Dialogue  January - March, 2008 , Volume 9  No. 3

Women Self Help Groups (WSHGs) in Empowering Women in a Conflict Situation: in Nalbari (Assam)

Sanghamitra Choudhury*

There exists a multidimensional and reciprocal relationship between a women and an armed conflict situation. A worst effect of an armed conflict situation on women can be best seen in Nalbari. To suppress this conflict situation, women centric strategies can become an effective tool in the hands of state. States’ strategy of encouraging Women Self Help Groups (WSHGs) has a potential to address host of societal problems.

Conflict Situation in Nalbari: An Overview

Nalbari district1 of Assam is a home to indigenous populations like Bodos, Rabhas and Nepalis along with migrant tea garden workers and plain Assamese people. It has a long and devastating history of poverty and ethnic conflict. Presently, for over a decade it has been suffering from various types of low intensity conflicts like ethnic clashes, militant violence, counter-insurgency operations, extrajudicial killings by unidentified gunmen, political assassinations and criminal violence2. “These ‘low intensity’ conflicts frequently involve the creation of a state of terror to penetrate the fabric of grass roots social relations for entire populations, with social and cultural institutions and ways of life routinely targeted”3.

The three dreaded militant groups of Assam United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and Bodoland Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) have presence and areas of influence in this district. It is one of the dominant places from where many top United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) cadres have sprung up. Infact, the main training camps of ULFA are located in Samdrup Jhonkhar4, a district in southern Bhutan that finds way in Assam’s Nalbari district.

“Easy availability of lethal small arms in India’s north-east and Assam has lowered the threshold for armed violence within society to dangerous levels and has made human lives extremely cheap. Proliferation of small arms in Assam, which is inextricably intertwined with its multitude of ethnic insurgencies and militant movements, continues unabated”5. It is because of this reason that “most people here in Nalbari live in constant anxiety, in perpetual anticipation of trouble”, said Bibhuti Sarmah in the course of a focus-group interview. “It could be a threat or demand by militants; it could be fear of being unnecessarily harassed by the security forces or something as simple as someone not returning home on time. We live in constant fear because neither the militants nor the security forces would spare us if they could find half an excuse to trouble or torture us”6.

Nalbari is amongst the top three insurgency stricken districts of Assam. District-wise Fatality Index of Assam (2003) rates it next after Kokrajhar & Karbi Anglong7.

Apart from it international refugees and illegal immigrants like Lhotshampas (Bhutanese people of Nepali origin) in the northern Nalbari block of Tamulpur bordering Bhutan and Bangladeshi Muslims in the sour (river island) area of Barkhetri block of southern Nalbari district are changing the social demography on one hand and catalyzing the escalation of tensions on the other. At present, the synergic effect of poverty and social settings on one side coupled with its strategic location near Bhutan border and ease in availability of small arms on the other has become a great threat to the human security of the local inhabitants as well as for India’s national security and integrity.

Problems of Women of Nalbari in Conflict Situation

It is a well understood fact that prolonged militant movement brings misery for all. Women are the most vulnerable section of the society and in conflict situation they are subjected to enhanced family burdens & responsibilities. In Nalbari there is sharp increase in the number of widows due to frequent killings of next of kin by the unidentified gunmen, the militants and the security forces. The ease in availability of small arms and low frustration tolerance in a prevalent armed conflict situation is adding fuel to the fire. The armed conflict situation is also often used to settle personal scores8. Women victims of terrorist and conflict situation violence are being frequently deserted. They are forced to lead a life of a destitute with negative social stigma attached to them. Sometimes society itself drives such women out of the system to lead lives of sub human existence. More often vulnerable women in distress end up as beggars or prostitutes for their own survival and at times for survivals and maintenance of their dependent children9. Women ex-prisoners mainly with a past record of militancy find themselves at a receiving end. They lack basic support system. Family apathy, threat of their militant colleagues combined with inadequate skills and social support hinders their wish to positively contribute to the mainstream of development. Annual flood caused by river Pagladiya and Puthimari add further woes by making many migrant or refugee women homeless.

Assamese family as a social institution is well known for the emotional and physical support that it provides to its extended members but in case of Nalbari it seems to fail to respond to the needs of women. The main reasons are economic instability of the family, breakdown of joint family system, social bias against the marginalized women and the attitude and value attached to such distressed women. As a result, the trafficking networks in insurgency affected Assam is getting well established over the years. At present, women and girls from Assam especially from Nalbari are trafficked to the brothels of all over India for commercial sexual exploitation. There were many cases where women victims of sexual abuse and crimes, including those trafficked and rescued from brothels made the headlines of newspapers.

Girls from Nalbari are also trafficked into coerced marriages in Haryana and Punjab. They are brought mainly through the northern route by trains as well as trucks. Some percent are also brought first through the eastern route to Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand and then to Delhi and forward. While the maximum number of these girls are brought directly to Delhi some are absorbed in Bihar and West Bengal for time being or permanently. Apart from it, another mode of recruitment is through false marriage offers. The poor parents of the girls are persuaded, lured through false stories of riches and are offered money to give their daughters to a rich person in other state for marriage. Although Indian law declares, marrying a minor as a criminal offense, in Nalbari, girls as young as 11 are sold into marriage for petty sum of few hundred rupees. In cases where parents are unwilling or are hesitant, girls themselves are lured to come against the wishes of the parents. In Nalbari apart from trafficking of women, violence and crime against women and girl child, such as rape, murder, forceful kidnapping and abduction are very high and on rise10. As per the Haryana based non-governmental organization Shakti Vahini “TRAFFICKING IN INDIA REPORT-2004”, Nalbari women are increasingly taking up commercial sex.

The government is running a scheme named SWADHAR to help the distressed women in difficult circumstances. But the ironical part is that, not a single Nalbari based voluntary organisation’s name has featured in the Annexure-XXII: List of Voluntary Organisation who have received a Grant of Rs. 1 lakh and above from the Ministry of Women and Child Development during 2005-2006, under SWADHAR scheme11. It seems that in this regard, either the people participation is low or the procedural bottlenecks to get state assistance are cumbersome. However, at present realizing this problem, ministry of women and child department has taken some steps to educate and appraise the NGOs about the various welfare schemes run by the government through mass media, workshops and seminars. This responsible step of a government is commendable but much more need to be done.

An Approach for Diffusing a Sitting Bomb

Matrix of poverty and an armed conflict condition prevailing in Nalbari are reinforcing each other. Women are the biggest sufferers of the same. Conflict situation on one hand restricts their mobility; subjects them to enhanced responsibilities, fears and tortures. On other hand poverty compels them to work as prostitutes or for militants. The problem on one hand is social in nature while on the other it poses a threat to the integrity and security of the nation. There have been evidences that the money earned through this flesh trade business is being used in terrorist activities.

The problems faced by women of Nalbari are multi dimensional. Apart from treating it as a law and order problem, special attention should be given towards its socio-economic imperatives by integrating the ongoing welfare schemes. The socio-economic empowerment of women has the capability of arresting this situation. The best way of empowering women is to facilitate her economic independence. In this regard if, Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and all government institutions work in tendon, it can result in inculcating capacity building at the vulnerable grassroots’ level.

It is a well-understood fact that for every sustainable mass movement constant support of women is a must. The women have a big role in the genesis, sustenance and mitigation of an armed conflict. Under the prevailing conditions women centric strategy can become an effective tool in the hands of state in suppressing ill effects of conflict situation. States’ strategy of encouraging Women Self Help Groups (WSHGs) has a potential to address hosts of societal problems.

Strategy of Encouraging WSHGs: A Panacea for Conflict Torn Nalbari

The viable pragmatic solution to the above mentioned problems, it seems lies at present in encouraging the formation of Women Self Help Groups (WSHGs). Local NGOs can take the lead as a peace brokers by helping the women of Nalbari in organizing themselves in cohesive self-help groups. They can impart the vulnerable women with the adequate training for economically viable income generation activities like incense, candle, and soap making; mushroom cultivation; food processing and cattle farming. Finally they can facilitate the nascent SHG to become economically sustainable by helping it to get affordable micro-credit.

Success Stories of WSHGs: A Testimony in Itself

The success stories of WSHGs amply substantiate the silver lining that this strategy holds under this precarious situation.

The first success story is of women self-help group named Milijuli Atma Sahayak Gut (Milijuli in Assamese means “togetherness”) of Angardhua village in Dham Dhama block of Nalbari district. They are the group of 13 Assamese women, some of whom were Surrendered ULFA (SULFA). They belong to Hira12 (Potter) community. Initially each member pooled Rs. 20 per head per week for one year to start a tatsal13 to weave various Assamese wears including the local gamocha, which they sold during Bihu festival14. Later, in the year 2000, they got assistance of Rs.10.000/- (Rupees ten thousand only) from local Punjab National Bank (PNB) branch. They invested the money in tatsal and plastic chairs. The plastic chairs were rented at the rate of Rs. 2-3 per chair in local marriage parties, public meetings, get together etc. The money that they earn from this business is kept in the bank and is re-used for other developmental activities. They also allow the other women, who are not members of their SHG, to use the tatsal on rent basis. None of their member is even matriculate but encouragement from the government and their desire to become self sufficient has become a moving spirit. As per Phunu, President of Milijuli SHG, “Now we do not depend upon our husbands or in-laws for our two square meals”. It is noteworthy that in this regard all the members, who were once below poverty line, have now been uplifted. Moreover, its members have become a role model and they have become a nucleus of similar SHGs incorporating other women. Till date, they have facilitated the formation of more than 15 economically sustainable women SHGs. The SHG has been taking loans from different banks in succession for their development. The SHG has earned a goodwill reputation among banks, as it has never been a defaulter in payments of any of its installments.



                       (1)                                                                                                        (2)

           Researcher on left side with                                                                    Members of Milijuli SHG

         a member weaving a gamocha

The second success story is of Rangjali Aijw SHG (in Bodo language, Rangjali means dancer and Aijw means madam), which was founded by 15 Bodo women. Some of them were direct victims of conflict situation in the area of Barama block of Nalbari district. Some of them claim that their sons and husbands were killed in fake encounters. None of the members can speak fluent Assamese. Belshri recollect how on the eve of Bihu festival army people came and asked for her husband. As it was festival time, husband asked Belshri to provide them tea and pitha (regional delicacy). Her husband Phuren was beaten mercilessly by the army personnel. Next day, her husband died and whole burden of her family fell on her. They were marginal farmers and had to fight for even daily meals. However, after she joined the SHG the condition of her family is progressively improving. Initially, the SHG got loan from local Punjab National Bank. They invested the money in opening a piggery farm. Initially they purchased piglets worth Rs.500-600 each. They reared them and sold the pigs at Rs.1500-2000 each. Now they are rearing up the piglets on a co-operative basis. They are fighting for their betterment inspite of all odds, be it infrastructural, psychological or any other. Some of the members have also installed tatsal for additional earnings. They make Phali, Langa along with Dakhana15 and sell them in the local markets. Earlier some of the members used to sell the local products, vegetables, fishes in the far flung markets. But militancy has now restricted their social and economic mobility. At times their money and belongings are snatched. But even with these entire hazards they have achieved economic self independence through SHG. Belshri is happy that she is now in a position of buying new cloths for her children during festivals, which were a distant dream even when her husband was alive. The above mentioned group has felt the plight of women of their region. They easily accommodate more women in their SHG and are bringing joy and hope for many in despair. The SHG has helped its members to earn sustainable livelihood. At present it has paid all the loans that have been taken from various bank branches. It has been using its own savings for their development. Please see photo number 2 (A) and (B).





                                                  Women Rearing Piglets                                     Belshri widow of Phuren Narzari

The third success story is of Asomi Hasta Kala SHG of Nalbari. It is another women’s initiative that has come up with jute diversification technique. It has been formed in Malikuchi area of Nalbari. Asomi Hasta Kala was encouraged by the government and it has been participating in EXPO mela (fair) organized all over India. It generally prepares various items like tarja (mats), hand made fans etc, made of jute, cane and bamboo. The organization has incorporated the women who are directly or indirectly affected by the conflict situation. Many SULFA women have been successfully rehabilitated by this SHG. These women are now happily working with it with new identity and have been brought back into the mainstream of development. Some of the products of Asomi Hasta Kala are shown in photo number 3 (A) and (B)


                                       Asomi Hasta Kala,                                                         Products of Asomi Hasta Kala

Asha Darshan, a Nalbari based a non governmental organisation, has been doing a commendable job. They focus on community development in various vulnerable pockets of Nalbari. They provide education and facilitate the women victims of conflict situation in organising themselves in small and cohesive SHGs. They help the nascent SHG to get affordable credit. They also impart training for income generation activities like incense, candle, and soap making; mushroom cultivation; food processing and cattle farming. Since last three years they have been consistently giving vocational training to minimum of 500 women in a year. At present more than 100 SHGs are successfully working under this organization in Tamulpur and Kumarikata area of Nalbari district.

The success stories of women SHGs narrate the positive differences that have been brought in the lives of many in these real life settings. It has made the vulnerable section of society empowered and economically self sufficient. The SHG route has been reasonably successful. Many surrendered women militants, women family members of militants killed during encounters, widows, women rescued from traffickers etc have been suitably rehabilitated. Apart from providing basic livelihood and empowerment, this women centric strategy restricts the vulnerable women in falling prey to militants, traffickers and into prostitution. It also provides them a sense of positive self identity and a developed self, constructively and constantly contributing for the development of society and the nation.

Government special efforts in providing fast and economically viable microcredit to the trained and cohesive women SHGs facilitated by various NGOs can further accelerate the spread effects of happiness in this insurgency ridden district of Assam and elsewhere.


    1  The boundaries of the district for the study are taken before the formation of Baksa, Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD). Baksa BTAD was formed on 18 June 2004.

    2  Dasgupta, Anindita (2001), “Civilians and Localisation of Conflict in Assam”, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, 2 October 2004.

    3  Summerfield, Derek (2002) “Psychosocial Aspects in the Third World”, Caught in the Crossfire: The Effects of War on Civilian Health, Royal Society of Medicine Conference, 10 October 2002.

    4  Chhetri, Rakesh (1999) “Bhutan’s Geopolitics: Indian Militants & Security”, Kathmandu Post, Kathmandu, 27 August 1999.

        “In 1990, immediately after the first ever pro-human rights and democratic rallies in all southern districts of Bhutan, the government of Bhutan, invited the ULFA leaders to Bhutan. Under the Royal command, the Chief District Officer of Samdrup Jhonkhar district in eastern Bhutan coordinated a meeting between the ULFA leaders, representatives of the Ministry of Home and a few prominent citizens of eastern Bhutan. The meeting decided to allow the ULFA leaders to make their bases in Bhutan in return for their support in terrorizing and eventually evicting Lhotshampas (Bhutanese people of Nepali origin) from Bhutan. Since then ULFA leaders have been living in Bhutan. They have established 33 camps inside Bhutan. They were seen frequently traveling in Bhutan government vehicles”.

    5  Dasgupta, Anindita (2001), “Small Arms Proliferation in India’s Northeast: A case study of Assam”, [Online: web] Accessed 12 January 2007. URL: http://www.epw.org.in/showArticles.php?root=2001 &leaf=01&filename=2047&filetype=pdf.

    6  Dasgupta, Anindita (2002), “Nepal to Nalbari: A Response”, Himal South Asian, Kathmandu, August, 2002.

    7  “District-wise Fatality Index, Assam-2003”, [Online: web] Accessed 20 December 2006. URL: http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/states/assam/data_sheets/districtwise_cas2003.htm

    8  Dasgupta, Anindita (2001), “Civilians and Localisation of Conflict in Assam”, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, 2 October 2004.

    9  Shakti Vahini (2004), TRAFFICKING IN INDIA REPORT-2004, [Online: web] Accessed 12 January 2007. URL: http://www.shaktivahini.org/traffickingreport.pdf

  10  Shakti Vahini (2004), TRAFFICKING IN INDIA REPORT-2004, [Online: web] Accessed 12 January 2007. URL: http://www.shaktivahini.org/traffickingreport.pdf

  11  Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India (2006), Annexure-XXII: List of Voluntary Organisation who have received a Grant of Rs. 1 lakh and above from the Ministry of Women and Child Development during 2005-2006, [Online: web] Accessed 12 January 2007. URL: http://www.wcd.nic.in/an/2006/Annex-22.pdf

  12  Hiras were traditional artisans who made different household utensils out of clay. Hirapara village is well known for traditional kitchen items like ghat (pot), choru (traditional cooking unit), chaki (earthen lamp) etc.

  13  Weaving machine.( Please see photo & 1)

  14  Bohag Bihu or the festival of merriment celebrated in the month of Bohag (Baishak, the middle of April) marks the New Year at the advent of seeding time. Kati Bihu or the festival of poor –marks the completion of sowing and transplanting of paddies. Maagh Bihu or the festival of food celebrated in the month of Maagh (in mid January), marks the end of harvesting period.

  15  Bodo traditional dress of women.


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