Dr. Monisha Behal
The beacon of women’s movement in North East India
Dr. Monisha Behal, a name that really needs no introduction is the soul and spirit behind North East Network (NEN), a women’s rights non-governmental organization that has been bringing women of North East India and their local issues into the national and global limelight. She established North East Network in 1995 and after more than three decades of hard work by Dr. Behal and her team, it has evolved into three chapters of NEN in the states of Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. During February 2019, she was felicitated with the WomenofWorth Award 2019 by Outlook Business, for her lifelong work towards bringing positive changes at the grassroot level for women in North East India. Her journey and work has been documented in detail in several publications and her life has been an open book. In this interview, Dr. Monisha Behal talks about the organization she founded and the past, present and future aspirations for NEN.
How did the idea for NEN germinate?
The idea of NEN germinated when I was earlier working for Tezpur District Mahila Samiti. I was able to get some funds for their work, but I realized that our jurisdiction extended to only Tezpur subdivision. So, I began thinking that it would be great if I can extend my work for women’s rights across Assam, and neighbouring states. This is when the idea of North East Network first emerged. Secondly the Beijing Conference was going to take place around the same time in 1995. A preparatory process was going on and I was adamant about sending women from North East India to the Beijing Conference. With this in mind I was able to convince TDMS to do a series of workshops across the north east. I also talked to the President of TDMS, that I wanted to open a new organization through which we can work beyond Tezpur and other parts of North East. She gave me her blessings and that is how I began NEN. Roshmi Goswami also joined me during this beginning phase.
How many team members did you have when you first started NEN in 1995?
There was a Governing Board for NEN. On the field Roshmi started to work in Shillong and I started NEN’s work in Guwahati. A few other people joined the team then, Anurita, Seno and Moitreyee, while Darilyn Syiem joined in Shillong. We started small in 1995 and more people joined later when we started getting projects.
What were the earliest success stories of NEN?
One of the biggest interventions we made in the early years was representing north east women’s concerns to the Approach Paper to the 9th Five Year Plan by the Govt. of India. We did this for three consecutive Five Year Plans. We were successful in getting support from women from all across North East. Our outlook was national but approach was completely localized through NEN. NEN hosted women from all over North East to attend conferences where their issues were highlighted and found place in the Approach paper for the Five Year Plan formulated by the Government. Our work was focused on North East but our voices soon extended to the national platform. Our early success was based on our grassroots work backed with extensive research. Our true accomplishment was bringing together rural women and representation of their opinions in national level platforms where they could partake in discussions and intellectual exchanges. NEN became part of the women’s movement sweeping India and we managed to interpret the global issues by addressing them in the grassroots level.
Is there any particular initiative NEN undertook that you are especially proud of?
I am proud of every initiative that NEN took, from 1995 till date. One of the early achievements I am proud of was our success in bringing women from across North east to the Peasant Women’s Conference held in Shillong in 1995 followed by inputting the draft of the National Policy on Women at Guwahati. Our initiative has always been to bring grassroots women in the national focus, though we took different pathways like health awareness, livelihood etc. Later on we took up the issue of Violence Against Women as well. Another initiative I am proud of is the creation of the Film Documentation Centre started in 2015, in partnership with filmmaker, Rita Banerji of the Dusty Foot Productions. Here youngsters can learn the proper use of a camera along with storytelling and editing. Young people who had never even touched a camera, but had interest in wildlife conservation, and other issues of social exploitation came in, they learned and began using the camera to create films with social messages. I feel proud of the films they make like the one on Meghalaya’s coal mines, how children and workers are exploited. What’s important is that the youth we have taught are now professional young photographers, film makers and serious environmentalists – all concerned about their north east.
What is your dream for NEN for the next decade?
I would like NEN to maintain the same philosophy of integrity, of transparency and of being rights based.
Equality should be the backdrop of NEN’s work. What we should try to be in the next 10 years is be very professional in our way of working. Because NEN has expanded a lot we must be good at handling of our financial management and documentation while sticking to our ideology that we started with. Along with continuing our advocacy work we must concentrate on the structural growth and management of North East Network. That would make the organization grow more with good leadership and values that we have adhered to.
What would be your advice to grassroots women leaders of the new generation?
I don’t think it’s fitting of me to advice grassroots women leaders. They have a much better knowledge of what is happening at the ground level with their experience and challenges. I feel what they should do is have a voice, be vocal and clear about their rights, so that they get due recognition. As for NEN, we have staff members in three states now and I am very happy that the inherent philosophy behind NEN is being maintained by all. I hope that this will continue as the basic idea behind why NEN started should remain intact in the future as well. I also feel that ground work is necessary and important for every researcher, to go into the field and experience the situation. I see youngsters these days more engaged in desk bound research work. I think the quality of writing will become more articulate if they experience the situation first hand. Otherwise it is difficult to comprehend the ground realities of society’s norms, beliefs and issues.
Dr. Monisha Behal and NEN have received several Awards and recognitions through the years.
- The very first Sanskriti Award went to NEN under Dr. Behal’s tutelage for work of excellence on social work. It was conferred by Sheila Dixit, Chief Minister of Delhi, on October 28, 2004.
- On March 8, 2007 she was conferred the Ananya Award, for women achievers, by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, New Delhi.
- A Citation was presented to her for initiating new perspectives to the women of NE India by the Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti and Tezpur District Mahila Samiti, Tezpur, Assam, on their 72nd Conference in December 17, 2007 .
- The Nandini Women’s Magazine felicitated Dr. Behal for contribution to the women’s movement in 2009 in Guwahati, Assam.
- On March 16, 2016, the Dibrugarh Ladies Club, conferred her with Joymoti Award, in recognition for upholding of social Justice, Gender Equality and Human Rights for the Women of North East India.
- Dr. Behal received the Woman Achievers Award of Excellence 2015-2016 by the FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO), Guwahati Assam on 29th April 2016.
- In August 2018 Behal was felicitated in the MG Changemakers event at Mumbai, and featured in the Better India series for her social contribution, along with 5 other ‘Changemakers’.
- In the same month she received felicitations, along with three other women, by the Mercedes Benz Company titled She’s Mercedes, in the city of Guwahati.
- Dr. Behal was felicitated with the Outlook Business Women of Worth(WOW) 2019 Award at Kolkata, India in February 2019.
- Dr Behal was felicitated by the Directorate of Social Welfare, Government of Assam on International Women’s Day 2022.
- Dr Behal was conferred Honoris Causa (Honorary Doctorate Degree) by Gauhati University in the 30th Convocation of Gauhati University, 2023.
[The Changemaker Series brings to the fore, the people behind the work and achievements of North East Network across Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland]