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Status of Tribal Women an Indian Perspective

Aradhana Goswami
Junior Research Fellow(Social Work)
University Of Lucknow

Many a social scientist has observed that women of the lower strata of society play important socio-economic roles in the family. They
therefore enjoy a better status in their societies than women belonging to the upper strata. There is thus a tendency to romanticise the
position of tribal women. Some scholars hold that primitive societies like tribes give a high status to women, but others oppose.
According to Sachchidananda, it is almost impossible to show womens roles and status in a single statement. In the tribal world of
India we also meet the same difficulty. He goes on to say that womens roles and status all over the world are generally determined by
social institutions and norms, religious ideologies, eco-systems and class positions. Being such a vast and varied country, India
contains conditions, which widely differ across geographic, climatic, ethnic, linguistic, religious, ecological and occupational lines. An
attempt is made here to give an overview of status of tribal women in present sanario.
The tribal population is an essential part of Indias social structure and has the second largest concentration after that of the
African continent. It is more than the total population of France and Britain and four times that of Australia. The population of tribal
communities scheduled in the Constitution of India and known as Scheduled Tribes (STs) was 8.43 crore (1crore = 10
million) as per 2001 census and accounts for 8.2% of the total population. 4.26 crores are man and 4.17 crores are women,
accounting for 8.01% and 8.40% respectively. They are spread over all the states/UTs, except Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and the
UTs of Pondicherry and Chandigarh. Tribal have traditionally lived in about 15% of the countrys geographical areas, mainly
forests, hills and undulating inaccessible terrain in plateau areas, rich in natural resources. They have lived as isolated
entities for centuries, largely untouched by the society around them. This isolation has been responsible for the slower
growth, dissimilar pattern of their socio-economic and cultural development and inability to negotiate and cope with
the consequences of their involuntary integration into mainstream society and economy. Tribal continue to be socio-
economically backward.
The status of women in a society is a significant reflection of the level of social justice in that society. Womens status is
often described in terms of their level of income, employment, education, health and fertility as well as their roles within the
family, the community and society. In tribal communities, the role of women is substantial and crucial. They constitute
about half the total population but in tribal society women are more important than in other social groups, because they work harder
and the family economy and management depends on them. Even after industrialization and the resultant
commercialization swamped the tribal economy, women continued to play a significant role. Collection of minor forest
produce is done mostly by women and children. Many also work as labourers in industries, households and construction,
contributing to their family income. Despite exploitation by contractors and managers, tribals are more sincere and honest than non-
tribal. However, tribal women face problems and challenges in getting a sustainable livelihood and a decent life due
to environmental degradation and the interference of outsiders. The strategy for tribal development, and specially women,
needs improvement, betterment, development and upliftment to effect their empowerment. Tribal women have adjusted
themselves to live a traditional life style in the local environment and follow occupations based on natural resources.
Undoubtedly, the programmes, oriented towards the empowerment of tribal, particularly women, have improved their socio-
economic conditions and status. However, there are wide variations across regions and tribes in terms of work participation,
sex ratio, economic productivity and social life. The impact of development planning needs to be evaluated in
terms of desired and unanticipated consequences.The development process should be perceived as an involvement and
reorganization mechanism of not only the socio-economic system but the entire eco-system. Against this backdrop, the present paper
reviews the emerging perspective in the context of the socio-economic

Status of Tribal Women in India: Health, Education and Employment

The status of any social group is determined importantly by its levels of health nutrition, literacy-education and employment-income. The
tribal women, constitute as in any other social group, about half of the total population. However, the importance of women in the tribal

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society is more important than in other social groups in India, because of the fact that the tribal women, more than woman in any other
social group, works harder and the family economy and management depends on her.

Health status of tribal women

Healthcare is a major problem in far flung isolated tribal areas. Lack of food security, sanitation, and safe drinking water, poor nutrition and
high poverty levels aggravate their poor health status. The problem of malnutrition is multidimensional and intergenerational. Health
institutions are few and far between. Till recently, an abundance of fruits, tubers, roots and leaves in forests on the one hand and indigenous
health-care systems on the other, contributed positively to tribal health. Tribal people have over the centuries developed their own medicinal
system based on herbs and other items collected from nature and processed locally. They have their own system of diagnosis and cure. But
the skills and natural resources are fast disappearing. Moreover, the traditional systems can not treat or prevent many diseases that modern
medicine can. Some health indicators of tribal, SCs and others (per thousand persons) are given below to establish their poor state of health:

Health Indicators

Infant mortality Rate Under 5 mortality Rate Rate under nutration
SC 83.0 119.3 535
ST 84.2 126.6 559
ALL 70.0 94.9 470
Source: Bulletin on Rural Health Statistics in India, 2005. Ministry of health and Family welfare.

A comprehensive review of the health status of tribal women has been prepared by Basu (1993, this volume). His paper discusses, inter alia,
the following dimensions: sex ratio, age at marriage, fertility and mortality, life expectancy, nutritional status, maternal mortality, mother
and child health care practices, family welfare programmes and sexually transmitted diseases. The main conclusions of the paper are:
higher infant mortality rate in the tribal compared to the national average,
low nutritional status of the tribal.
lower life-expectancy in the tribal than the national average,
high incidence of Sickle Cell disease (HBss) and Glucose-to-Phosphate Enzyme Deficiency (G-6-80) in some tribal
higher fertility rate in tribal women compared to the national women compared to the national average. (Basu S.,
1993, Social Change, this issue)

The health status of the tribal have been discussed in Status of the Tribal in India, (Social Change,1993, Vol.23 Nos. 2&3). The factors
which influence the health status of the tribal population in general, are also applicable to the tribal women, in fact, more so. For example, it
has been found that illiteracy, in tribal, as also in non-tribal population, is positively correlated with ill-health. The tribal women, as women
in all social groups, are more illiterate than men. The tribal women share, with women of other social groups, problems related to
reproductive health.

Educational status of tribal women

mortality Rate
Under 5
mortality Rate
Rate under

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Tribal women play a significant role in the economic development of tribal as they contribute in various economic activities and education
is one of them. Education is a crucial requirement for the sustained growth of a developing society and lack of it is largely responsible for
the exploitation and pitiable plight of the tribal. The literacy rate of tribal was 8.53 in 1961 and steadily increased to 47.10 in 2001, yet it is
far below the national rate of 64.84 (2001 census).

Literacy rates of Scheduled Tribe Persons (Sex-wise) All India

Year Schedule Tribe

Male Female Person
1961 13.37 2.90 8.16
1971 16.92 4.36 10.68
1981 22.94 6.81 14.92
1991 38.45 16.02 27.38
2001 57.39 32.44 45.02
2009-10 70.7 52.1 61.6
Sources: GOI, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Selected Educational Statistics 2004-05 and NSSO.

Employment status of tribal women-

A very large majority of the tribal (almost 90%) are engaged in agriculture; their other economic activities being food gathering (including
hunting and fishing), pastoral, handicrafts, trade and commerce, and industrial labour. Rarely are they engaged in only one occupation. The
employment status of tribal women may be considered in terms of their work participation, agriculture, forests, non-agricultural activities
and impact of development programmes.

Impact of Development programmes-

The impact of development programmes has been different on different sections of tribal women. A small number of tribal women have
taken advantage of education, new opportunities for employment and self-fulfilment. In a sericulture project for tribal women in Udaipur
(Brandon & Dixit, 1983) a remarkable change in the quality of life of the tribal women was reported. Besides economic benefits they had
more leisure, self reliance, innovativeness, adaptability and a more aware social outlook.

However, there have been negative effects of development Programmes also, such as:
the workload of women has increased,
with modem agricultural implements, unemployment of women has increased and they have been migrating to other areas as
restrictions regarding exploitation of forests has marginalised women,

exploitation of women in various ways:

with introduction of Rural Land Ceiling Act, Tribal Land Transfer Act, etc., the non-tribal men often marry tribal women to
purchase land from tribal poor to avoid legal complications, or derive financial benefits received from Govt. but deny tribal
women their position as wives;
1961 1971 1981 1991 2001 2009-10

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lands are taken away by mine owners in the name of development and no land is given in lieu of it nor is any rehabilitation
programme sponsored; when vacancies occur, jobs are given to men folk who are inheritors/owners of land;
women are prohibited from working in nationalised mines in evening and night shifts; they are permitted in private mines but
these dont employ women to avoid maternity benefits, equal remuneration, rest shelters and creches;
indirect retrenchment is done by introducing voluntary retirement programme for women : a woman may retire after 36 years and
offer her job to any male member who continues with her Provident Fund number and gets all her PF benefits
tribal women are used for immoral trafficking in collieries and mines and by labour contractors;
women labourers (rejas) are exploited socially and sexually. Almost half of them are unmarried and parents do not get them
married fearing loss of substantial income. On the other hand, tribal men prefer to marry non-rejas and even wires are deserted
for doing this job.


The overall picture of the tribal woman that emerges from the existing materials has the following features:
The literature on tribal women is substantially romantic and grim economic realities have been completely ignored.
The tribal woman is a working women and works harder than tribal men and women in any of the social groups.
The tribal woman is illiterate.
The tribal woman is not healthy;
There is high fertility and greater incidence of malnutrition among them.


Tribal women are working women almost without any exception. Working women in all social groups work harder than men. This is more
so for the tribal women. Women play a major role in the co-management of their natural, social, economic resources and agricultural
development including crop production, livestock production, horticulture and post crop operations but they remain backward due to
traditional values, illiteracy, superstitions, dominant roles in decision-making, social evils and many other cultural factors.
They are over worked : they rise in the morning and go to the forest to collect fuel, fetch water, help in agricultural activities, cook for the
family, look after the children, do the washing etc. They are lower paid than men. They have been adversely affected to deforestation and
development projects .New strategies have been devised to remove women from work. Non-tribal men are marrying tribal women to get
land/jobs. They are sexually exploited by non-tribal men. Even today in most parts of the country, the tribal women remains steeped in
superstitions and ignorance with men presiding over their destiny.
Their rights should be equal to men. It makes them to find the right way to development. The main aim of empowering is to
change the cultural norms and patterns of life of tribal women to make them economically independent, to organise themselves to form
strong groups so as to analyse their situations and conditions of living, understand their rights and responsibilities and to enable them to
participate and contribute to the development of women and the entire society.
The fact remains that a large number of tribal women in rural areas might have missed opportunities at different stages and in
order to empower them varieties of skill training programmes have to be designed and organised. The skill could be for assuming political
leadership or for economic self-reliance or even social transformation.


Census of India 2001, Government of India, Part III, NSS 61
Round Survey Report, 2004-05, P.24.
Dashora, Rakesh and Sharma, Anushree (2002),Role of Tribal Women in Agriculture: A Study of TSP Region
of Rajasthan, The Indian Journal of Commerce, Vol. 55,
Joseph, Vinod (2003), Tribal Development during the Five Year Plans, Kurukshetra, Vol. 51, NO. 8, pp. 23-
Panda, Nishakar (2006), Tribal Development: Imperatives and Compulsions, Orissa Review, December,
pp. 37-42.
Sharma, S.P. and Mittal, A.C. 1998), The Tribal Women in India, Vol. 2, Radha Publications, New

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Singh, A.K(1993). Tribes and tribal life.Vol.3.Approaches to development in tribal context. New Delhi : Sarup & Sons.
Sachchidananda, 1979, The Changing Munda, Concept Publishing House, New Delhi.

The National Tribal Policy Draft, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Govt. of India