Over 1.5 million Gujjar tribal women and children live in utter deprivation in Jammu and Kashmir due to traditional neglect and lack of awareness about welfare schemes, says a tribal research group.
"These Gujjar women are not aware of the schemes launched by the government for their education and social uplift as they live in far-flung areas and are nomads moving from one place to another," notes Javed Rahi, secretary, Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation.
The foundation carries out studies on tribes and cultures and will shortly come out with a survey on the condition of Muslim Gujjars in Jammu and Kashmir.
Gujjars, a nomadic tribe, constitute as much as 20 percent of the state's population of about 12 million and mainly live on cattle rearing. In the summers they live in the higher reaches of the state, and come down to the plains in winter.
Rahi said the facilities provided to the women in this community were inadequate. "This can be understood from the fact that there is only one Government Gujjar Hostel for women in Jammu in the whole state for about 1.2 million Gujjar women."
The community also feels the pinch of insufficient educational opportunities for Gujjar girl students. Rahi said, "Only eight girl students could make it to the university this year for postgraduate studies."
Amina Choudhary, a Gujjar woman who graduated in science from Rajouri district, told IANS: "My father wanted her to get married at the age of 12 but then I wanted to study and persuaded him. I have graduated now and want to become a doctor. But my younger sister was married off at the age of 10."
The foundation reveals that very few girls from the Ajjhari and Manjhi sub-tribes of Gujjars were sent to school, and there is a very high dropout percentage due to compelling economic or domestic reasons and early marriages.
Rahi, citing the survey, said, "In comparison to women progressing in all fields, there is no Gujjar woman in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) since 1947, only two in the Kashmir Administrative Service, none in the state district office, none in the legislative assembly or council, none as a head of department, none in the staff of the Jammu or Kashmir universities, only six lawyers, one in the judicial services while three are doing their PhD."
According to the foundation, extreme poverty, child labour and early marriage are "pushing the future of Gujjar children into darkness".
Rahi said their survey had revealed that out of 100 Gujjar children in the age group of 7 to 15 years, about 75 are engaged in "physical labour". They are being exploited due to lack of resources and poverty, he said.
According to the survey, "the worst condition is of the children belonging to the Ajjhari Gujjar (shepherds) and Manjhi Gujjar (buffalo keepers) - 83 percent of whom have not seen school while 17 percent are getting an education in religious institutes."
A large number of these children are working as domestic helpers in the households of rich ones. "At least 17 percent Gujjar children inherit bonded labour from their forefathers."
Rahi also said that "early or even child marriage prevalent among the tribe was also one of the reasons for not being able to study and progress".
There are over 2.5 million Gujjars in the state, of whom about 1.2 million are women, 600,000 are children and the rest men. "Female Gujjars are more in number than men as their birth rate is high and mortality rate is low."