Project in Jharkhand involves women as active participants in communal forest management

DSC00761Excerpts from “Gender & Collectively Held Land: Good Practices & Lessons Learned From Six Global Case Studies” by Renée Giovarelli, Amanda Richardson and Elisa Scalise*

Jharkhand, a new state in eastern India, was carved out of the state of Bihar in 2000. The state has 5 divisions and 24 districts. Approximately 28 percent of the population of Jharkhand is “tribal,” i.e., members of scheduled tribes which are among the poorest people in the country.  In India as a whole, there are 645 scheduled tribes, and 30 of those are in Jharkhand. The tribal population in Jharkhand is one of the highest in India by percentage. Sixty percent of the tribal population of Jharkhand lives below the poverty line.

Another 12 percent of the population of Jharkhand is “scheduled caste.” As with scheduled tribes, these are specific peoples whose status is acknowledged under the Indian Constitution in articles 341 and 342. Scheduled castes are historically disadvantaged, and along with scheduled tribes, they are beneficiaries of favorable policies and schemes, such as guaranteed political representation and reservations of government jobs.

In Jharkhand, forests are critical to tribal people’s lives and livelihoods. About 30 percent of Jharkhand is forested. Forests provide homes, jobs, and income through the collection of fodder, fuel wood, and non-timber forest products (NTFPs), like herbs, fruit, and leaves, which people consume or sell. The forest is also a cultural space and a place for traditional worship.

Throughout India, and especially in Jharkhand and other heavily forested states, use of forestland has been a source of conflict between the government, especially the Forest Department, and tribal and other forest-dependent peoples. The legal rights of forest dwellers are frequently ignored.

Status of Women

In general, in India customary practices grant women fewer rights to control or access land than men. While the formal law protects women’s rights to own and inherit land, in practice women are rarely named on titles, and inheritance is generally patrilineal. Even though interviewees believed that tribal communities’ customs were often more egalitarian than those of the population at large, they stated that women had less economic power, less access to government schemes, and much less literacy than men.

In focus group discussions, men and women said that women are especially dependent on the forest, in part because they tend not to migrate for jobs and in part because their traditional tasks include many that rely on forest products. In Jharkhand, women use the forest both for collecting NTFPs and for fuel wood, while men use the forest primarily for tools and building houses. Because women often depend on forest resources like NTFPs for their family’s livelihood, they have become more economically, socially, and politically marginalized as their traditional rights to the forest have diminished.

Legal Framework

The “Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’ (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006” (FRA), is an effort to correct historical injustice against forest dwellers due to non-recognition of their customary forest rights after their ancestral lands became state forests. The FRA increases the authority of local communities over forest resources.

The FRA recognizes forest dwellers’ rights to access, own, and sell NTFPs and to protect, conserve, and manage community forests for sustainable use. Individual rights to forestland (IFR), which were under occupation at the time of the law, are recognized for living and self-cultivation. Community rights (CFR) are recognized over larger areas of forest for cultural practices, bona fide livelihood needs, e.g., sale and collection of NTFPs, grazing, fishing, water use, and management of forest resources. Community rights are managed by Forest Rights Committees (FRC).

The FRA has a number of provisions intended to protect women’s rights. Section 4(4) states that IFRs must be held jointly in the names of both spouses in the case of a married applicant. The FRA rules require that women constitute at least one third of an FRC’s membership. The rules also require that the minimum quorum for a Gram Sabha (village administration) meeting be 50% of the village adults and that at least a third of those present must be women.105 Interviewed project employees and focus group attendees, however, stated that state policies and actions, which are often in contradiction to the FRA, over the past 15 years have had a significant negative impact on women’s rights to forest resources.

DSC00822Project Interventions

The project was implemented by Naya Sawera Vikas Kendra (NSVK), a local NGO that strengthens the rights of communities. The NSVK project is part of a larger effort by Oxfam India, an international development organization, to increase forest dwellers’ access to and control over natural resources in three states: Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Jharkhand. The project in Jharkhand was chosen because its timeline most closely matched the needs of this case study. Gender is a cross-cutting theme for NSVK and is intended to permeate all of its work; it also has a clear commitment to gender diversity of staff.

The objective of the project was to increase forest dwellers’ access to and control over forests under the Forest Rights Act, focusing on women and tribal and scheduled caste communities. The project lasted three years, from April 2012 to March 2015. NSVK engaged in: building community based institutions, carrying out mass awareness campaigns for empowering rural communities to understand their rights under the FRA, and advocating, networking, and building knowledge to link the community-level initiatives with macro-level policy initiatives identifying the FRA as a major piece of legislation. As of April 2014, the latest quarterly report with available data, the project had facilitated the filing of 4,025 individual forest right (IFR) claims (joint title) and 46 community forest right (CFR) claims.

The NSVK project used a four-pronged approach to institution building, advocacy, networking, and knowledge building to achieve its goals:

  • Develop and strengthen community organizations to demand their statutory rights over forestland (both individual rights and community rights) and resources;
  • Increase networking with existing groups working on FRA issues and with other networks to lobby and seek accountability from the government to effectively implement the FRA;
  • Raise awareness and seek accountability from the government to implement the Tribal Sub Plan (TSP) and provisions; and
  • Empower women in relation to their rights to natural resources.

The project can loosely be divided into three overlapping components, all of which worked within the framework of the FRA:

1) awareness raising,

2) community-level forest rights committee formation, and

3) support for individual and community forest rights applications.

At the local level, NSVK was committed to raising awareness about the importance of the FRA and about the importance of women’s involvement, especially in communal forest management. However, gender concerns were not a major focus of sensitization for the government at the state level, as the project was primarily focused on raising awareness of the requirements of the FRA generally.

In forming FRCs, women were encouraged to become active participants, and NSVK worked to ensure that half of those present at FRA decision-making meetings were women. Finally, NSVK ensured that women’s names were on IFR documents, as per regulations. They usually involved both men and women in mapping the forest and supported women who were already active in managing the forest.

Findings

Much of the success of the project can be attributed to NSVK. The NSVK model involves deep involvement in each village over a period of time. NSVK has been involved in these communities for five to six years and attributes a lot of its success to this ongoing engagement. NSVK leaders shared that it usually takes about two years to establish enough trust with the community to really begin the process of changing customs and practices, especially around women’s rights. In most cases, NSVK social workers live in the area they are targeting and then work with a number of nearby villages.

Social workers are in the villages on a weekly basis, conducting meetings on topics that have been identified as of interest to the community. This leads to communities’ and, specifically, women’s empowerment. NSVK staff attribute much of their success to these young social workers, who often serve as a bridge between the community and outsiders, including other NSVK staff and the government. The social workers receive considerable training and generally stay in the area because they are from there.

NSVK attempts to ensure that there is an equal number of male and female social workers. This is a clear commitment to gender diversity and ensures that local women are comfortable approaching the social workers. NSVK would benefit from including women in its leadership. NSVK staff members were not always focused on gender or the FRA, but Oxfam worked closely with them as a partner to impress the importance of both issues. It is not customary in Jharkhand for women to be equal participants in male spaces, such as community meetings.

DSC00823Women are also not customarily named on titles or considered co-owners of land. NSVK workers were able to use their pre-existing deep ties in the community to sensitize community members on the importance of including women in community life and on titles. Ongoing discussions with both women and men on the importance of women’s participation and on the economic and social benefits of their inclusion were identified as key to changing community norms and attitudes towards women’s participation.

NSVK was originally in favor of advocating exclusively for communal rights, but they have seen great benefits from individual rights, as individual titles lead to more than just ownership of land, but also access to other schemes such as those that provide farming inputs. In addition, because no one can sell an IFR, the land is protected from outsiders. Individual titles can confer different types of benefits than community titles, and both are important to women. Trainings and sensitization for government officials has been important to the issuance of individual rights and was identified as the reason officials are hopeful community rights documents will be issued soon. This kind of support is vital to ensuring that laws are implemented swiftly and well.

Recommendations

  • Promote deep involvement in target communities. Whenever possible, projects that aim to improve gender dynamics should leverage organizations which already have sustained and deep engagement with the community.
  • Advocate for women’s inclusion in trainings and governance.
  • Weigh benefits of individual versus communal titling carefully before recommending one or the other. • Hold frequent meetings of women’s groups to help empower women.
  • Use local staff as much as possible.
  • Ensure gender is considered in staffing, including at the highest levels, both as a commitment to diversity and to ensure that a variety of perspectives are heard.
  • Work closely to build capacity of and provide incentives to implementing partners.
  • Support government agencies when possible.

*Click HERE to download full report

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