For more than 100 years, International Women’s Day has been celebrated to mark the extraordinary struggles faced by women worldwide for gender equality and to accelerate empowerment in the society. This is a day to reflect on the progress made, to call for a change and to celebrate the acts of courage and determination by ordinary women, who have played an outstanding role in history of their communities.

The empowerment of women is crucial for the development of any nation. It is a dynamic and multi-dimensional process in which women challenge the existing norms and culture, to effectively promote their rights and their well-being. It is also a process of awareness and capacity building leading to greater participation, to greater decision making power and control and transformative action.

The handloom sector has long been a traditional occupation for women. In primitive society, where the men were hunters and warriors, the women were concerned with food gathering and sustaining agriculture. Women then started producing several crafts like pot, leather clothing, house building and techniques of cordage weaving. Cordage weaving was the beginning of whole chain of our great tradition of woven textiles.

In a time where the focus has been on promotion of major industries, it is depressing to see the downfall of such works of art that showcase the traditional cultural values of the weavers. It is important to acknowledge that the hand-woven clothing plays a substantial role in making the social and cultural identity of any community in addition to fulfilling the basic clothing needs at home, or for ceremonial occasion, especially in North Eastern Regions (NERs). This is evident from the practices observed among the tribal societies of Tripura, where no ritual is sanctioned unless it is preceded by a worship of ‘Risha’, the hand-woven breast cover of the family elders. In Assam, the hand-woven cotton ‘Ghomsa’, symbolizes respect and honour to welcome the guest on any occasion. Though all the tribes in NERs produce handloom products, some of them are known for their expertise. For instances, weaving is a full time job for the women particularly, Garo women in Meghalaya. Apatani women from Arunachal are famous for weaving ‘Galo’. Assamese of Sualkuchi village in Assam, are known for its tradition of weaving silk products.

The textile industry is the second largest sector in India in terms of employment, next to agriculture. Out of the 38.47 lakh adult weavers and allied workers in India, 77.9percent are female and 22.1percent are male. Weaving is major source of livelihood for rural tribal women in industrially backward states of NER. The adult women weavers from NERs constitute 49percent of total adult women weavers in India. In the subsequent Handloom Census, an increase in the number of such households has been observed. For the NER, the first Handloom Census accounted for 14.6 lakh households involved in weaving while the third accounted for 15.1 lakh such households. This is in contrast to the national trend of falling total weavers in rest of India. Moreover, women weavers of NER multitask as both handloom producers and traders, thus paving a path towards economic empowerment.

Source: 3rd National Handloom Census, 2013

As seen above, handloom sector has occupied an important position in providing employment opportunities to rural women in NER. This sector has created means of livelihood for these women and their families. Recently, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and even the governments have taken keen interest in promoting the process and providing financial support that would help them create/setup business ventures. Through the support extended by NGOs, Banks and GoI, the women have created Self-Help Groups and Cooperatives thus building a platform for generating income and inculcating entrepreneurial skills. Eventually, this has strengthened their ability to achieve increased control, enhanced their participation in decision making process and developed their level of confidence. As a result, this has established empowerment of women in true sense.

And it is for this reason that the governments should promote handlooms with a special focus on transferring the lion share of the revenue generated from sale of handloom products to the weavers.

Neha Mallick is working with the Engagements Team at Swaniti Initiative and can be contacted at neha.m@swaniti.in.