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Hills are alive with the sound of change


UPHILL CRUSADE: Activist groups are travelling across Kinnaur's villages talking to women

The silence of the mountains in Kinnaur is broken only by the pahadi tunes a group of women hum as they pick their way through the rugged terrain to reach a tiny hamlet perched high on a cliff. It's just the beginning of another day of activism for them. They are members of Mahila Kalyan Parishad, a group based in this hill district which travels across villages to make tribal women aware of their right to ancestral property.

Tribal laws in Kinnaur do not allow women to inherit the property of their parents or husband. But they are gearing up for a quiet revolution. MKP is bringing them together and giving them a voice to demand what should have always been theirs: land rights. Spearheading the movement is Ratan Manjari, perhaps the only woman in Kinnaur to inherit ancestral property though she had a brother. Her mother wrote out the family's agricultural land in Kinnaur's Ribba village in Manjari's name.

Till Manjari (59) began this battle, women depended on their husband and, after his death, the sons, for survival. MKP mounted a signature campaign to demand a change in the law.

Jagori Grameen is another organisation campaigning for land rights for women in Himachal. In 2002, it began working in Kangra to improve the socio-economic status of women. Currently, Jagori is running a campaign in the state for joint ownership of property. It is demanding that a married woman's name has to be added to ownership title along with her husband's.

But, there is a practical problem. "To add a person's name to the ownership document, a hefty fee must be paid. So, many men who are willing to add their wife's name change their mind to save money, " says Abha Bhaiya, Jagori co-founder.

To surmount the hurdle, Jagori has demanded that the central government, as an affirmative action, waive the land registration fee for those who want to add their wife's name to the ownership title. This can be a temporary measure till the names of women are added, says Abha. "The state government can also do it, " she says.

Jagori is also campaigning for land rights for single women, including widows and divorced women, along with organisations like Nishtha and Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS).

Legal access to property, including land rights, is vital for economic empowerment of women. In a theme paper, former Planning Commission member N C Saxena has said that land rights and access to land to women can accrue primarily through three avenues: inheritance of ancestral landed property;government allotment of ceiling surplus land, Bhoodan land or government wasteland to women;and gaining contractual access to land through tenancy, licence and common property resources, minor forest produce etc.

According to a report (2010) of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), there are about 119 lakh farm land holders in India. Only 9. 21 per cent of them are women. Even though the amended Hindu Succession Act, 1956, grants equal rights to men and women in land succession, our deep-rooted patriarchal mindset does not allow any real changes.

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