Footwear leads to boycott of tribal girls
May 20, 2007 - 12:22:07 PM

Bhubaneswar, May 20 - They are the first group of girls from the Chakotia Bhunjia community in Orissa to wear chappals. They are also the first to appear for the high school examination. They also wear innerwear like petticoats and blouses, which is considered a taboo in this community.

Triveni and Chandini Chatria, Jayashree Jhankar and Laila Majhi dared to go against the customs of their tribe. They and their families have now been ostracised by their community, reports Grassroots Features.

'Till Class 6, I used to go to school wearing a sari without blouse, but then we had to switch to the school dress. I found wearing a sari in the classroom a very uncomfortable experience,' said Triveni.

'Our community does not allow girls to wear blouses and petticoats. We are not allowed to wear chappals either. The senior members of our community threatened us against breaking the rules but my parents supported me,' she added.

Triveni's father, Dhansing Chakotia, is an illiterate person with seven children. 'I always wished that my children should learn and do what we can't do in our life. Triveni is my youngest daughter. When she showed interest in studying, I decided to send her to the high school. Of course, it has cost me dearly. My family is not invited to any social function nor does anybody attend our functions, but I don't care,' said Chakotia.

Bhunjia is one of the primitive tribe in the Nuapada district. Around 519 families live on a 3,000-feet plateau in the Sunabeda sanctuary area. They depend on minor forest produce and shifting cultivation, living in sheer poverty.

Education is not encouraged among the Bhunjia people. The male literacy rate stands at 51.51 percent and the female literacy rate is just 18.27 percent. It was only a few years ago that some Chakotia Bhunjia boys appeared for the high school examination for the first time. 'Nowadays, girls are also being sent to school but they dropout after attaining puberty,' said Bhubaneswar Rout, an activist.

Chandini's mother Ratibai Chhatria got married at the age of 10. Before she knew it, she was the mother of four children. She has never stepped out of the village because the tribe's customs forbid it. The women are not even allowed to go to their parents' house after marriage. 'I accepted this as my fate but I am happy that my daughter is not in the same position. At least she has the courage to face the society and shape her life,' she said.

Initially, when these girls went to school wearing school dress and chappals, the entire village was against it. Gradually a few villagers started supporting them indirectly but may be due to the threat of ostracism they could not come to the forefront.

Jayshree Jhankar is firm on pursuing higher studies. 'I want to study further and become a teacher and I don't mind the ostracism. I may not be able to change their mindset but I am sure more girls would be inspired to study,' she said.

When Jayshree returned to the village after the HSC examination, she, along with the two other girls, was barred from interacting with other girls of the community.

Jayshree's parents were also summoned and asked to explain why they had defied the tribal customs. 'I tried to persuade them, but they remained firm so we decided to go our way,' said Bijay Jhankar.

For Laila Majhi, who joined the three girls this year, it was difficult to convince her own family members. For many days nobody spoke to her and as she wore chappals, she was not even allowed inside the kitchen. But she had the support of her mother, who eventually convinced the father. 'The immense courage shown by Jayashree, Triveni and Chandini has really encouraged me,' said Laila.

These families have already brought their ostracism to the notice of their elected representative, block development officer and collector but this has not yield any results.

Sunabeda's sarpanch Narad Singh Chhatria said, 'I understand that the society is changing but these customs are attached to our sentiments. As a sarpanch I am trying to convince the community that after marriage these girls will follow our customs, that is, they should neither go out of the village nor wear chappals and inner wears. But the head of our community has not responded yet'.

Chaitanya Jhankar, a senior member of the community, explained why the community is so furious with the girls and their families. 'We believe that the souls of our forefathers stay with us in our houses and they see everything. If we try to break any rules they will punish us. We cannot allow anybody to break our tradition.'

According to the collector, the Chakotia Bhunjia community is one of the oldest and meekest tribes in the Sunabeda wildlife sanctuary. They have been living in the forest for generations and are therefore unaware of the changes around them.

'Our officials are making them understand that they should work for the development of the community instead of following old customs, which keep them in darkness. But it will take time,' he says.

For its part, the state government is thinking of providing a bicycle each to all tribal girls who pass the high school examination and setting up a new residential school in each tribal district to increase the literacy rate among girls.

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