mother of Substance.

Speaking of her time at the pageant, she explains that she was under the impression that it would be a one-day event, unaware of the grooming and continuous judging process.

“They would ask us to sing and we would. They did not tell us but they were judging us during that period too,” she says.

While her win thrust her into the public imagination, Nanya has been in the forefront of breaking barriers for the past four decades.

A loquacious woman, Nanya takes pride in her work and doesn’t shy away from speaking about them.

Back in 1976, her father had given her a handful of fish to clean and cook. But when time came, she was overwhelmed to see the fishes trying to breathe.

“I saw the fish trying to breathe through their ears (gills),” she says, motioning her hands in the fashion of how fish breathe.

“When I saw that, I could not bring myself to killing them,” she says, adding, “alag se feeling aya (I felt a deep empathy for the fish)”.

Unable to kill the fishes, she released them in the family’s wet-rice paddy field. She says that she was the first person in Ziro Valley to do so. Apparently, the now famous practice of farming fish in the same field where rice and millet is grown was started by her.

Nanya says that once the fish grew, she put some of them in a basket and took them to the bazaar to sell. The rush for the fish, she says, was so much that she had a difficult time keeping track of the customers.

She informs that she first began selling the golden carp and later moved on to selling the common carp from 1990 after buying a few fishlings at subsidised rates from the state government’s fisheries department a few years earlier. By then, harvesting fish simultaneously in the paddy fields had become a common practice in the valley.

Her entrepreneurial skills provided her with a steady living and helped educate her three sons and four daughters. Though not formally educated, Nanya learnt to read with her children as they were growing up. Her children in turn, would accompany her to the bazaar on some days.

“Now all my children are outside so I don’t spend too much time selling fish,” she says.

Nanya of course, engages in a variety of other activities to both sustain her income and work for the well-being of her community.

Having been betrothed to her husband, Hage Tado, when she was three years old and married at around the age of 13, she dons many hats from being a progressive farmer to yoga teacher. And she isn’t done yet.

Alcoholism and drug abuse among the young in Ziro, she says is a major cause of concern.

A few years ago, she led a large contingent of women affiliated to the Ziro branch of the Arunachal Pradesh Women Welfare Society (of which she is the adviser) to a hilltop where marijuana was allegedly being grown. What they saw made them gasp in horror.

“The plants had been cut and left to dry on a large mat. We were so shocked to see such large quantities of ganja,” she says.

The women then set fire to the marijuana, the smoke from which seemed to have left some of them intoxicated.

Currently, she and a group of her friends are seeking to close liquor stores in the valley and have been successful in banning non-indigenous alcohol during Apatani festivals like Myoko and Murung.

She also says that polygamy needs to be abolished and traditional property rights wherein daughters do not inherit ancestral land need reforms.

In her campaigns, she says she’s been fortunate to have the support of her husband.

“Even though it was a child marriage, I’m happy my husband is a good man,” she says.

Arunachal girls stand up to child marriage

Young girls in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district are slowly beginning to fight the evils of child marriage in the face of familial stigmatization and old patriarchal traditions.
On May 31 this year, 13-year old Jeroni Tawo had dared to walk out on her marriage to a much older man and sought help from the district unit of the Women Welfare Organisation (WWO) to end the union. Now, another minor under similar circumstances has been ‘rescued’.
Last month on July 13, Fekik Bokar had reached out to the district WWO president Veena Waii Sonam and narrated her story.
Fekik is 15-years old and a ninth standard student at the government higher secondary school at the district headquarter of Seppa. Two years ago in 2014, she was married off to Amu Chege (now 41 years old) after the exchange of gifts as is traditional amongst the Nyishi tribe, to which they both belong. Incidentally, Fekik’s eldest sister, Femi, is still married to Chege.
The couple (Chege and Femi) have been married and trying for a child for a number of years without any luck. As is customary, it was agreed that Chege would take in another wife (polygamy is a socially sanctioned practice among some of the tribes in the state although people are beginning to call for its end). Keeping in line with tradition, it was decided that it would be best for him to marry his wife’s sister. And so in 2014 the bride price was paid, which consisted of (among other things) seven mithuns, a bovine found in this region and highly valued almost all over the tribal-majority state.
After Fekik reached out to Sonam last month, she went straight to the district office of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) where the deputy director (in-charge), DK Thungon, called all parties involved.
“I counselled and advised them to resolve the matter themselves by August 1 or face legal consequences,” Thungon informed over the phone speaking from Seppa.
Today a ‘hearing’ was held and the marriage was legally nullified after it was agreed by both families that a mithun and her calf would be returned to Chege, who readily agreed to lower the value of the bride price that he had paid.

IMG_20160801_114913

Fekik (seated fourth from left) with the two families and officials from the WWO and East Kameng ICDS cell.

However, since the marriage was held with the consent of the minor girl’s family, they are presently not too keen on taking her back and Fekik has since lived with Sonam at her residence.
Thungon said that “in such cases, the girls are the ones who are left vulnerable” and has asked her school to house her in the hostel.
He has also told Fekik’s family to make sure they do not do such a thing again in future. While Fekik’s future seems to be secure for now, there are many others whose fate is unknown.
Sonam informed that the practice is so prevalent in the district that as soon as Fekik’s case was disposed off, another case has been brought to the attention of the ICDS office. However, she said that campaigns by the WWO have helped spread awareness amongst young girls.
Pooja Sonam Natung, general secretary of the district unit of the WWO, said that last year their organisation had conducted campaigns in most schools across the district which has helped girls find the courage to step forward.
She said that it is “painful to learn that such things are still prevalent” and adds rhetorically “imagine how many cases go unreported”.
However, child marriage is not confined to one district in the state alone. According to the Census 2011, there are 3245 children (1086 males and 2159 females) from the ages of 10 to 14 years who were married at the time of the survey. Additionally, 14422 children (3203 males and 11219 females) from the ages of 15 to 19 were married when the Census was being complied.
Mitali Tingkhatra, chairperson of the Arunachal Pradesh State Commission for Women and Child, said that child marriage is still prevalent although the numbers may not seem too high. She also informed that five cases were reported last year from across the state.

This article first appeared on The Citizen on August 2, 2016. Click here for original story.

Jeroni: A girl takes a stand against child marriage

Back in 2008, Jeroni Tawo was just five years old when negotiations for her marriage began to take place. Promised to a man much older than her, she was witnessing herself become a victim of child marriage. On May 31 this yearshe decided to take a stand and free herself.

Her story began when she was in the third standard and was promised to be married to Tania Pinche who was in his late twenties. Her father, Taru Tawo, had begun the process of accepting bride price from Pinche and the marriage was solemnised in 2013. This summer, when her vacation began, she was taken to Pata Cheda Village in Papu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district in Northeast India. Two weeks in, she escaped to freedom.

“She walked through thick forests to reach the deputy director’s office to tell her story,” informed Pooja Sonam Natung, general secretary of the East Kameng unit of the Women Welfare Organisation.

Jeroni

Jeroni, the 13-year old braveheart.

Last year, the WWO had organised an awareness campaign highlighting the wrongs of social evils including the archaic practice of child marriage. The campaign organisers had asked people to come forward and report cases of child marriage in that area and had also given out the address of a WWO member from the area in case they wished to approach them in private. While Jeroni could not muster the courage to do so publicly last year, the campaign message, and more importantly the address of the WWO member stayed with her and it is there that she first reached out for help.

 

Natung said that the 13-year old “escaped” on the morning of May 31 when everyone was asleep. The matter was brought to the attention of the government’s Integrated Child Development Services cell and together with the WWO and the East Kameng Social Welfare and Cultural Organization began talks to arrange for her release from the marriage.

While it is clear that Jeroni is a victim of a practice that was much prevalent at one time, Pinche isn’t exactly a villain.

Both Jeroni and Pinche are Puroiks, a community that has been marginalised for years. Awareness about their rights amongst community members is less and yet, Pinche himself willingly accepted the decision taken during the meeting which ended on June 3.

“It is a historic and bold decision by Pinche,” Natung said from Seppa and added that “if someone from the Puroik community can stand up and take such a decision, why can’t others”.

Tania Pinche

Far from a villain , Pinche is also a victim of social norms.

The amount of bride price was fixed at Rs 1,12,500 which Pinche did not want returned to him. During most such cases when marriages are cancelled, the bride’s family is required to return the bride price in full. In acknowledgement of his decision, Pinche was awarded Rs 40 thousand by the WWO.

Natung said that child marriage is not prevalent in the urban areas of the district and that most people are against it. However, in some rural areas, it is still practiced and Natung says that many cases go unreported.

One of the challenges to abolishing the practice entirely is to ensure that the victims do not find themselves in similar situations later in life. Jeroni has gone on record to put down in writing that she will not get married before she turns 18.

Speaking over the phone from Seppa, the shy 13-year old said that she wants to grow up to become a teacher.  When asked if she has a favourite subject, she initially says she likes all subjects the same. A brief pause later, “science”, she says.