Gender Issues Faced by Tribal Women in Post-Independence India

In this paper, I will be focussing on the post-independence issues faced by the tribal women in India due to their gender, and how the issues overlap to provide these women with the positionality they possess in society today.

Gender Issues Faced by Tribal Women

Introduction: Throughout the history of India, the tribal population has been one of the most vulnerable groups and has been compromised multiple times in the name of ‘national development.’ Post-independence, the policies and practices undertaken by the government under Jawahar Lal Nehru, promoted the integration of the tribal population into the Hindu mainstream following the famous ‘isolation vs integration’ debate of the 1940s. These policies aimed to make the tribal population feel like an essential component of the Indian society without compromising on their culture and identity. However, their history and position in society today is a corroboration of the fact that the gaps in policymaking and implementation have led to their large-scale exploitation and alienation from their own lands. This behaviour towards the tribes continues till date. (“Tribal Issues | Part 3 | Post-independence integration of tribals”, 2016)

Due to the patriarchal nature of the society we reside in, even within these tribal groups, the women population has dealt with the most violence, brutality and oppression. The application of the feminist intersectional approach, allows us to perceive a clearer picture of the status of these tribal women in the society. It draws light to how their class and gender puts them at a higher disadvantage than the tribal man or even the upper-class women. This population faces a large number of issues that are embedded in the realms of social, political and economic spheres. For the identification of these issues, we must, “analyse the position of relative asymmetry in the status of the tribal women vis-à-vis tribal men of a particular society and relative inequality between tribal and non-tribal women.” (Sharma & Mittal, 1998)

In this paper, I will be focussing on the post-independence issues faced by the tribal women in India due to their gender, and how the issues overlap to provide these women with the positionality they possess in society today.

Social Problem- Inheritance of Property

Most tribal societies in India are patrilineal in nature, implying that the descent of the family is traced through the male and is succeeded by the son.

Inheritance laws that have been put in action, allow women to inherit some part of the property, however, the complete inheritance of the familial property is not allowed. Moreover, even when women are allowed to inherit, they are often provided with movable property that is unimportant and does not endow them with much power or economic independence. (Varte, 2013)

However, the modifications in policy have replaced the tribal customary laws, as well as state-laws such as the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 and have put an end to discriminatory practices that prevent tribal women from rightly inheriting their property. (Shukla, 2005)

In 2015, post the ruling of the High Court in Himachal and the ruling of the High Court in Bombay as recent as 2019, the Hindu Succession Act of 2004, was applied to tribal areas in India wherein tribal women would be allowed to “succeed the estate of their parents, brothers, husbands as heirs.” This allowed tribal women to become legal successors of the property and own an equal share as compared to the male heir. (Mehta, 2019) (Shukla, 2005)

Case in point being the tribal women in Tripura. These women are a part of the patrilineal system, however, the father gives some land or property to their daughters in the form of gifts. Similarly, when we look at the Halams and Jamatiyas, the daughters are prevented from inheriting property, however, in practice, this rule is not adhered to and tribal women are allowed to own some property. In other parts of the country, such as Jharkhand, tribal women are not allowed to own land or inherit property. (Ghosh & Choudhuri, 2011)

Even in the case of matrilineal societies such as the Khasi, the Meghalaya Succession to Self-Acquired Property, 1984, which was passed by an all-men legislative, only grants women with a token authority, the real power and authority is in the hands of the man.

Although the problems related to inheritance have reduced, there are large discrepancies in the inheritance rights of these tribal women and no national law has been made to advocate rights for all tribal women. This can be difficult to achieve as well since the tribal groups wish to maintain their own identity and culture keeping a few aspects are disjoint from the state and the mainstream.

Economic Problem- Earning a Livelihood

Earning a livelihood is essential for the economic independence of individuals and refers to the way or means through which an individual earns a living. There is an inextricable link between the tribal society and forests, due to which most people earn their livelihood through forest activities. Studies show that women have a higher rate of dependence on the forest economy for their survival needs and income rendering them in a more vulnerable state in cases of degradation and deforestation in forests.  This creates a dependency issue and prohibits women from becoming independent. (Shangpliang, 2012)

Due to lack of other formal sector employment opportunities, tribal women often find themselves being the central force of the tribal forest economy. Various socio-economic-political factors overlap and intersect to further disempower women- absence of education facilities, rights to property, lack of training skills, male domination over women’s reproductive rights and so on. (Aind & Oraon, 2013)

Post-independence period, there has been an increasing commercialisation of land and various tribal groups have been alienated and displaced. The construction of the Narmada Dam and Sardar Sarovar Dam provide evidence for the large-scale displacement of tribal people. Advancement in technology has also curbed the need for manual, human labour rendering many tribal groups jobless. In both cases, women and their livelihood, security and sustenance has been impacted the most.

In addition to the lack of other sources of income, even with the employment women have, they face discrimination and are paid unequally as compared to their male counterparts. The Tendu-leaf picking serves as an example to showcase the low regard given to these women and unproportionate incomes provided to them for their skilled work. (Varte, 2013)

In the recent years, 40-75% women have shown trends of migration towards the plantation economy which further introduces the problem of seasonal unemployment. These migrant tribal women work without any benefits or social security and even have to face harassment at these workplaces. Moreover, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 and 2008 have not been implemented correctly which has created further hurdles for this minority group. (Aind & Oraon, 2013)

For example, a closer look at the Nagas shows that 70% of women earn their livelihood through the forest economy. Even when women try to find other work, such as spinning and weaving, lack of seriousness and initiative of the state has contributed to the insecurity of women. (Nathan, 2012) Another case is that of the Khasi women and how they are not given the right to control and manage the forest land and resources which adds on to their disadvantage. (Shangpliang, 2012)

Health Problem- Mortality, Pregnancy and HIV

Being one of the most vulnerable social groups in the country, tribal women face various healthcare issues and concerns. Comparative studies make evident that the status of tribal women in all sectors of health is worse than that of Scheduled Castes or OBCs. The studies done on tribal women and their health face mainly two major problems. First, these studies are fragmented and isolated. Second, these studies are not area-specific, that is, they do not cover all dimensions of healthcare. (Reddy, 2008)

One issue faced by the tribal women is that of ‘maternal depletion.’ The healthcare of the child and the mother is often neglected and there is a lack of MHC services. As a result, the women face problems such as early aging and death, anaemia and malnutrition. The factors responsible for maternal depletion are lack of adequate healthcare and medical facilities, inadequate diets, premature pregnancy resulting from early marriages and excessive overload of work. Maternal depletion also results in “maternal morbidity and mortality rate.” (Reddy, 2008)

Anaemia, resulting from maternal depletion or otherwise, is also a major concern among the tribal women. Research shows that 68.5% of the tribal women experience some form or type of anaemia. This has a psychological impact as well since women lose their capacity to resist fatigue, feel tired and are unable to manage the heavy workload. (Reddy, 2008)

The large-scale deforestation practices have increased the distance between the forest areas (workplace of women) and their villages. As a result, women have to cover long distances even during advanced stages of their pregnancies and face shortages of food. Deforestation also leads to loss of various medicinal herbs and forest resources that help women in sustaining their livelihood and ensuring a good quality of life. (Reddy, 2008)

Case in point being the tribal areas of Konna Reddi. Deforestation has led to the loss of a “strong and rich ethno medicine.” More so, men from Konna Reddi often marry the sister of their wife in the case of maternal mortality. (Reddy, 2008)

Another issue faced by tribal women is that of increased transmission of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), mainly HIV/AIDS. The tribes in Nagaland show the serious concern of transmission of AIDS amongst the tribal women. The levels are at such a high point that the neighbouring area of Manipur is also at a high risk. There has been a lack of research and state funding in this particular area as a result of which international funds rely primarily on the low research skills of NGOs to improve this problem. (Nathan, 2012) Another more specific case is that of a Gond women from Bastar district who developed a sexual relationship with a non-tribal, was isolated from her community and later suffered from AIDS. (Patnaik & Mehrotra, 2005)

The common link between all health issues faced by the tribal groups is the under-utilization of the medical services. However this issue cannot be isolated or studied in reference to a single tribe, this must be looked at from a larger perspective in terms of the social status of the tribal groups. The hierarchy and power disparity between them and the doctor/health worker is so extreme that the tribal people have chosen to isolate themselves from modern healthcare facilities. (Reddy, 2008)

Political Problem- Representation

Every tribal community in India has a head or leader, who is usually the man. This man is treated with honour, respect and regard and his decisions are placed above all the other tribal people in that community. The political sphere does include the Panchayati raj or other forms of local governance, however, even within these spheres, it is the men who engage in the politics and decision-making. After the introduction of the 73rd Amendment, 33% seats were reserved for women, however, women are still severely under-represented in all spheres and domains of life. Even when these women acquire the positions of power, they are usually suppressed and subjugated by the opinions of the men and do not have much say. (Varte, 2013) (Majhi, 2017)

Examples for the following would be: The tribal groups in Nagaland show a highly patriarchal political sphere. The council in the village is dominated by males. Despite the acts that mandate the representation of women in the 5 year tenure, they are not followed. Moreover, men elect only one female as the chairperson of the council and in general, the women have no say in the role of decision making. (Nathan, 2012)  In the matrilineal society of Jaintia, a similar political structure is followed, wherein women are prohibited from attending the Durbar or council meeting. (Varte, 2013)

Although these policies have improved the representation of women, the attitudes prevailing in their communities continue to be sexist and misogynistic. Therefore, increased state efforts are required to ensure the protection and well-representation of the tribal women.


It can be observed and interpreted that women, despite constituting half the population on this planet are heavily discriminated against. In the case of tribal women, there is an added disadvantage of belonging to a lower class which increases their vulnerability and chances of exploitation by tribal men, upper-class women and upper-class men. Therefore, there is a possibility of these women facing atrocities by almost all other sections of the society.

Although, various opinions around the tribal societies state that these are egalitarian communities, through the discussion in this paper, otherwise has been proven. The tribal communities itself are deeply embedded in this patriarchal societal framework despite being considered as distinct or differentiated from the mainstream.

Even though equality is provided to these tribal women in some aspects, true equality has not been achieved since all domains of life have not been covered. What is interesting to note is how all the issues discussed in this paper are the cause and effect for one another. The tribal women seem to be trapped in a vicious cycle, for example, the lack of inheritance rights also affects their livelihood and place their economic conditions at risk. Therefore, none of these problems are mutually exclusive, instead, they overlap and are highly interrelated.

A common characteristic that has been highlighted in all these problems is that even though a small proportion of policies are built for the protection of these tribal women, the main issue arises in their implementation. Therefore, the major concern is not the lack of policies but the poor implementation of those policies. This poor implementation is mainly resulting from the slow and gradual changes in the attitudes and opinions of the people about women and their status in the society. Therefore, a shift in ideas regarding women must take place for the improvement in the situation of tribal women.

Lastly, one must recognize the difficulty in including policies within the realm of the tribal societies. Being one of the first groups to be shot down by the fascist policies of national development, tribal groups have wished neither for their integration nor assimilation. These groups have demanded for their right to remain distant from the mainstream society. In such a case, the introduction of policies for their welfare needs to be designed and implemented in a critical fashion so as to ensure that the policies do not become burdensome and force tribal people to change or alter their cultures. As a result, measures must be taken carefully to evoke equality and principles of justice in these tribal societies so as to ensure the betterment of tribal women.


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Stuti Banga is a sociology and psychology student, with a keen interest in exploring the different concepts and facets of these two subjects and their intersecting areas. She is passionate about writing and researching on various topics related to sociological and psychological phenomena. She has undertaken on-field research and engaged in several volunteering programs. She wishes to inspire individuals through her work and bring a revolution in the study of social sciences in India.