This is an attempt at understanding some of the challenges faced by the women of the second largest tribe in India - the Bhils. These strong women talk about early marriages, the culture of reverse dowry and of a bright future.
“When you do a cartoon based on news headlines, you do it based on incomplete information” - Ted Rall, American columnist
I got a first-hand experience of having “incomplete information” as I travelled to the interiors of Dahod, the eastern district of Gujarat. Despite having lived in Rajasthan for 16 years and in Gujarat for four years during my undergraduate studies, I did not know much about the Bhil tribes living in both these states.
But as a fellow with Milaap for just two months, I got to explore parts of Gujarat I didn’t even know existed during my stay in the state. Every location I visited brought in new learnings but at the same time it created a mental framework to expect a particular lifestyle, work pattern, and culture in a particular area.
With this mental framework already in place after meeting 27 rural and tribal families, I didn’t expect anything extraordinarily different from the last family I had to meet that day.
However as it happens, life often surprises you, you just have to be open to see the difference.
So this is the story of my memorable encounter with Madhuben Rameshbhai Amaliyar.
Bhil tribal women
Madhuben belongs to the Bhil tribe - the second largest tribe of India. With my incomplete information, I thought the Bhil tribe was settled only in Rajasthan, but Gujarat has the second largest population of Bhils after Madhya Pradesh.
Madhuben and the other families of the tribe have large plots of land where they mainly grow wheat, maize, and vegetables. Agriculture is improving with a big beautiful lake in the vicinity. However even with all the resources, agriculture is not enough to sustain families with five-six members.
Hence these women and their husbands, migrate to cities like Ahmedabad for daily labour work. Earning Rs 250 a day for eight hours of hard labour, they are able to make a decent amount of money in 1-2 months before returning to their villages. Such hard labour work in scorching temperatures that go up to 45 degree celsius is not everyone’s cup of tea and these families truly do justice to the warrior history of Bhil tribes (Bhil means “bow” and these tribal warriors fought against the Mughals and British).
However, the striking and sad fact about this tribe in Gujarat, is revealed by Madhuben. She was married when she was 14 years old and her two daughters were married at the age of 16.
Madhuben says her daughters are lucky to have gone to school till class 9 but that was just to get food given in government schools. Eventually they had to work as labourers, and get married.
Reverse dowry and what it entails
As we spoke more about her tribe, I found out that among them, the groom’s family gives dowry to the bride’s family. I was shocked and was filled with excitement to see this reverse dowry trend. However just like the “incomplete information” you find on the internet, had the conversation ended here, it would be information that could have made the situation look gratifying.
The gloomy truth was that the groom’s family paid the bride’s family to “buy” the girl from them. Based on how educated and beautiful the girl is, bride's families get anywhere from Rs 50,000 to Rs 3 lakh.
On top of that, the men in the girl’s family usually use this money for drinking and smoking and none of it put to good use. Now as the girl leaves her home with aspirations to lead a simple and peaceful married life, she finds that neither her husband’s home nor her own home is hers anymore.
For most part of her life she hears - “Sab karna padhega, paise diye hain tere gharwalon ko” (We have paid your family, you have to do everything we ask you to do).
She has to do all the housework, work in fields and do daily labour work as well. In fact, Madhuben mentions that generally they get an operation done after having four kids, so that they can’t bear children. This is the only way to not have any more kids. She tells me that through the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) 2008, they are able to get the tubectomy operation free of cost.
Hope for the future
So this is the story of Madhuben and many other Bhil tribal women like her in Gujarat. However, as we came to the end of the conversation, Madhuben said that she hopes for a brighter future for her grandchildren. I felt proud to learn that now Bhil families don’t get their daughters married before the age of 18 because they fear being jailed under ‘The Prohibition of the Child Marriage Act - 2006’.
Before this act many women were married at the age of 15 or less. In fact, some families are now not even accepting any dowry, so that their daughters can confidently voice their opinion about family matters.
With the changing scenario and better government policies in place, Madhuben and 17 lakh Bhil women in India, hope to play a stronger role in their families. They wish to get better education and be independent. They want to earn better and contribute towards the family. And most of all they wish for a better future, so that future generations of women would be respected just like tribal Bhil warriors should be.
Disclaimer: This article was first published in Milaap. The views expressed by the author are his/her own and do not necessarily reflect that of YourStory.