The women workforce constitutes 40% of the State’s total women population but hardly 10% to 12% are in the formal economic sector while the rest are engaged in the informal or unorganized sector which is characterized by low productivity, insecurity and vulnerability
Women of Manipur have been collectively taking part in crucial roles in history. They are known for their fearlessness and active participation in social issues. The historic Nupi Lan (Women’s War in Manipuri) first took place in 1904 and consequently in 1939 when the women of Manipur rose against exploitative colonial policies. The women campaigned against the political agent Mr Maxwell who facilitated forced labor (Lalup Kaba) on Manipuri men. The women pressurized the British government to protect their male counterparts from such a system and consequently the British had to withdraw it in 1904. That incident is still marked as the ‘First Women’s war’ (Ahanba Nupi Lan) in Manipur. The Manipuri women’s movement against the more export oriented trade policy of the State’s Maharaja and Marwari monopoly irrespective of the limited production of food grains later evolved into a movement of constitutional, political, and economic reforms in Manipur. Many of them were injured from the bayonets and butts of the soldiers’ weapons and many were thrown into ponds by soldiers on that cold winter day of 12th December 1939, which the present generation observes every year as ‘Nupi Lan Numit.’
Women: Equal Only on Paper
The social consciousness of Manipuri women was also seen in their protest against illicit drugs and its abuse in society since the 1970s, and the movement of the ‘Women Torch Bearers’ (Meira Paibis) in the 1980s and since then. Thus the women of every community whether Meitei, Manipuri Pangal (Muslim) or hill women have played a major role in every aspect of life in Manipur and have been active in not only economic activities but in political reforms too. Despite their hard work and contribution to society, the larger society has still not stopped treating women unequally. It is true that women in the Northeastern states enjoy a certain degree of freedom when compared to their counterparts in other parts of the country yet if we critically examine the conditions of women during the period of monarchy and that of the British era and again after almost 70 years of independence, the difference is minimal. If we look at our own homes, how many parents treat their girl child at par with a son, whether in terms of spending on education and health, or in overall upbringing? Both of them may be given the same level of schooling at the primary level but when it comes to higher education, girls are still the ones to give up as they end up helping their parents. Of course, the literacy rate of women has gone up, many have joined different professions including politics but the moot question is: how many are taking part in decision-making bodies though the women population contributes almost half of the State’s population which is nearly 2.2 million?
Again, the women workforce constitutes 40% of the State’s total women population but hardly 10% to 12% are in the formal economic sector while the rest are engaged in the informal or unorganized sector which is characterized by low productivity, insecurity and vulnerability.
Street Vendors in Khwairamband, No Place to Sell their Wares
‘Ima Keithel’, Asia’s largest market run by women is an example of how empowered Manipuri women are. This iconic 500-year-old market at Khwairamband bazaar at the heart of the State’s capital Imphal provides livelihood to thousands of families; thousands of women come here from far and near corners of the State. Economist Amar Yumnam though observes that even though many women are engaged in economic activities, they are still vulnerable or prone to exploitation. Apart from the 3800 women who are license holders under the Imphal Municipal Corporation accommodated in the three Ima Keithel buildings, we cannot ignore the other women coming from all over the State to sell their stuff in the market. They are scattered all over Khwairamband bazaar and they are loosely addressed as ‘street vendors’. These road side women do not have a fix sitting point of their own as they end up running around from one spot to another as the Police drive them away every hour for creating traffic jams.
It is worth mentioning here that the Imphal Municipal Corporation and the Manipur Government has failed to set up proper spots for these road side vendors, even though there has been a Supreme Court instruction to do so in an order on 9th September 2013. Most of these women who are roadside vendors are also victims of alcoholic, unproductive and abusive husbands. Laishram Mema in her 70s is the advisor of the Road Side Vendor Welfare Association and president of Manipur Keithel Phambi Apunba Lupi (Manipur Women Vendor Association); she has been selling copper-made jewelries at Ima Keithel at shed number one for the last 36 years. She completely denies that women in Manipur are empowered, ‘It is just fancy to say that women are empowered, in reality, there are many hurdles they have to face that men don’t,’ she lamented. ‘It’s a society where men have forgotten to earn while drowning themselves in alcohol, drugs and other unproductive habits,’ she says.
While these hardworking women have been taking the responsibility for running the economy in a conflict-ridden State, they have in turn been victims of rape, murder, domestic violence, trafficking, kidnapping, forced abortion, abandonment and many more atrocities. In the last year itself, there has been reports of unnatural deaths of 58 women, including two minors, 37 rape cases and many other cases of gender-based violence, reported and unreported. It is time the women prepare for another Nupi Lan.
Written by Reena Nongmaithem