There is a general perception that Adivasi women enjoy greater equality because tribal society is less patriarchal. The reality, however, is very different. Take the situation of Bhil tribal, Ramanbai, of Chandupura village in Madhya Pradesh's Khargone district. She says, "I am suffering from piles and the doctor at Sanawad has told me that I will have to get myself operated. Yet, my husband is refusing to part with the money."
Kesarbai of the neighbouring Okhla village also has problems. "I already have three daughters and don't not want any more children, but my husband is insistent on a son. When he gets drunk he does not listen to any reason. If I resist him, he accuses me of being involved with another man."
But spousal abuse is not Kesarbai's problem alone. In Kundia village there was a woman who was beaten up by her husband and forced to spend the night outside the house because her brothers had not looked after him well enough when he went to their village for a visit.
Most tribal women in this belt complain that they neither have the power to take decisions within the home nor do they have control over their bodies. Matters are aggravated by social customs. Bhils have traditionally regarded alcohol as "holy spirit". In fact, even babes in arms are given alcohol. As for the gods, they too have to be propitiated every now and then with drink. This gives the men – and sometimes even women – the license to drink freely. Not surprisingly, alcoholism is rife in these parts with the men going on drinking sprees and doing no work for days on end. This only increases the burden of the women, who have to work themselves to the bone in order to feed their families.
The Bhils, having once been a martial race, have a clear gender division of labour, which is not easily transgressed. The men, even if they want to help out at home, find it difficult to do domestic labour. They also invariably object to their women taking part in organisational activities out of the house that could improve their status and employment opportunities.
Subhadra Khaperde, an activist, who had been working with the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan to mobilise the Bhils in Khargone to fight the oppression of the forest department staff and the 'sahukars' (money-lenders), was moved by the plight of these women and felt that something had to be done.
Initially, she organised a few reproductive health camps with gynaecologists coming in from Indore and providing advice and medical care. The analysis of the data collected through such efforts told its own story: Not only were the women here severely anaemic, they suffered from reproductive health problems of various kinds. Khaperde, who is currently pursuing higher studies in the field of gender and health so that she is formally trained to help bring about the emancipation of Bhil women, decided to help the women to organise themselves and seek solutions to these problems.
What followed was interesting. Hundreds of Adivasi women in their colourful saris, ghagras, lugras (long coloured pieces of cloth that the women wear over their bodies) and doglis (blouses) seated themselves under the shade of the two big mahua trees in Akya village in Khargone one sunny afternoon. It was the first week of May 2006 and in the midst of the marriage season and an Adivasi coming from outside may have wondered why only women were congregated and why there was no drums beating to signify a marriage ceremony. But this was not a marriage. It was the meeting called to discuss the results that had emerged from the health camps.
Here, Khaperde painstakingly explained with the help of coloured charts, what the data collected had revealed, and she did this in terms that the women could understand. Then she went on to explain that all the reproductive health problems that they were suffering from were because of patriarchal pressures and that medication alone would not prove to be a lasting solution. After that, it was as if a dam had burst. Woman after woman got up and said that they could do nothing, as the men would not listen to reason and would impose themselves on them. They then gave their own analysis: Unless the men were made to see reason, things would remain the same. The biggest problem everybody agreed was that the men drank too much and became unmanageable. In an earlier era, they had had to brew their own liquor from the flowers of the mahua tree, which was a laborious and time-consuming task and could be undertaken only occasionally. But now things were changed with the easy availability of illicit liquor from the two distilleries in the area. The conclusion drawn was that without the men being involved, no change was possible. Male activists of the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan began conducting workshops exclusively with the men on the issues that the women had raised. The group discussions ended with the conclusion that the alcoholism of the men was the biggest problem that the women faced. The men also admitted that it was proving to be a financial drain on them and that something needed to be done. That was when Rajaan, an activist from the community and one of the rare teetotallers, put forward the suggestion that the illegal liquor shop in Okhla village should be closed down. The bootlegger who ran this shop was a notorious goon, as is usually the case. He was part of a liquor mafia that ensured that the whole area was literally flowing with alcohol with an illegal liquor godown in Pandutalav village providing the supplies.
A mass meeting was then held in Okhla and the bootlegger's shop was raided. Not only did the tribals confiscate his liquor, they sealed his shop. After the success of this action, people of Bagli tehsil just across the border in Dewas district, began demanding similar action in their area.
The liquor mafia had appointed a local contractor to oversee the operations in the area. He was known to be ruthless and had on one occasion caught a man selling the liquor of another contractor and had him arrested and beaten up a false charge. With this case in mind, a mass meeting was also scheduled in Pandutalav. When the contractor got word of this and he came down on the appointed day with a jeep load of his henchmen. However, on seeing the thousands of men and women congregated, he fled the area. The liquor store, with stocks worth some Rs 200,000 was sealed and the keys handed over to the police. It is indeed ironical that despite a provision in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution that the state should proactively clamp down on the sale of liquor in tribal areas, officials look the other way while liquor contractors blatantly flout the law. However, when women become organised, they can force the state to act.
In June 2007, Bhil women from the region took out a rally in Indore to press for their demands. However, when the Commissioner in Indore turned a deaf ear to their demands, Karotibai of Katkut village told him, "If you are incapable of providing good government to us then we will form our own government."