Four Women Break Tribal Taboos To Touch Lives

Change is in the air. Even in areas forgotten by the rest of India. Nothing perhaps underlines this more than the fact that young tribal women in rural Orissa are going against tradition, breaking taboos and stepping out as teachers. In the process, they are transforming the social landscape and exercising greater control over their lives.

This is a story from Sanbahali and Junapani, two nondescript villages situated on the 3,000 square foot plateau in the Sunabeda sanctuary area of Nuapada district. The community here comprises 519 families of the Chakutia Bhunjia tribe, officially classified as “primitive.”

People here are mainly dependent on minor forest produce and shifting cultivation to eke out a living. Regular jobs are not an option. Even if they did opt for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), they would have to travel 60 kilometres to the nearest work site.

It is in this unlikely scenario that four young women, Triveni Chatria, Chandini Chatria, Jayashree Jhankar and Laila Majhi – are daring to dream. They are working as teachers in an ashram school run by the Chakutia Bhunjia Development Agency (CBDA), a local development agency. Every month, they get a salary of Rs 5,000 (US$1=Rs 45). The women are not just because of the money they bring in every month, but because they are inspiring many other young women to follow in their footsteps.

“Earlier we were only four girls who had passed matriculation. Now we are at least 15,” says Chandini, 18.

Achieving this may not be a big deal for girls living in towns, but it means a lot in a community that believes in early marriage and follows age-old beliefs. Girls here are generally not allowed to wear blouses, petticoats or don ‘chappals’ (open footwear). Once they attain puberty, they are not allowed to visit the homes of their relatives.

Triveni puts it this way, “To achieve what we have so far has caused a lot of trouble for us and our families. By working as teachers we have gone against tradition.”

As the oldest of the four, Triveni teaches students of Classes Six and Seven. The other three are teaching in the primary section of the school.

The hurdles they faced in this journey of self-discovery were both similar and different. They all faced ostracism by the community for three years, because they not only dared to wear ‘chappals’ but went out of the village and enrolled themselves in a residential high school at Komna.

While Triveni and Chandini could also convince their parents, Laila was not so lucky. For many days, nobody spoke to her within her household. Because she wore chappals, she was not allowed inside the kitchen. But the young girl held firm to her decision to study. When she failed to convince her parents, she went on a hunger strike. Being the only child, her parents had no option but to finally relent.

Today, Laila’s parents realise that they were wrong. Their daughter is now an earning member of the family. Her mother no longer has to go into the forest to collect minor forest produce to keep the family going.

The others, too, are contributing to their families in remarkable ways. Jayashree’s younger brother is studying for his matriculation in a local college. She is helping to meet the additional expense of keeping him in a private hostel.

As per the CBDA, male literacy among the Chakutia Bhunjias stands at 51.51 per cent, while female literacy rate is just 18.27 per cent. It was only a few years ago that some Chakotia Bhunjia boys appeared for their high school examination for the first time. The girls began attending the village anganwadi and school, only to drop out after puberty. Today, more parents of these two villages are sending their daughters to school. They were inspired by the achievements of Triveni, Chandini, Jayashree and Laila

Apart from teaching in the village ashram school, these girls along with the boys, who have completed their matriculation have formed a regional resource group. They meet once a month and discuss various local concerns. They also campaign for girls’ education in other villages.

According to Himanshu Mahapatra, the CBDA development officer, changes in attitude and lifestyle are crucial for any social change.

But there are many, like Chaitanya Jhankar from the neighbouring Gatibeda village who are deeply perturbed by these developments. “We believe that the souls of our forefathers stay with us in our houses and they witness everything. If we try to break any rules they will punish us. So we cannot allow anybody to break our traditions,” says the angry 70-year-old.

But Triveni, Chandini, Jayashree and Laila are not allowing themselves to be fazed by such attitudes. They have also learnt to take courage from each other.