In matrilineal Meghalaya, Theilin Phanbuh plays a crucial role in the lives of women around her. As head of Ka Lympung Seng Kynthei, the apex body of traditional women’s organisations, she puts drunken husbands and wife beaters on the mat, and resolves property disputes and social issues.
The panel of each Seng Kynthei is elected every two years in what is sometimes called ‘gendered democracy’ — of the women, by the women, for the women. However, it reports to the age-old, male-dominated Khasi Dorbar.
Although Phanbuh and others are yet to break this tradition, they have, after years of protesting, scored a first. Last month the Meghalaya government gave in and overhauled a bureaucratic tradition. It made the State Women’s Commission (SWC) panel-selection entirely the prerogative of women’s organisations.
Like other states, Meghalaya followed the standard procedure for selecting members of the SWC. The Social Welfare Department could only nominate representatives for the government to screen and appoint. This has now changed.
"On April 18, the government accepted the long-standing demand that scouting and screening nominations for the SWC panel be the prerogative of all women’s groups in Meghalaya," said Hasina Kharbih, former vice-chairperson, SWC.
"Meghalaya has set the ball rolling for the commission to be independent, transparent and proactive."
Phanbuh said the move would do away with political interference. "Given that the government will be bound by the nominations given by women’s organisations, politics and officials will have to take a back seat," she said.
Agnes Kharshing, who heads a women’s NGO, said, "A panel selected by women who represent various ethnic and socio-economic groups will have a better understanding of gender-specific issues than a cosmetic one chosen by the government. We will still have to fight for our rights, but the good news is that those who will take up issues will be from among us," she said.
It was in 2003 that various groups submitted a charter to the government for a ‘women-only’ approach to setting up the SWC. The demand had no takers in the government, which, a year later, announced the appointment of Biloris Lyndem as chairperson. Lyndem’s three-year term ended last November. Owing to a standoff with women’s organisations, the government deferred the process of nominating a new panel.
But women prevailed. "The demand was genuine and we accepted it. We have always believed that only women should have a role to play in the SWC and everything associated with it," said the state’s deputy chief minister Hoping Stone Lyngdoh.
The first step is to form the committee that will submit names to be short-listed for the panel. Apart from work experience at the grassroots level, the nominated women must have legal and political knowledge. Not an easy task, but nothing will deter these women.