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Char is a word that attracts instant attraction in Assamese mainstream life for all wrong reasons. They are river islands of the Brahmaputra populated by mostly Muslims of East Bengali descent for more than a century. The islands are overpopulated and devoid of all basic amenities of modern life. The inhabitants of Chars are dubbed as ‘foreigners’ or ‘Bangladeshis’ by the Assamese mainstream and their society is determined on strict Islamist principles by powerful land owners with criminal backgrounds and political backings. Amidst the daily struggle of survival in the geographically most hostile terrain, the women in Chars of the Brahmaputra endure additional burden both from the society within and from the state as well since various programmes and initiatives for their empowerment, health, nutrition, education and financial reliance do not reach these areas. This article is about the condition of women and about the Millennium Development Goals in Char  areas of Assam, a study conducted in seven districts of Assam—Barpeta, Dhubri, Marigaon, Nagon, Darrang, Lakhimpur and Dhmeaji.

Char and Chapori are colloquial Assamese words for river-islands or mid-channel bars. Chars are variously defined but are probably best understood as low lying flood and erosion prone areas in or adjacent to major rivers. A distinction can be made between island Chars, which are surrounded by water for most of the year and mainland Chars which are surrounded by water during flood seasons but for most of the year are approachable without the use of boat. The Chars depend mostly on the whims of the current of the river. The life span of some Chars is short, while some are relatively long. In this sense the Char may be permanent or semi-permanent or quite temporary by nature.

The Chars are the most remote and socio-culturally and economically most backward areas of the state. (Bhagawati, 2005). Up to 1980 the Chars were almost totally cut off from the mainland of Assam. This area of the state has badly suffered from lack of transport and communication facilities. This has resulted in a near-static socio-cultural environment in the Char areas. The Government of Assam in 1983 has established “Assam State Char Areas Development Authority” to work for overall improvement of the life and living of the Char-dwellers. Later on it was upgraded to a full-fledged Directorate in 1996. The Directorate has implemented various development schemes under ‘Special Areas Programme’. The Government has brought out a report in 2002-03 based on a survey carried out by the Directorate of Char Area Development of Assam which has identified Char villages (villages on sand bars over the bed and the banks of the Brahmaputra), the distribution of population and other socio-economic Characteristics of the Char areas.

Assam has 2,251 Char villages. Most of the Char lands are temporary in nature, often prone to severe flood and frequent erosion, as their formation depends on the shifting courses of the Brahmaputra. This implies impermanent, volatile existences for the people living in these areas. Char population comprises nearly 8% of the total population in Assam, with a huge 67.88% among them being below poverty line.

Earlier studies conducted in Char areas of the Brahmaputra valley found low literacy and high poverty rate among its people (Ahmed, 2005). High growth rate of population, lack of communication, drinking water, medical facilities are some other problems suffered by the Char people from long years back. Factors like illiteracy, lack of availability of birth control measures, early marriage, religious and social attitude, polygamy, group politics which are equally responsible for high growth rate of population in the Char areas. False notion regarding birth, superstition, tradition and customs, social factors, poverty and natural environments etc. are responsible factors influencing high birth rate and over population in Char areas (Rahman, 2005).

The economy of the Char- dweller is agro-based which is very extensive. Food grains and vegetables are grown during winter in Chars which earned subsistence in spite of adverse effect of flood on agricultural activities during summer. According to Goswami, (1994) the Char dwellers have contributed to the improvement of the firming practices in Assam and developed the whole agricultural system in the state.  The introduction of jute as commercial crops in Assam has largely been due to the Char dwellers.

These earlier studies suggest that agricultural development, poverty reduction, food security, improvement of health, education, safe drinking water, sanitation, energy, secured shelter, transport and communication are important and crucial subset of sustainable development in the Char areas of Assam in general. Women in particular in these areas face unique problems and challenges amidst the prevailing disparities.

Every year thousands of people are rendered homeless and their agriculture lands are damaged due to flood and erosion in Chars of Assam. The land tenure system thus is critical in these areas as erosion of the Char areas and their re-emergence continuously creates problem. Appearance of new Char in the middle of the river is a regular feature of the Brahmaputra making the land revenue system difficult in these areas. It also displaces the inhabitants of the Chars almost every year forcing the population to shift with all their belongings. Thus the Chars in Assam contribute highest Internally Displaced Population of the state. Women suffer most in this forced displacement due to natural causes in Chars of Brahmaputra in Assam.

The number 4 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is quality education. The UN-Women estimate that women account 60% of world illiterate population. For success of SDGs it calls for availability of education for all girls and boys, men and women across their lifetimes and terms it core pre-requisite for gender equality and women’s rights.

The status of women in a society is highly determined by the education and literacy they have. In the Chars of the Brahmaputra in Assam, the literacy and educational scenario in general and that of women in particular is dismal. A survey conducted by the Directorate of Char Areas Development (DCAD), Govt. of Assam in 2002-03 shows that about 81% of the males and 92% of females in Chars of the state are illiterate.

In Dhubri district of western Assam, the educational status of Char women is very poor. In the Chars like Airmari, Aminer Char, Katiyar Alga, Moinakandi, Dharabandha, Bangshir Char, Khedaimari the educational fecilities for women and girl are non-existent. Baladuba, a village under Golokganj Revenue Circle of Gauripur Development Block is a perfect example of this. Here only 0.7% of the female has studied up to the 10th standard as against 3.9% male. Significantly all the respondents interviewed in these areas expressed their unwillingness to study beyond the 10th standard. The dropout of girl students is also alarmingly high in these Char areas where 88.2% of the girls discontinue their education in the high school level. The district has 14.6% of literacy in Char areas as per 2002-03 survey by DCAD.

In Barpeta district, which has highest numbers of permanent and semi-permanent Chars the educational status of Char women has no difference. The Chars belong to five (Mondia, Keotkuchi, Chenga, Goma  and Rupshi) out of twelve rural development blocks of the district 469 (26.8%) of the women interviewed (1750) are found to be literate. Among them 43.4 % are of primary level, 32.8% of high school level and only 15.2% are in graduate and post graduate level. The district has 12.34% of literacy in Char areas as per 2002-03 survey by DCAD. Apart from large Chars like Moinbori, Bohori, Baghbor etc. which has accessibility and some infrastructures like schools, health centres and other state establishments, there are many remote Chars in Brapeta district which are still devoid of all modern amenities. The Alipur Char, Rasoolpur Char and Kawoimari Char under Govindpur Gaon Panchayat in Mandia Rural Development Block do not have any road, water ways ghat, electricity, primary school and health sub-centres. The only state service available is some Angawadi centres in these Chars. Same is the case in Chars of Sonapur, Sidhani, Kandapara, Sayedpur, Mominpur, Dharmapur, Islampur and villages of No 3 Baghmara N C, No 4 Bagamara N C, Mowamari, Chapari Gaon, Chapari Pathar, Kalpani N C, Kalgachi, Ujirar Char, Mowkhowa Char N C, Tekla Chuti, Matha Ranga of Kopahtoli Char under Baghbar Rural Development Block there are no educational facilities. Here girls are raised only to be married after their puberty. Some of them are sent to Madrassas where only teachings of recitation and memorization of Quran is taight with strict Islamic dress code.

Darang district in north-central Assam is known for its Chars where huge amount of crops are produced and supplied across the state and many places of North East, mostly to Arunachal Pradesh. But despite the bumper products of agriculture and its allied products, the Char areas of Darrang district are still devoid of development though situated not far from the district headquarter Mangaldoi. The literacy rate of Char areas of Darrang district is 12.34% (2002-03 survey by DCAD). In Phuhuratoli, Borbari, Dariapara, Kaniatari, Ghatarag, Banglapota Mowamari, AlgaChar and Dhalpur Chars under Sipajhar Rural Development Block there is only 4 high schools and 1 HS Schools. In Atakata Chapori, BadliChar, Gadhowa Chapori, Garapari Chapori, KashiChar and KasomariChar no educational facilities are there. Literacy rate among women of these areas is  34.3%.

Morigaon district in south-central Assam has the dubious distinction of most erosion affected riverine areas of the state. The Brahmaputra in last quarter of the century has eroded 10256.93 hectares of land with 64 revenue villages in three revenue circles of the district, namely Bhuragaon, Lahorighat and Mayong (Source: Circle office of District Revenue Deptt., Morigaon, 2001). The Chars of Morigaon district are scattered around Bhuragaon and Lahorighat areas which include Gariamari, Sunarigaon, Sitalmari, Dhekermari, Neetmari, Jhaogar, Kahitoli, Borigaon, Sialmari, Harangtoli, Rowmari and Dhumkara. The literacy rate of the Char areas of Morigaon is 18.5% (2002-03, DCAC). Educational deprivation is prominent in the sample population of the studied Char areas where female illiteracy rate is 12.5%. Not more than 1% of the sample population is found to have managerial, technical or post-graduate qualification.

The literacy rate of Char areas of Nagaon district is 17.59% (DCAD, 2002-03). Educational deprivation is prominent in the Char population of the district. More than 70% of the surveyed women is illiterate while 32% of them of these areas has the educational attainment only up to the primary level. The middle level of education is completed by about 17.8% and 9% per cent of the females have completed matriculation level of education. After matriculation, the enrollment rate in higher classes was found to be poorer in these Char areas of Nagaon district like Bhurbandha, Gakhirkhaiti, Katiachapari, Jawani, Bogamukh, Sani Tapu and Kandhulimari.

Sonitpur district in north Assam has a literacy rate of 16.93% (2002-03, DCAC) in its Char areas Bhojmari, Mirihola, Katarati, Makuwa Chapori, Tenga Basti, Chatai Chapori, Bogoriati, Jahajdoba, Salmari, Singimari, Goroimari and Baghmari. Though most of the Char areas of Sonitpur district are not far from the administrative headquarters of sub-division or other centres, education among its dwellers is very low. Only 9% of the surveyed women found to be literate and only 0.5% of them have completed their education up to matriculation.

Dhemaji district on the north-eastern part of Assam has comparatively small Char areas of the Brahmaputra. The largest concentration of Char dwellers in the district is found in Kobu Chapori on the confluence of Lohit and Siang where almost all basic amenities for life are unavailable. The literacy rate among the Char people in the district is 15.69% (2002-03, DCAC) However the female literacy rate is dismal 4% in the surveyed area. None of the women interviewed have gone to the high school level of education as the Char does not have any high school.

In neighbouring Lakhimpur district the literacy in Char area is 18.5% (2002-03, DCAC) where the female literacy rate in the surveyed areas is 12%. Availability of one high school and a college nearby has contributed of having 7% of its females completing the matriculation and 1.7% studying at intermediate classes.

Good health  and  well-being is the number three priority of the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN-Women on SDGs says fulfilling the right to health requires health systems to become fully responsive to women and girls, offering higher quality, more comprehensive and readily accessible services. It asks societies at large to end practices that critically endanger women’s health and well-being. UN Women advances women’s well-being and health by working with governments to improve the provision of health services for women and girls, backing nongovernmental partners in filling gaps.

The public health system in the Char areas of Assam is also non-existent and its people are unaware of the community measures to be taken for healthy living. Anaemia is very prevalent among Char women in Assam. Most of them drink contaminated water, take contaminated food, walk bare footed on damp soil containing hook worm larvae and spend most of the time in unclean and unhygienic environment. Moreover, almost all people of the Char areas go for open defecation.

In Dhubri district the status of health services in Char areas is very pathetic. It has Primary Health Centres in Bhogdahor Char, Boraibari Char, riverine PHCs in Airkata, Birshing pt-1 , Katlamari, MahamayaChar, Nayaralga, Masaneralga and at Geramari (MPHC) and Kachokhana (SD). But they are too far from the villages scattered in remote Chars to extend medical and health care services on time. The present study indicates that 92.2% of the deliveries of the Char mother are taking place at home. Only 9.7% of the women from the Chars, are giving birth to their child in Government hospitals with a negligible 1 per cent in private hospitals.

Regarding assistance in delivery of child the respondents were found relying more on the untrained dhai (58.9%). The percentage of delivery under the supervision of the doctors or trained midwife is not encouraging in Dhubri district’s Char areas.

In Barpeta district there are PHCs in Baghbar and Alopati Chars and one riverine PHC at Baghmara Char unable to cater health crae demands of thousands of people living in faraway villages in Chars of the Brahmaputra. In Drrang district there are only two PHCs in its Char areas, namely Magurmari and Arimari. Morigaon district has two PHCs in Kathani Char and Ulubari Char and one SD at Sialmari and Nagaon (riverine) and Sonotpur districts have one PHC each in Kandhulimari and in Kumalia Chapori. In the Chars of Lakhimpur and Dhemaji district, there are no health centres.  The study indicates that in most of the cases deliveries in Char areas of the district are taking place at home. This trend is in conformity with the findings of the NFHS 3 (2005-2006). In the case of sample families home delivery is found to be above the national average of 51.3%. As such dependency on untrained dhais is evident from the study. Similarly very few women were seen to receive pre and post natal care. The benefits of the ICDS scheme are found to be utterly insignificant. People also feel that the benefits of the ICDS have remained inaccessible to to the inhospitable terrain of the Chars as only a few are benefiting from the scheme.

In Darrang Char areas there PHCs in Chereng Chapari, Saihar Char, Nangli Char (Non-functioning), Bherpori Char, Rowmari Char and in Badli Char.   The study reflects that Char women have less access to government and institutional facilities for delivery of child. Just about 12% Char women use government facilities for delivery in Darrang district. More than 86% Char women deliver their babies at home assisted by untrained dhais. The percentage of Char women (44.4%) receive pre and post natal care is also very low in the district.

Mariogaon district does not have any riverine health services despite having number of Char areas. Only places like Jengpori BaliChar, Dolonghat, Majorbori, Kolmoubari, Boralimari, Sialmari, Goroimari, Falihamari and Lengribori has some health centres like sub-PHCs. In most of the PHCs of the Char areas of Marigaon district the assigned medical and health officer is an Ayurvedic doctor. The present study indicates that 79% of deliveries of the Char mother are taking place at home. Only 19% t of the women, gave birth to their child in Government hospitals with a negligible one per cent in private hospitals The survey revealed that in respect of assistance in delivery of child, the respondents were found relying more on the untrained dhais (61.6%).

In Nagaon district state health centres in Char areas are available in Jawani, Kandhulimari (Riverine) only. The study conducted in Char areas of the district indicates that in most of the cases the 89% of women make deliveries at home. Only 10% of them make it to institutional deliveries. As regards of assistance in delivery, most of the women (86%) and opt for untrained dhai for delivery of their baby.

Sonitpur district has one riverine PHC in Bhojkhowa Chapori and one health sub-centre in Burha Chapori Char. There are sub-centres at Adabheti and Tenga Basti, two major Char areas of the district. The rest of the Chars have to come up with nearby centres which are miles away with no direct communication. The study conducted in Char areas of the district indicates that in most of the cases the 91% of women make deliveries at home. Only 9% of them make it to institutional deliveries. As regards of assistance in delivery, most of the women (87%) and opt for untrained dhai for delivery of their baby.

The health scenario in Chars of Dhemaji is discouraging with only one health Sub Centre at Kobu Chapori for which people have to come in boats to access it. Same is the case in Lakhimpur district where only one health Sub Centre is there in Katori Chapori.

The sustainable development goals seek to change the course of the 21st century, addressing key challenges such as poverty, inequality, and violence against women. The Goal 5 of the SDGs is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls—is known as the stand-alone gender goal.  Because women have a critical role to play in all of the other SDGs, with many targets specifically recognizing women’s equality and empowerment as both the objective, and as part of the solution. Gender inequality, discrimination, deprivation and violence are very common amongst the women of Char areas of Assam.

The biggest burden that the women in Chars in Assam carry is the early marriage and and frequent and high childbirth. In the surveyed villages there are three generations of women who have been married at their tender ages of 13 to 15 years and having given birth children as many as ten times. The phenomenon in most cases is that both the mother and daughter give birth at the same period. Besides causing a huge impact in their health and well-being, it turns their life a mere tool of reproduction and satisfying the wishes of their husbands. In most of the cases they are impregnated to have a male child—a discrimination that the girls and women face in every steps of their lives. In that process a woman is found bearing child multiple times until she delivers a male one. This has contributed towards high number of maternal mortality deaths among Char women in Assam.

Secondly rampant polygamy reduces the status of women in Chars to a state of indignity. Taking advantage of a very narrow interpretation of Islam, polygamy has been in practice since a very long time in which some males are found married to as much as 9 women. The rampant misuse of the Triple Talaq system is also attributed to this evil practice in Chars. The influence of global fundamentalist Islam and its preaching available easily through online has created more trouble for women in Chars of Assam. There was earlier no dress code for women in their societies. But the latest global trends and its strict adherence by the clerical class in the Chars has forced its women to wear black head-to-toe Middle-Eastern burqa along with hand gloves, shoes and glasses in hot, humid conditions making them further alienated from the rest of the mainstream society. The Taliban-ISIS styled kangaroo courts and their sentences are also being reported in some Char areas where the victim is always a woman, lashed publicly for alleged adultery.

As SDG 6 aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, women in Chars in Assam, as in developing and under developed countries face additional problem fetching drinking water. Access to pure and safe drinking water is non-existent so far Char areas are concerned. More than 92% of people living in Char areas do not have access to pure drinking water. The Public Health and Engineering department, Govt. of Assam provides these facilities including sanitation in the state. In some areas they install hand-pump tube wells for drinking water. But at the time of flood in Char areas, these facilities become meaningless. Water is collected from the river or other from ponds and carried by women to their households from a distance. This often leads to the detriment of schooling or paid work, and with potential health risks from repeatedly carrying heavy burdens over long distances by women and girls.

Likewise only 1.4% of households in Char areas have sanitary toilets. As a result women in Chars are still living in conditions where hygiene and sanitation are absent. Foe their everyday response to the call of nature or for their menstrual periods, women endure hardships and are found to be there without the minimum dignity they deserve. As a result open defecation is still very common and girls and women using sanitary pads are nil in Chars. During flood their situation becomes more troublesome as they have to use banana tree rafts to survive or to move on and have to defecate on water. This causes epidemics in post-flood Char landscape.

Assam has been acknowledged as the first government anywhere to adopt and implement the SDGs. It formally adopted the SDGs on 1 January 2016 The Government of Assam, launched “Assam Vision-2030 Initiative” in August, 2016 towards achieving the SDGs. A nodal department, Transformation & Development (T&D) has been formed since January 2016 for coordinating all the activities within various state departments for achieving the SDGs in Assam. Working groups have been formed with all state departments for plan preparations and Capacity Building trainings have also been organized so far. In the Economic Survey of Assam (2016-17) a chapter has been included on indicators and targets for monitoring the progress of achievements of Assam Vission-2030. These indicators and targets have been designed in sync with the SDGs. A 7 Year SDG Strategy Paper and 3 Year Action Plan (SPAP), as desired by NITI Aayog, was initiated in mid-2016 and an Outcome Budget has been taken with strategic mapping of SDGs for the first time in Assam. Five state conclaves on various goals of the SDGs have also been held so far in Assam. However, the most important part of implementing the SDGs is monitoring and documentation of progress. Government of Assam has been working on identification and determination of state-specific core SDG indicators and benchmarks for SDG targets. A set of 59 State-specific Core Indicators have been identified and are planned to be monitored at regular interval at different disaggregated levels. For SDG Quality Education (Pre-primary, Primary, Secondary including vocational, and Higher Education) state Education Department is synergized with  Social Welfare (Pre-primary Education), Labour and Employment (Coordination on skills development) Departments as primary supporting departments and with Cultural Affairs, Sports & Youth Welfare Department as secondary. Similarly for Good Health and Well Being goal state department of Health & Family Welfare is synergized with Education, Public Health Engineering (Water and Sanitation) as primary and Excise, PWD (Rural Roads and Road Safety) and Transport departments as secondary supporting departments. Notably Char (riverine islands) areas of Assam has been selected as models in particularly identified deprived and vulnerable areas for preparing model SDG plans and implementation. From these developments optimism arises about a change and transformation concerning life in general and for women in particular in Char areas for Assam.

Farhana Ahmed is a fellow at National Foundation of India, New Delhi

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