2000 - 2016

The Rising Women of Kumaon

Avani Society

The story of everyday women in Kumaon who stepped up to become more than they thought they could. 

The terrain and their lifestyle, have given the women residing in the mountains of Kumaon a kind of strength quite hard to find elsewhere. And up until recently, despite their different socio-ethnic backgrounds, the lives of all these women had a common thread running through it.

Almost every village family in Kumaon has their own land, farm and cattle, enough to make sure that no one ever goes hungry or thirsty. And the responsibility of maintaining this life has equally and in some cases solely landed on the women of the house. From climbing the tallest trees for cattle fodder to collecting and carrying firewood for the house, to farming, cooking, taking care of the children, elders and the house itself, they do it all. While the women do all the housework, the men are to go out to earn money for the families, because even with the farms and the cattles, it is quite impossible to sustain oneself without cash.

The process of making the household entirely self sufficient is a hard one and the women, till recently, sacrificed education, opportunities and more importantly- financial independence to make it happen.

But very slowly, the things have now started to shift. "The slow but steady connection to the rest of the world via roads, internet et cetera, has made us more aware of the life outside. Farm yields and the interest in farming has been declining for years. Better healthcare, education and a wider range of opportunities has prompted many more villagers to migrate to more developed towns and cities. And the men who would earlier go alone, now take their wives and children with them, in the desire to get their child a better education outside”, says Radha, a teacher. Up until recently, in Kumaoni villages, women were not encouraged to get educated. Willingly or unwillingly, they had to stop going to school after grade 8th. And married before they were even 18. That was not a problem before, since they didn’t know better, but with the growing connection to the outside world, people are realizing that women can work and earn just as much as the men and more people are encouraging their daughters study. More importantly, the girls themselves are realizing the importance of becoming financially independent.

Lalita Rathour
Lalita comes from the pastoral Bhotiya community of Dharamgarh village and grew up in a family of expert weavers and wool spinners. Traditionally, the bhotiya people bartered handwoven, woolen carpets, jackets and shawls in exchange for grains and cereals grown by the farmers in the plains. Their own farms were in the mountains of Munsiyari, where they would migrate every summer, for four - five months. There, they would collect native mountain herbs and spices to sell later. But as her mother’s health started failing, Lalita realized that she needed to start earning too. With no father or brother to earn for them, Lalita had to find a way herself. So, by the time she completed her studies in the village school, she had started working with Avani as a part time weaver and soon had become supervisor of one the weaving centers.

Bhotiya women are expert yarn spinners, weavers and natural dyers. But most of them had stopped using the skill for livelihood generation, sticking to farming and cattle rearing for meeting their basic needs. But even today, every household has a pit loom and they have kept the tradition of creating furnishing sets as wedding gifts for their daughters alive.

With no other earning opportunity nearby, and no tertiary qualifications, Lalita's work at the organisation not only gave her financial empowerment using her traditional skills, but also let her earn while being able to stay and care for her ailing mother in their own house. Now, a mother to a newborn girl herself, she wants her daughter to study as much as possible so that she may have even better opportunities than her.
With experience, the new generation of parents are becoming more and more aware of the importance of education not just for the boys but also for the girls.

Radha Karki 
Now twenty-six years old, Radha started her working life at the age of seventeen. She comes from a family of Thakurs, who own large pieces of land and are professional farmers. She had just completed her 8th grade and the village school offered no classes above that. The school that offered higher classes was a 3-hour walk away, discouraging the girl and her parents to let her study further. Not willing to stay at home, she joined in as a solar technician trainee at Avani. While working a couple of years making and repairing solar lights in the villages, she homeschooled and gave exams for 9th, 10th and 11th grade, before eventually becoming a kindergarten teacher at Avani’s school. Now almost ready to graduate year 12, she is looking forward to study further.

Slowly but steadily, more and more people are encouraging their girls to study and become financially independent. The cycle of change is slow but sure.

Anandi Devi
Anandi Devi belongs to another major community of Kumaon - the Boras. Traditionally a community of hemp sack or ’Bora’ weavers, the Boras too are adept at spinning and weaving. Though because of the illegalization of hemp, their work stopped long ago. Anandi Devi, a Bora woman from the village of Sukhna, had also learnt how to spin yarn as a child. But like most girls in her village, she was married off too early. When the marriage didn’t work out, she came back to her house, just when some new looms were being set up by Avani near her house. While the Bora women are familiar with their traditional backstrap loom, the new loom was unfamiliar. But Anandi got herself trained, and now makes enough money to sustain herself and her son. Since the work is close by, it allows her to continue taking care of her farms and support her parents. 
Meena Arya
Meena's family, unlike most others’, did not own farms or cattle. Her mother and her two sisters had to survive on their father’s meager income as a labourer. The money was never enough and Meena and her sisters could not be sent to school past 5th grade. For four years, Meena stayed put at her house because they were too poor to do anything and go anywhere. And then one day, a girl she knew mentioned that work was available at ‘Saur Oorja’ ( Solar Energy), the name Avani is known by in the area. Without any background in science, she started her training to become a solar technician. And today, after 15 years, she is the only woman solar technician in the area. 

“The girl I had come with had brothers who got very angry that she was working and stopped her from coming back. But we were too poor to think about all that. So, even though relatives of ours complained, my parents knew how much help I was when working than when not”. “After a while, there were about seven to eight girls who had become trained solar technicians but all of them discontinued work once they got married. I was the only one who was lucky enough to have a husband and a mother-in law who never asked me to stop working.” says Meena.
Today she has a six year old daughter, who looks up to her mother with pride and Meena has big dreams for her too. She stands out because not only did she continue working but her work is what is traditionally considered a man’s job. And even today, Meena says, there are people in her family who cannot stand the fact that a woman is earning money for the house. And until such a mentality stays, progress will be slow.

The remoteness of Kumaoni villages have affected  the women the most. Because while their society allows the men to move away, marry whoever they want and do whatever they want, the women were expected to stay put; their lack of exposure and education making sure that that remains the case.  “It was not appreciated by the people here that girls of the house were working outside, especially if there is a man in the house. When we were sending girls for solar training to Barefoot College, Tilonia (Rajasthan), people started making rumors that the organization was selling girls outside!” informs Lalita. Things are thankfully much different than it was a decade ago. And the more ambitious ones are bringing on the first winds of change by making sure that there daughters get qualified and become independent.
Avani Society
Credits: Story

Text: Prachi Gupta
Images: Avani archives

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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