By Zarir Hussain-Mareeg.com-GUWAHATI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Violent protests by male dominated indigenous groups in India’s northeast have forced authorities to postpone a local election that would, for the first time, guarantee seats for women in urban civic bodies.
Two people were killed and dozens injured in Nagaland state last week as indigenous groups torched government vehicles and blocked roads in protest against government plans to reserve one third of all seats in local, urban authorities for women, state officials said.
Elections to the state’s local bodies, which had been scheduled for Feb. 1, have been put on hold following the protests, they said.
“Allowing women reservations would be a scar on our age-old customary laws,” said K.T. Vilie of the Nagaland Tribes Action Committee, that is leading the campaign in opposition.
“It is also a gross violation of the Constitution, which grants special status to Nagaland for protection of such laws,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
India’s Supreme Court last year ruled in favour of a petition from the Naga Mothers’ Association, the state’s leading women’s rights group, and directed the state to reserve seats for women in urban body elections.
Nagaland has never elected a woman legislator. Customary laws in the state also bar women from heading village councils, land ownership and inheritance rights.
Women’s rights activists said the protests are a reflection of the entrenched patriarchy that denies them ownership of property, as well as a place in the political hierarchy.
“Our customary laws are deeply rooted in patriarchy,” Monalisa Changkija, a feminist writer, told the Indian Express newspaper.
“The fear is that women would finally have a say in how resources are used and shared in towns, which could then spill over to villages (and) … disrupt the status quo that has marginalised Naga women politically and economically,” she said.
Despite a federal law giving equal inheritance rights, women are estimated to own only 13 percent of farmland in India.
And while India was among the first countries to have had a female prime minister, it ranks worse than many other nations including Indonesia and Bangladesh on the number of women lawmakers.
Women hold less than 12 percent of seats in parliament in India, compared to a global average of 23 percent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the London-based organisation that helps developing democracies.
A Women’s Reservation Bill – which provides for one-third of seats in national and state assemblies to be reserved for women – was introduced in 1996 and passed by India’s upper house in 2010. It has never been ratified in the lower house.
The Naga Mothers’ Association said women who contest elections in Nagaland are routinely threatened with violence and ex-communication, and often forced to withdraw.
“Our demand for women’s reservation is not aimed at questioning the customary laws; nor do we believe it is an infringement of our practices,” said Rosemary Dzuvichu, an advisor to the group.
“We demand our constitutional rights as equal citizens, as human beings.”
(Additional reporting and writing by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Paola Totaro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)