Suziemon Dkhar grew up in Madanrything " a neighbourhood in Shillong " in the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya. Born into a family of five children, the death of her father and poverty led her to drop out of school at a young age. She did household chores and often accompanied her mother to her tea shop. And then one day, when she was 19, she fell in love and became pregnant with her first and only child, a daughter.
A tall girl with a near-circular face, heavy curls, and a soft voice, Dkhar never legally married the man she loved, but they lived together for seven years. "I don't have a marriage certificate. I became pregnant, and living with him seemed like the best option for me," says the now 30-year-old in broken English.
But, a few years into their relationship, she became aware of the fact that her partner had been cheating on her. "I kept thinking about my daughter and lived with him until he started beating me up, sometimes in front of the other woman. And then there were days when I wouldn't be able to hide my bruises. I couldn't take it anymore." Distraught, one day, she returned to her mother's home with her daughter in tow.
According to the National Family Health Survey (2015-16) or NFHS-4, almost one in three (31.1 percent) married women aged 15-49 years experienced spousal violence (physical/emotional or sexual) and 3.9 percent faced violence during pregnancy. While data on violence against women who are in live-in relationships is hard to gather, the Domestic Violence Act, 2005, was enforced as an attempt to protect women from abusive (physical, mental, verbal or economic) marital relationships. However, the Act not only applies to a married couple, but also to a 'relationship in nature of marriage'. The children born out of such relationships are considered legitimate with rights in the property of their parents.
"Live-in relationships are accepted here. There is no stigmatisation and you will find that this is especially predominant in rural areas," says Joy Grace Syiem, Programme Manager at North East Network (NEN), a women's rights organisation based in Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. "If the man wants to leave, he can leave, it's on him. It's not necessary for a woman to fight back. It's partly because the maternal grandparents are there to take care of the child so not much importance is given to the man."
Matrilineal Society: Empowering or Disempowering
The two major tribes of Meghalaya, Khasis and Jaintias, are matrilineal. Children inherit the mother's surname, daughters inherit the family property. For a man, Joy says, the custody of the child is never an issue. "I think it is because of this that we have so many cases of domestic violence."
A comparison between NFHS-3 (2005-2006) and NFHS-4 (2015-2016) " shows that in terms of domestic violence " the biggest leap has taken place in Meghalaya. The percentage of women facing abuse doubled from 12.8 percent to 28.7 percent with a proportional increase in both rural and urban areas. The survey stated that in Meghalaya 16.5% of women between 20-24 years were married before the age of 18; 8.6 percent of women between 15-19 years were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey; 28.7% of married women have experienced domestic violence even as 57.3% of them owned a house and/or land.
Gertrude Lamare, a researcher in Anthropology at the University of Sussex, who hails from Shillong, says: "The importance of marriage only arrived with Christianity because of the implications that it has within the ideology of the Church. But, the moment you start living with someone, that person is identified as your spouse here. It also underlines the kind of fluidity that exists/existed in 'tribal' societies. The whole concept of pre-marital sex being sinful is a very Christian idea."
In a situation where there is no taboo against the single mother, and live-in relationships and premarital sex are accepted in society, it is common for young women to be left behind by their husbands/partners. Lamare points out that this phenomenon stems from the fact that marriages are not registered. "The paperwork isn't really prioritized which makes it easier for marriages to break, sometimes not in a consensual manner. Most of the time, it is the man who leaves, regardless of how many children they have or how many years they have been together. This is more common among rural and working-class communities," she adds.
Both Syiem and Lamare feel that matriliny is just a structural character of a community, and people often assume that it is empowering. "We call ourselves a matrilineal society but we have patriarchal norms and cultures that are accepted and not challenged," Syiem says. "The man has not been taught to be any better. The culture teaches them to find a girl who will take them in or it is okay for them to move on. Imagine the kind of issues the boy starts developing from a young age which is just manifesting itself in violent ways. It's a no-win for the man and a no-win for the woman."
According to Syiem, it is patriarchal because the decision makers are the maternal uncles. A woman is the custodian but the maternal uncle is the decision maker. She is the caretaker of property but if she wants to sell that property she will have to take the decision of her uncle. "It's matrilineal only in terms of lineage but it's a patriarchal society."
Victims as Agents of Change
Dkhar, now a single mother owns a small gift shop at Nongthymmai in Shillong to sustain herself. But, it wasn't quite easy. In 2014, after she left her partner, on the insistence of one of her aunt's, she joined iLEAD (Initiative for Livelihood Education and Development), a free skill training centre in Shillong set up by the nonprofit Aide et Action (AEA). With women comprising a majority of the trainees here, the youth at iLead are trained as beauticians, fashion designers and tailors. They also learn to handle and repair electrical equipment and house-wiring and hospitality services.
The skills they are trained in aid them in securing independent freelance jobs which pay more, says AEA Senior Project Executive Shiela Kharpomtiah. "A youth trained in the beautician trade would work as a freelancing beautician taking up clients on either daily or weekly basis. She could continue to do so for a few years until she opens her own parlour," she says.
After the free training course in beautician, Dkhar got herself a job at a parlour in Shillong but deep down she aspired to start her own venture. A casual visit to iLead again was a turning point for her. When she expressed her desire to start on her own, one of the iLead staff members informed her about the microenterprise development programme (MEDP) in Meghalaya started by Tata Trusts and AEA in 2015.
This initiative provides financial support through a seed loan to promote enterprise development. The project candidates comprising existing and potential entrepreneurs are supported with a seed loan to upscale their enterprises, and to start new ones either individually or in groups. "The loan is on a rotational basis, and the recovered pool of money is further loaned to participants if at all additional finance is required," says Kankana Borah, Programme officer, AEA.
Soon, Dkhar submitted a business plan and applied for an interest-free loan of Rs 42,000. After receiving the loan, she opened her own gift shop in September 2018. Now, she earns Rs 4000-5000 every month.
Dkhar says she decided to open a gift shop instead of a beauty parlour because parlours existed in abundance in her neighbourhood whereas gift shops were rare.
Like Dkhar, so far, the MEDP programme has supported 102 entrepreneurs (72 women and 30 men). Of the 51 beneficiaries supported in Phase I, 47 people have been repaying the loans and 15 beneficiaries have completed repayment of the loan.
The labour ministry data shows that the percentage of women workers in the northeastern region is better than its mainland counterparts with Meghalaya being on the fifth position. However, Syiem points out that disparity can be found in the unorganized sector. "A woman gets paid for two days of a man's work in some villages."
Dashisha Thabor, a 30-year-old two-time beneficiary of MEDP, repaid her first loan of Rs 35,000 and has now taken another one worth Rs 25,000 to run her small tailoring unit in Smit, a village in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya. Thabor was abandoned by her partner while she was pregnant. "He told me he was already married and wanted to go back to his wife," she says holding her now two-year-old baby girl on her back.
But Thabor's family is anything but well off. Her father is a farmer and their farm produce is not sold outside but used for themselves. Her eldest brother and sister are the other earning members and the entire family's monthly income is close to Rs 15, 000. iLead and MEDP, she says, have made her believe she could do something on her own to support her family and daughter. Now, she is able to contribute Rs 3,000-5,000 to her family's earnings every month.
Even though the MEDP project is not implemented with support of the government, Borah says AEA is working as a consultant to the government of Meghalaya in another project 'Supporting Human Capital Development in Meghalaya' which is funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), where both government and ADB are in talks with AEA to experiment and adapt components of MEDP to skill rural and urban youth in the state.
"I love this business, and I want to work on my own, so this is the best that could happen to me," Dkhar says with a slight grin. As for Thabor, who is now working towards repaying her second loan, she plans to slowly and steadily expand her tailoring unit.