Domestic Violence in Uttarakhand + Introduction of Women-Led Ecotourism
Uttarakhand, the Northern Himalayan state of India, is one of the worst-performing states regarding domestic violence against women. As per the survey undertaken by the Uttarakhand State Commission for Women, every second woman in the state is a victim of some form of domestic violence, primarily spousal violence. And to make it worse, the menace of domestic violence is so deeply entrenched and widely prevalent in the state that most people justify it, women included.
Given the widespread acceptance of domestic violence, it is not surprising that women do little to seek help. Most domestic violence cases are grossly under-reported. The reasons range from social embarrassment, financial dependency, fear of retaliation, victim-shaming to following a complicated bureaucratic procedure.
But, the hills of the tiny, remote village of Sarmoli in Munsiyari of Uttarakhand witnessed a quiet revolution three decades ago when Malika Virdi, an intrepid mountaineer and social activist, left Delhi to settle in the village of Sarmoli in 1992 along with her husband and two-year-old son. Fighting for the rights of the women of these remote villages and training them for alternative sources of income became her life mission. Early on, Virdi realised that the main reasons behind domestic violence were alcoholism, patriarchy, and poverty. And, the only way to defeat these social evils was through creating awareness about women’s rights and making women financially independent.
The Birth of Matti Sangathan
In 1994, a group of women came together to protest against rampant alcoholism that led to severe domestic violence cases. Malika and a few others came together, held meetings in several villages and mobilised approximately 1000 women to put forward a memorandum to the Sub Divisional Magistrate asking for alcohol to be banned. This protest seeded the sapling of ‘Matti Sangathan’ (women Collective) germinated. Matti became a place where women formed a “dukh-Sukh ka Rishta” (relationship of sorrow-joy) where they would meet, talk, and share their joys and sorrows. Slowly women started realising their rights and began opposing gender violence.
Photo Cred: Rekha Rautela
Creating a Livelihood
However, creating awareness among women for their rights was just a small win for a long-drawn battle. Recognising that village women won’t be allowed to move out of their homes and participate in the collective activities unless there are efforts to provide livelihood support, the founders of Maati started creating opportunities by which they could earn. They began by looking for inherent skills that could be turned into livelihood sources.
Until 1960 Munsiyari had strong trade ties with Tibet. Men, especially the Bhutia community men, would travel to the land of monks for months and in their absence, the women in the household would weave and knit. Products such as carpets, rugs, blankets, and sweaters would be handmade in every home and later sold at a premium in Tibet. But after the 1960 war with China, this trade route ceased to exist. While the market for hand-woven products vanished, the women didn’t stop knitting and weaving. Mallika and the team revived this skill and supported women in two ways. One by offering marketing support to the village women and second by training them to create more unique designs. They motivated the women to use the local flora and fauna elements in their designs, making their products stand out from the rest of the regions. Regular workshops were organised to scale up the production and sale to a more extensive consumer base both in India and abroad. Mahila Haat (women market) started happening every fortnight where women could come and sell their produce from the fields, homemade snacks, and woolen products.
Launch of a Homestay Program
In the year 2004 Himalayan Ark Homestay programme was launched, under which the people of Sarmoli opened their homes to tourists. From simple mountain women, these women transformed into Entrepreneurs of Munsiyari. The unique thing about this program was that when tourists visited the village to stay with the locals, they were not treated like strangers but like family members. As Malika says, the relationship forged was of a ‘Mehman (guest), not a client.’ The guests are encouraged to travel slow and take time to feel the place and people around. The homestay experience would make guests pause and understand the region from local’s eyes. As a result, the experiences became richer by the day – food trails and expeditions about regional cuisines, participation in day-to-day jobs such as fieldwork, trying their hand at traditional wool work or simply listening to the age-old tales. The village women with excellent knowledge of flora and fauna became guides and naturalists. Munsiyari is internationally renowned for its biodiversity and 325 bird species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Three generations of women that run the homestay
Using its natural resources, the Himalayan Ark Homestay programme created a mix of itineraries for its guests – ranging from a walk around the chestnut trees to trekking in the alpine region ranging from an altitude of 8000 ft to 12400 feet. Customised birding trips, boutique expeditions, and cultural immersions were explicitly tailored to the needs of the visitors. 95% of the money earned through this enterprise stayed in the village. Every year Munsiyari organises an annual festival called Himal Kalasutra, where locals and guests from around the globe come together every summer to run challenging marathons and participate in workshops around yoga and birdwatching.
Van Panchayat and Sustainable Development
The best part about Matti Sangathan was that not only it provided livelihood to the locals, but it also played an active role in the sustainable development of the region that is highly vulnerable to climate change. This women-led enterprise was started in 2004 through village Forest Commons known as Van Panchayats. At that time, nature-based and community-centered tourism were seen as non-existential. Malika and her team have shown how tourism, when conducted responsibly can be a good, and non-extractive livelihood option for rural folks.