Is education the only answer to address gender imbalances? – Rinchu Dukpa

01 Nov 2018
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Rinchu Dukpa of Wageningen University conducted her PhD alongside the Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change (CCMCC) programme, focusing on the Hydropower development in the context of climate change project. She looked specifically at the social differentiation and local contestation against hydropower projects. She shares some insights on gender as her studies and the project come to an end.

“I am so happy that you came over to my house and asked me so many questions. No one has asked for my opinion on dams so far. Our voices need to be heard. I am already feeling light talking to you. Thank you for listening to me.” A 57 year old Lepcha woman from study area in Sikkim on being questioned about her perceptions and experiences of hydropower dam.

As an indigenous tribal woman from a small town of Darjeeling in the foothills of the Indian Eastern Himalaya, as much as my parents have tried to raise me in a supposedly gender neutral home, breaking the deeply- embedded patriarchal social norms that have for generations plagued our societies and have been exercised from our very own homes has been difficult.

Education, it would seem, becomes your only saviour, but even then the path has never been easy. I recall being labelled a “mad-woman” by a village local while I undertook my masters field work in a remote area of Nepal. I was walking around, interviewing people unchaperoned by a man – an act unheard of in the village. I didn’t know how to react then.

Today I have come a long way with my PhD journey into understanding and questioning these gender-based issues and complexities. Workshops and seminars held both on conflicts and gender have been key to shaping my world-view and research.

For example, a recent workshop on gender in Kathmandu which discussed, among many other things, that gender equality need not necessarily translate to ‘women empowerment’ really captivated my interest. It automatically presented clarity into some of the issues that I had observed during my PhD field work, but did not quite know how to go about.

This allowed me to deliberate on my findings and observations of some of my women friends, who are, on one hand, robustly handling businesses ventures and earing their livelihoods, while on the other, have been completely cut off from major, meaningful decisions-making process where they reside – bringing to focus that perhaps empowerment is in itself a relative notion.

This PhD gave me opportunities to meet diverse men and women and in my encounters women have been at times thrilled to meet me, at times cautious and many times just indifferent. But for those who did take out time from their busy schedules to talk about their everyday conflicts with the patriarchal system and the impending hydropower dam issues that was the core focus of my PhD, we exchanged some meaningful conversations that brought some degree of acknowledgment of them as being women who mattered yet left out; as well as for me. Said a shy, old Lachungpa tribal woman complaining about the patriarchal governance structure that collectively decided for them:

“I don’t understand what you will do with our answers but I am hopeful that our stories and voices are being heard by others through you. When you speak for us, about us, it is like we will speak through you.”

My PhD is nearing its end and in all my endeavours henceforth – successful ones, hopefully – whether they directly or indirectly align with the overarching objectives of CCMCC that has moulded and grounded my world-view today, I am confident that there will be conscious and unconscious imprints of CCMCC’s core values in my work today as a researcher well as in my life as a woman. Papers on our respective topics will be written, published and soon forgotten, but the fundamental worldview shift may not, and shall remain to be further to be explored. Given this, just like the Bhutia woman who finds her voice in my work, I want to remain overtly optimist that I will able to continue findings alignments with the acquired imprints of my research.

Perhaps in those imprints, I want to see myself, a tribal “Dukpa” woman, the first in my community to have reached this far in academia, planning to continue with future research in gender studies as a small part of the legacy of the CCMCC project – Hydropower Development in the context of Eastern Himalaya.

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