ANURITA PATHAK HAZARIKA
SPEARHEADING A GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT OF WOMEN LEADERSHIP
A well-known and highly respected Women’s rights advocate from Northeast India, Anurita Pathak Hazarika is currently the State Coordinator for NEN, Assam. She has been a part of the North East Network (NEN) for the last twenty five years, officially joining the organisation in 1998, and is an ardent advocate for gender equality and women’s rights. She has contributed tremendously towards the growth of NEN at various levels from micro grassroots to macro policy level, combining activism with advocacy and academia. Anurita has been an exceptionally instrumental figure in building women’s leadership at the grassroots level in Assam. In 2020, she was felicitated with the ‘Global Award 2020’ by Global Edu – Leaders Forum for her remarkable contribution to the society.
Through this interview, readers will get a glimpse of her tremendous journey.
How did your journey with the rights movement in Assam and association with NEN begin?
The early 80’s was a period when the Assam movement was at its peak and I saw many women from my family participating at the forefront of these movements, questioning rights and issues of discrimination. I was very young, about eight or nine years old, when I started accompanying the women around me to protests. I used to think: ‘Why did I go?’ and ‘What was it that the women in the families were questioning?’
I did not understand the theory part of it but was still part of the movement and knew that an ‘andolan’ was going on. I also witnessed how my mother, grandmother and aunts would be part of the Mahila Samitis because that culture was quite strong then. It had started with Mahatma Gandhi mobilising the women of Assam during the freedom movement and those collectives had stayed on even after that movement was over. The Mahila Samitis saw the participation of women from all walks of life who came together to be one united front against their oppressors. But slowly, the realisation started sinking in that the work taken on by the Mahila Samitis were assigned to them by the men of the households. The women were being tasked with mobilising other women for the protests, collecting basic ration like rice, lentils, etc to deal with food shortages. With this realisation came the need to bring about rampant social change.
As I grew up, I remember all the dissatisfaction, all the disillusionment and frustration because the women were being kept out of the decision making process. They were still mostly being used as human shields, at the forefront of every movement with the trite job of appearing motherly, comforting, collecting and supporting the manifestos of men. But where were all the women leaders? The voices of the women were being subjugated and subverted. When I was doing my Master’s in Social Anthropology which involved community work, I saw the traditional gender roles within the families; trapped within a system which worked in a specific way.
I met Dr. Monisha Behal in 1995 after my graduation and I was quite mesmerised by her dynamism. It was a turning point in my life and I saw the difference between a welfare discourse and a rights based discourse, where the women were not only delegated to the receiving end of benefits but were deemed to be autonomous agencies who questioned everything for themselves. It was with her that I had my first exposure to the intricacies of sexualities and their rights, different networks, trainings, individuals and arenas where we would question identities, discrimination and equality. From a field report to the articulation of a right based issue, she was my motivation and provided me with immense mentoring and is the reason I am engaged in this sector. I started as a student volunteer for NEN and slowly grew up with it from projects, structuring and funding to what it is today. From a field development worker, one thing led to another and I have continued for the last twenty two years.
The reason behind NEN having sustained and thrived through the years is because of Dr. Behal’s belief in second and third generational leadership and her active involvement in building new leaders. She would send us to various regional, national and international forums. As a college student, I got selected for the Bill and Melinda Gates Fellowship in the U.S. for a month and a half which was a good learning experience. So, this vision of leadership building that I saw and inculcated from Dr. Behal led me to start Gramin Mahila Kendras (GMK) in the villages.
At present NEN has three GMKs that are recognised by the communities and the government because they are registered service providers under the Domestic Violence Act. It is a community owned program where the kendras are led by the village women trained by the NEN team. The GMKs undertake case works, provide psycho – social care and counseling for women along with economic linkages. These initiatives are the organic outcomes of one thing leading to another and I hope they spread further in Assam.
What is the main motivation behind your work practices, ethics, and vision?
The main motivation behind my work was to fulfill my aspirations of working for women’s rights in NER. NEN is one of the earliest institutions of this region; in fact the first of its kind that brought in a rights-based feminist discourse. NEN looks at women as agencies; something that was missing in this region in the 90’s when it was established. The initial workshops of the organisation had many feminists coming in and it was an eye opener for the younger generation.
Another motivation to work in Northeast India came from the fact that even though women here are not discriminated by caste structures, untouchability, bride burning etc. and had more mobility and visibility because of originating from egalitarian cultures, there was still rampant violence and discrimination against them. For example in the Khasi community, despite being a matrilineal structure, decisions of the family are usually taken by the maternal uncle who is the patriarch.
When NEN was founded the entire region was going through a huge political turmoil in the form of low intensity conflicts. Sexual violence was used as a tool to suppress communities and various questions rose on the issues of identity and discrimination in the entire conflict. Women were the ones facing the double brunt of it and were used as tools in these conflicts. That was NEN’s motivation to change the existing scenario.
Can you please share with us how Saneki Weaves began?
At the very outset, we had two team members who as weavers were looking after one of our projects, and it was quite motivating to see their work. They had been asked to do a survey in one of the villages that we worked in to decipher if the women would be interested in taking up weaving as an occupation.
The motivation behind this was the verity that a large population of women in Assam are weavers, however they only weave for self-consumption, do not have the purchasing skill and power to buy yarn or adequate access to markets. They were selling their products to middlemen at throwaway prices. They were also using synthetic yarn and the woven products had gotten adulterated. The traditional motifs were losing originality so our goal was to revive cotton weaving as practiced by our grandmothers’ generation. It was a way of economically empowering women and the two team members mobilised more women and supervised their work. We are very strict regarding parameters that every fabric has to be of certain measurements to meet the market needs. That is the reason Saneki Weaves products are very popular due to the fine cotton weaves and the designs. It has been fairly successful with a lot of people showing interest and we have more than 160 women weavers now.
How do you feel NEN’s work has gained relevance with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?
The pandemic has led to a host of problems in multiple spheres. There has been increase in cases of domestic violence across the world and Assam is no different. Our centers received reports of women being forced to leave home due to domestic violence. NEN has several counseling centers, 24×7 functional helpline phone numbers, etc. to ensure that women in the region have access to much needed aid. In 2020 we collaborated with other women’s organisations to survey the impact of COVID-19 on women. NEN was among the first ones to advocate with the state government and get a Standard Operating Procedure for women so that they could have access to shelters. Before this women were being forced out on the streets, and the shelter homes were unable to admit them as they did not have a SOP. We were also part of the immediate relief operations during which we tried to identify the gender based needs of women. We continued with our weaving work although it was very challenging to send yarn to the women and pay their wages, along with collecting products during the lockdown. We continued the work so that the families could keep afloat. We also adopted new villages in Sonitpur because those villagers who had been working outside had to return due to the pandemic and there was no earning member in the households. We formed a weaver’s collective and continued to address the impact of the pandemic on these women while providing them an income.
Incidents of Gender based violence has increased alarmingly in recent times, especially in Assam. What would you say are the main reasons behind this? How has NEN responded to this crisis?
Assam is notorious when it comes to crimes against women. This violence is varied and can be verbal, mental, physical, economic or sexual. Not all abused women report it due to fear of the repercussions on them and their dependents. They also have no access to any complaints mechanism and cases go unreported and unrecorded.
The pandemic had a perilous impact on women who are marginalised because of their gender status in patriarchal communities. The associated frustration of the current situation is usually unleashed on women as supplies of essential necessities start to dwindle and they are forced to be locked up with the abusers for long periods of time. The frustration over the inability to earn a daily wage leads to women compromising on their rights, and staying or returning to violent homes. The One stop centers are also faraway and not accessible for many such women.
One usual pattern of domestic violence is to socially isolate aggrieved women from talking to or visiting their families and confidantes. Domestic violence is all about wielding masculine power to exercise control over a woman’s mobility and freedom which completely violates her right to safety and dignity.
We at North East Network were not able to intervene physically all the time as our grassroots counsellors were also observing lockdown protocols. As an alternative we made phone calls and spoke to survivors of violence who had approached us earlier, checking on them and assuring them that we are reachable. Some of these service providers were active in remote rural areas where even the state services are not accessible and within reach of aggrieved women. Their interventions need to be recognised as essential services and passes by the Social Welfare Department must be immediately issued to organisations which are registered as service providers and offer shelter, legal aid, counselling, etc. to survivors of abuse. Moreover, it is important to alert all frontline workers such as ASHA, ANM, Panchayat, Village Defense Parties and others to report such cases along with equipping the District Protection Officers with additional powers and resources to reach out to every last woman in the districts.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a health issue, but an issue with massive social, economic and psychological effects. The challenges of restoration are huge and the rebuilding measures must be gender responsive. Women and children are the most vulnerable factions and have the least powers to come up with an effective coping mechanism to fight back in stressful homes. Therefore, the state COVID-19 advisory must include measures to ensure safety and security of women and girls.
As the State coordinator of NEN in Assam, what are the goals you envision for NEN to reach during the next decade?
I want to see the young generation of activists blooming and NEN’s work to continue and expand in the villages with more and more rural women leaders questioning the whole system of discrimination and inequality. When we talk of gender, inequality and violence, it is not enough to just talk to women, it is equally important to inculcate such values in the youth of all genders. It is very encouraging to see young people in villages talking about injustice on women. If I have to envision NEN in the next five years, I hope to see village women’s leadership coming up with new collectives and being a part of discourses using different tools whether digital or offline.
What advice would you give to the upcoming generation of women leaders and changemakers?
To the youth I just want to say, ‘believe in women’s leadership’. The future will be led by them. A future led by women is definitely a future which is equal for all. Have a vision towards equality and a society free from prejudices. If you have a vision then you can spread the same message anywhere. You need to see a future, not only for yourself but for the whole community and empower more youth to speak up against prejudices and injustice.