Himalayan VOICES High Himalaya FORUM Himalayan Heritage  
 > Status of Women
Title:           Status of Women in the Himalayas
Credit:        Compiled from multiple sources by Pragya
The women in the mountains are given special importance, since their role is more elaborate as compared to the women of other regions. Although most say that the women in the Himalayas share a fairly equal status with their male counterparts, it needs to be examined further in the different aspects of their life, such as the social, economic and cultural aspects. Their contribution is considered significant, particularly in the aspects of natural
resource management, agricultural production, tourism, and the well-being and the survival of their families. The women, if considered as a class, are under-nourished, underpaid and under-represented in the decision making, in regard to their labour supplied.

Agriculture is one of the main occupations and a major source of livelihood. Due to the uneven topography and the prevalence of traditional methods of agriculture, the occupation becomes labour intensive in nature. The male population tends to migrate to the urban areas due to the lack of alternative sources of income. Besides these, even when men are involved they confine themselves to limited participation and selected operations that demand considerable risk and travel. The women engage themselves in activities like land preparation, adding manure, sowing, transplanting, weeding, hoeing, protecting crops from wild animals, harvesting, threshing, etc. As a result, the burden of agriculture falls on women, leading to a high percentage of female workers. The success or the failure of the agricultural produce depends on the contribution of women as far as human labour is concerned. Since the women also have their domestic duties to perform, the involvement in agriculture only increases the pressure. The household activities of the women consume the maximum time, which include activities like cooking, cleaning, shopping, taking care of the dependant members and others. According to statistics, the women generally work for more than 15 to 18 hours a day. Apart from this, the women are also engaged in collecting fodder, fuel wood and potable water from far off distances, and religious and ceremonial obligations. Depleting forest cover further adds to the plight of women.

During the winters, agriculture is not possible due to the harsh climate and unfavourable conditions. Hence, women engage themselves in the production of crafts like shawls, carpets, mufflers, baskets and other items. These help them in generating alternate sources of income. These articles are in huge demand during the tourist season in the Himalayas. Tourism is a major activity particularly for the poorer income groups of the Himalayas. Trekking and mountaineering create opportunities for enterprise development through several teahouses, restaurants and lodges along the mountain trails. Women run a majority of these lodges, both, independently or as a family business. Tourism generates employment opportunities for other sectors like agro-based businesses, which again are managed mostly by women.

Women also play a major role in the preservation of indigenous culture and knowledge, owing to their restrictive interaction with the outside world. The indigenous knowledge system revolves around the traditional values including food, clothing, housing, medicine, energy; the socio-cultural values including ritual, spiritual, aesthetic, educational, and psychological values; the economic value-structure that includes agriculture, tourism, pharmaceutical and industrial knowledge and traditional practices of resource use like medicinal plants, forests and grasslands, wild edible plants etc. The knowledge is passed on from one generation to another, in which the women play an important role in terms of their responsibilities of resource management, particularly in the production system. This responsibility of food production has endured women to rationally use, conserve and promote the scarce resources of the region.

As an example one can look at the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand, initiated by the women in 1973. The Chipko movement was undertaken to preserve the forest cover in the Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh), since it was the women who were most affected by the continuous felling of trees in the region. It resulted in a 15-year ban on the felling of trees in the forest areas of the Himalayas.

Education is one of the primary indicators of the backwardness of hill women. The level of education among women vis-a-vis the level of education among the men shows the gender gap in the Himalayan region. The preference of male education over female education shows how the women are pushed back into their traditional setting. Given below are the statistics of the literacy rates in India, Nepal and Bhutan according to the 2001 census.
Jammu and Kashmir
Total: 54.46
Male: 65.75
Female: 41.82
Himachal Pradesh
Total: 76.5
Male: 85.3
Female: 67.4
Total: 72.6
Male: 84.01
Female: 60.26
Total: 48.6
Male: 62.7
Female: 34.9
Total: 47
Male: 60
Female: 34
Total: 69.6
Male: 76.7
Female: 61.46
Total: 25.5
Male: 38
Female: 13
Arunachal Pradesh
Total: 54.74
Male: 64.07
Female: 44.24
From the above statistics, it can be seen that in all these Himalayan states, the female literacy rate is much lower as compared to the male literacy rate. Due to lack of education, the women are also deprived of general awareness about the changing world outside the hill community and thus remain confined to their limited interaction with the indigenous groups. Since the rural areas in the Himalayas offer less opportunities for employment, the educated male members, migrate to the urban cities. As a result, the women are left behind to take care of the agriculture and other domestic chores. It can also be observed that the parents give less priority to the girl child's education. The male child maybe sent to school even in far off areas, while the girls are compelled to drop out and participate in the domestic activities. Although, the governments in each of the states have introduced numerous schemes to improve the education among women, the rural women are deprived of the awareness to exploit the opportunities in the best possible manner.

The Himalayas are predominantly a patriarchal society; the social status of women remains subordinate to that of a man, even though the tasks are shared equally between them. The extent of inferiority or superiority between the males and females varies according to the religious structure being followed in each of the Himalayan states.