Understanding Conditions And Status Of Rural Women In Tamil Nadu Sociology Essay


Womens domestic and reproductive roles were emphasized:”Men live by action, but women within the precincts of home by their men” a kuruntokai poem.

Sangam Age

Women had freedom of choice of partner; marriage was a contract, not a sacrament

Post Sangam Age

Caste divisions were introduced; rituals turned marriage into a sacrament; severance was rendered impossible; chastity of married women became an obsession; widowhood became a punishment through isolation and rituals.

Medieval Period

Women started coming to the forefront. Examples: Karaikkal Ammaiyar and Andal who achieved literary and religious eminence. Rise of Bhakthi Movement: On the one hand provided liberating space for women and on the other became cause for degradation of another set of women . devadasis.

Later Period of Nayak Dynasty

Polygamy became common practice.

British Period

Weakened some cultural norms impeding equitable status of women; in 1821, first girls. school was opened in Chennai; in 1827, women were allowed to sit for University exams for the first time through the Madras University.

Social Justice Reform Movement

Under Periyar E.V. Ramasami Naicker; the Movement influenced public thought on caste, marriage customs, widow remarriage, child marriage, sati etc.

Since 1920s

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy played key role in the passage of Devadasi Abolition Bill, 1927 and Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929. The women.s Indian Association led by Dr. Annie Besant in Chennai played key role in grant of suffrage rights to women in 1921; Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy became the first woman to become a member of the Legislative Council.

Freedom Struggle

Challenged old gender norms.

The transformation of the condition of women from the history to the present date has been aptly brought out by the table. The present context of the condition of women is further discussed in the following sections of the report.

The general condition of women in Tamil Nadu is good compared to the condition in the rest of the country.

Effective Literacy Rate by Sex in Tamil Nadu

(1961, 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001)


Literacy Percentage



Tamil Nadu
















Table 2

The literacy rate for female is continuously on a rise. The various sate policies and increase in awareness has resulted in the change. The value accorded to education and the facilities to match the needs and requirements for education has led to the improvement in the condition.

Distribution of Rural Women by Employment Status in TAMIL NADU(1992-1993)

Table 3



Not Working

Working in family farm/business

Working for someone else

Tamil Nadu





The women in Tamil Nadu have been actively participating in the workforce. The increasing stress on education has led to the development of competent women workforce. As seen from the data that more than fifty percent of women of Tamil Nadu are actively engaged in income generating activity. Agriculture is the most important sector in which the rural women work.

Sex Ratio

The sex ratio in Tamil Nadu at 986 is way ahead of the All India ratio at 933. The improvement in the 2001 census to 986 compared to 974 in 1991 is also more significant than at the national level from 927 to 933. Sex ratio in the State is also higher than in many of the States.

Female infanticide is estimated to contribute to 7% of infant mortality in the State and 14% of female infant mortality. Campaign against female infanticide has been successful with the involvement of the Government,

In economic and human development terms, Tamil Nadu is significantly better off in comparison with all India situations on several parameters: contributing a little over 7% of the gross GDP of the country at 1993-94 prices, the State per capita income is higher than the national. Proportion of population below the poverty line is lesser. The Human Development Index (HDI) and Gender Development Index (GDI) are higher indicating a higher level of social development in the State

2. Two of the important issues faced by women in Tamil Nadu


Violence Scenario and Trends

Tamil Nadu has the highest rate of violence against women in India. The national figure is only 21.4% while statistics from the1998-99 NFH Survey show that 40.4 percent of women in Tamil Nadu have been beaten or physically abused since the age of 15. Out of these, 36 percent were abused by their husbands. A large number of young girls and women from Tamil Nadu are also believed to be trafficked to places such as Mumbai and Bangalore for prostitution. A significant percentage of them, a figure as high as 85 percent as reported by an NGO in Bangalore are infected with HIV/AIDS. During the year 2000, Tamil Nadu recorded 6,773 cases of crimes against women. This was a 17.83% increase over 5,748 cases registered during year 1999.

Trends in crimes against women, 1999-2000 (percentage increase/decrease)

Table 4



Dowry death




Sexual harassment (eve teasing)


Cruelty by husband and relatives


Kidnapping and abduction of women and girls


Dowry Prohibition Act


Juvenile delinquency


Other IPC crimes


Source: Gender Policy, Regional Level Workshops, 2001

Domestic Violence

In the case of crimes against women occurring within households, the victims most often do not take recourse to courts of law for the following reasons:

Approaching courts is not easy;

Victims do not find it easy to initiate legal proceedings against members of the family on whom they are dependent.

Court proceedings being long drawn out, the victims do not get quick relief.

There are several causes of violence against women. The perception that after marriage women are their husband’s property is strong in Tamil Nadu. Suspicion of infidelity, infertility (of the couple), alcoholism, dowry and instigation by in-laws are some of the immediate causes of violence against women, signalling the deep-rooted patriarchal values that underlie the same. Violence has significant effects on the mental and physical health of women. Studies in Tamil Nadu show that foetal wastages (abortions) often occur due to battering (Jejeebhoy, 1998). This is, however, yet to be recognized as a public health issue in Tamil Nadu. Violence leads to income loss for women and break-up of families, both of which also affect children adversely.


Female infanticide – the deliberate killing of female infants soon after birth – is a much rarer phenomenon than neglect of girl children and sex-selective abortion

In respect of several standard indicators of health and education, Tamil Nadu is a comparatively better performer among the various major states. Thus, it ranked second only to Kerala in terms of the literacy rate according to the 1991 Census.

Its infant mortality rate for 1995 as per SRS data stood at 56 per 1,000 live births, and only three states had a lower IMR. Its birth and death rates do not compare badly with those of many major states. Yet the practice of female infanticide has been reported to exist in the state and its occurrence officially admitted. The first major reporting of female infanticide in Tamil Nadu appeared in the popular press (S H Venkatramani), India Today, June 15, 1986. This report dealt with incidence of female infanticide in Madurai district, and focused upon a particular community in rural Madurai. Several years later, in 1992, female infanticide was reported from Salem district, more than a hundred miles from the Usilampatti region of Madurai district which had figured in the 1986 report (Viji Srinivasan, Frontline, 1992; Asha Krishnakumar, Frontline 1992).

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About 3,000 cases of infanticide occur in Tamil Nadu every year. This is anything up to one-fifth of all female infant deaths in the State. Infanticide deaths are classified in vital statistics of Primary Health Centers as .infant deaths due to social causes. The large majority of the instances of female infanticide seem to be occurring in families of scheduled castes and backward communities and among economically weaker working class people. The incidence of female infanticide is mostly in higher birth orders. The Government of Tamil Nadu has also proactively brought under implementation the Cradle Baby Scheme since 1992. This scheme enables parents to leave unwanted female infants in State

In Tamil Nadu among certain communities, for example, the Kallars and the Todas, suggests the plausibility of a long history of the practice. Rural communities, including in the districts of undivided North Arcot, Madurai and Salem, people revealed that the practice has been around for about 50 years. There were also people who asserted that the practice has continued for several generations.

Most of the killings of infant girls are committed by a senior woman in the family, usually the paternal grandmother, and in a few areas by traditional birth attendants. Up to 80-90 percent of victims of female infanticide are girls of higher birth order (possibly greater than 2).The greatest risk of neglect of girls who survive is also among girls of high birth order, according to studies in North India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In rural Tamil Nadu it has been seen that many parents who do not even try to hide their contempt for girls of higher birth orders, naming them Venda (don’t want) or Podum Pennu (enough of daughters).

Government Responses

The response of the government of Tamil Nadu in 1992, under Chief Minister Ms. Jayalalitha, was that the existence of the practice in the state was acknowledged. Earlier that year the state government had launched the ‘Cradle Babies’ scheme, whereby families were asked to abandon unwanted female infants in cradles provided for that purpose in government primary health centers, rather than kill them. Minister Ms. Jayalalitha announced the ‘Jayalalitha Protection Scheme for the Girl Child’ in October 1992. The goal of the scheme was the total elimination of female infanticide by the year 2000. Under its provisions, a poor family with one or two girls and no sons would be eligible for monetary incentives if one parent agreed to be sterilized. This scheme was intended to cover 20,000 families every year.


“Is there an end to this season, of hate towards dalits for no reason?

If its caste that only matter, the nation then will definitely shatter,

fools may sing unity in diversity, wise will see signs of adversity,

nation heading toward calamity”

Rahul Gade


The situation of Dalit women in India needs special attention. They are one of the largest socially segregated groups anywhere in the world, and make up 2% of the world’s total population. Dalit women are discriminated against three times over: they are poor, they are women, and they are Dalits. Approximately 16.3 of the total Indian female population are dalit. The traditional taboos are the same for Dalit men and Dalit women. However, Dalit women have to deal with them more often. Dalit women have been discriminated against not only by people of higher castes, but also within their own communities. Men have been dominant in Dalit communities. The women of dalit communities have always been victims of systemic discrimination and have had to face domestic violence and impunity at the hands of the male both from the community and outside it.

Since the mid-1990s, Dalit women’s groups and platforms have expressed three concerns namely the impact of state policies, patriarchal bias of Dalit movements, and upper-caste/middle-class leadership of the women’s movement. The growing concern and the increasing amount of awareness have resulted in some change in the condition of dalit women. The dalit women have increasingly started fighting against oppressions and have collectively risen against dominant forces. Various instances across the country about the dalit women movement are a clear indication that they are not ready to suffer anymore and are capable enough to oppose and fight.

Statistics of Dalits, an eye opener

In India, Brahmins, who are 3.5 per cent of the population, hold 78 per cent of the judicial positions and approximately 50 per cent of parliamentary seats.

Mass rapes often form part of the tactics of intimidation used by upper-caste gangs against lower castes. The Home Ministry reported that, between 2000 and 2001, there was a 16.5 per cent increase in reported rape cases.

Each year, inter-caste violence claims hundreds of lives.

In India, among the millions of bonded labourers (estimates range widely between 20 to 65 million for 2001), the Government found 85 per cent to be Dalits or from lower castes.

Dalits and adivasis (indigenous peoples) form the largest proportion of those who drop out of school. In rural areas, between the ages of five and nine, 36.1 per cent of Dalit boys and 48.4 per cent of Dalit girls dropped out.

About 75 per cent of Dalit communities live below the poverty line.

Two-thirds of the Dalit population is illiterate.

Half are landless agricultural labourers.

Only seven per cent have access to safe drinking water, electricity and toilets.3


The issues of rural Dalit women females are different from those of other rural women. Dalit women suffer from triple discrimination as oppressed by the so called upper class people (which equally effect both male and female), oppressed by the design of the Hindu patriarchal system and oppressed by Dalit males.


Regarding education, lower levels of education of Dalit women is a problem in itself and in turn gives rise to many other problems. A report published by the Ministry of Welfare, Government of India in 1998 showed that there is much difference in literacy rate of dalits and non-dalits in general as well as gender specific. Female literacy rate is 39.29%whereasdalit’s women is only 23.76% (Paswan and Jaidev). There is large disparity in literacy rate of dalit women mainly due to two reasons. Firstly there is discrimination on the basis of gender and secondly due to lower caste. Often girls of lower caste are ill-treated by teachers, which further reduce their motivation to go to school. Among dalits child marriage is also a big issue. At age of 14-15,only a girl had to take care of whole family.

Work life

Most of the dalit women work as agricultural labourer. Mostly they work on lands of higher caste people. Higher caste people treat them like animals. They are forced to work at lower wage rate. Often higher caste people use abusive word against them. They do not have any say in village politics. In village, all the decisions are usually taken by higher caste people. If any dalit women raise their voice, they are beaten by higher class people and even sexually assaulted. Even in their own family dalit women do not get any respect. They are often abused and beaten up by male member of their families. Cases of domestic violence are much higher in case of dalit women as compared to other women.


Regarding health and nutrition, Dalit women’s daily diet is the leftover of family meals, inadequate in quality and quantity. Health services are either not available in case of illness or unaffordable even if available. In addition to that, due to early marriage and ineffective family planning women are always at risk. Most of the dalit women in reproductive age group are anemic.


According to Russel Hardin, Collective action is anaction in the collective interest of the group. Collective action is the pursuit of a goal or set of goals by more than one person. It is a term which has formulations and theories in many areas of the social sciences.

There are several instances of dalit women organizing themselves to fight against the injustices showered on them. It was indeed a challenge as they are fighting against not only the social evils but also against the societal structures that dehumanize them. Some of the collective actions are described below

Technology: the change factor

In the Banda District of UP, the Dalit MahilaSamitiactivists achieved effective mobilization of Dalit women. Dalit women were trained as hand pump mechanics to repair and restore the hand pumps of bore wells, on which most of the local populace depended for their water supply. When the trained Dalit women were sent to repair hand pumps in upper caste localities there was a lot resistance from the upper castes and tension prevailed. Then the mechanics decided collectively to move in groups and thus they learnt to deal with issues of untouchability and were able to break these taboos. This had some impact on caste barriers, though not widespread. When women gained access to technology, it altered their own personal identities, and this became a source of strength for them to take on other issues. These included efforts to change caste equations in the area where they work, promoting the leadership of local women, protesting against all forms of violence against women and men, negotiating their terms with members of the upper caste during elections and ensuring that the benefits of government schemes flows to all eligible Dalits.

Challenging the social structures

The Dalit women have also identified some key activities which they refuse to perform as a strategy against traditional norms regarding untouchability.Many dais (Traditional Birth Attendants) are from Dalit communities.They are called for deliveries by upper castes. The daisare paid in kind or cash for their work. In order to break the untouchability stigma, they attend to the birthing process, but refuse to discard the placenta and to cut the umbilical cord. These tasks were traditionally done by them and seen as impure tasks not done by upper castes. This sends a strong signal that they are protesting against the discrimination towards them.(Dalit MahilaSamiti, UP)

Manual scavenging:combatting a social stigma

On account of their ‘impure’ caste and poverty, Dalit women comprise the majority of manual scavengers, that is, labourers who clean human excrement from dry toilets.Nine-year-old Janakben goes to school like other children her age. But then in school she is treated differently. Janakben is sometimes asked to clean the toilets and sweep the classrooms. All this is because she belongs to the Dalit Valmiki caste. In the little girl’s words, “They make us clean the toilets. We are not allowed to eat food sitting with the others and I also have to sweep the classroom at times.” A strong voice of dissent was send by the Arundathiar Dalit Community in Tamil Nadu who decided that they will not do the manual scavenging any more. Today the people have jobs in various sectors and have broken free from the societal pressure on them.There was a time when village women were not allowed to go with slippers on. Any new cloth would be highly discounted by the upper caste. They were not even allowed to ride on bicycles. They had to clean the latrines and throw the human excreta. Now the women were happy and felt they had been really liberated though they still cannot eat and dine with other upper caste fellows yet the first thing what they felt was important that their Panchayat prohibited the practice of scavenging.

Securing land rights

In Andhra Pradesh, 2006 there was a foot march organised by the APVVU Mandal Union to unite dalit women in southern India. They have overcome all hurdles in seeking land allotments in their names. All the agricultural lands belong to dominant caste, the Reddys. While the landlords own large chunks of land (both dry & irrigated Lands), dalits earn their bread as agricultural labourers. Dalits were continuously discriminated by the landlords. The wages were low and also unequal between men (Rs.30/- per day) and women (Rs.25/- per day) labourers, while the minimum wages according to the Act should be Rs.60. Further, distress migration has become inevitable for at least 50% of the dalit families. To survive in the lean season, they go to Bangalore (about 250 km away) to work as construction workers for six months. As a result, child labour, early marriages for girl children and illiteracy have become the reality of their lives. Added to this misery for women, are desertion and bigamy. It was under these circumstances that the women won their fight

Dalit Women Movement in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu Dalit women movement was launched during the year1997 by SRED (Society for Rural Education and Development) human rights organization who worked among women for 20years to promote their rights. With the help of various NGOs in Tamil Nadu they organized dalit women and start highlighting the issues of dalit wherever they find. Thirty voluntary leaders from 30 districts of Tamil Nadu coordinate together and take this movement to the grass roots. This movement is open for dalit women who can address their issues and atrocities where this movement fights for the rights and justice. This movement is active in 16 districts of Tamil Nadu and takes issues of violence against dalits, untouchable practices, discrimination, atrocities against them and the denial of livelihood rights.

Dalit Women Power (DWP): an organization for women, by women

DWP is committed to educate and empower poor rural women around Bodh Gaya in Bihar in their quest for greater self-reliance, economic sustainability, freedom of expression, and women’s rights.DWP fosters the spirit of community in the villages by organising women’s groups that base their values and teachings on gender-justice, inter-connectedness, freedom and human dignity. The majorities of the members of DWP are illiterate and belong to the ‘Dalit’ castes. It covers1500 Dalit women-members organized in 120 groups. On average, each DWP member represents a family of 10 to 15 persons. That means that DWP reaches up to 12’000 people, changing their lives for the better.

Fight against Devadasi System

A report commissioned by the National Commission for Women (NCW) in India reveals the shocking reality of how thousands of Dalit women continue to be forced into the Devadasi system in several states of India. Estimates suggest that girls dedicated to temples in the Maharashtra-Karnataka border area number over 250,000 and are all from the Dalit community of untouchables. More than half of the Devadasies become prostitutes. The legends and societal culture supports the perpetuation of this evil. Though laws have been passed to discard this social evil, it is not very effective. It was in such a scenario that Joginis(devadasis) joined themselves to fight against the system. Consciousness, once stirred in these women, gave them steely determination. They refused to dance – the sign of protest.They got the support of Organizations as well.SahayaJogini Welfare Society initiated by, Shyamala Devi, a transgender social activist is one among them.


There has been a considerable improvement in the perception of the society regarding the status of dalit women. After the years long of suppression and oppression the times are changing and there is a light at the seemingly never ending dark tunnel. The awareness about the rights andvarious concerns of the community is coming to the front. But still there are many concerns and unfinished challenges regarding the issues that this community has been facing.Some of the reflections on the topic are

Violence against Dalit women is still on the rise as seen in news reports.

The section of the society is still one of the very poor and thus marginalized and has no access to basic civil amenities.

Most of the collective actions taken by the women have required the support of an external agency.

A large number of dalit women stand in Panchayat elections as proxy or dummy women candidates. Even if they are elected, they are not capable of doing the responsibilities entrusted on them.

Lack of information about their rights.

Dalit Women Movements of national impact have not taken place so far.

A great effort needs to be taken to change the society’s perception about the condition of the dalit women.

There is a lot that needs to be changed and done to improve the plight of the women. It needs a change in attitude of the society. The law of land and government should provide them with a shield against exploitation. We as a society should have the dignity to recognize their right to a decent life and help them achieve it.We believe that the collective actions mentioned in our report are indications of a transformative revolution to happen in near future. We dream of our India as a country where every women leads a life of dignity unaffected by caste, religion and economic status.


Journals and Magazines

Sweetman C. and Porter F., The politics of the marginalized: Dalits and women’s activism in India, Gender and Development, 2006,Vol.14:2

Thaekekara, M.M., Combatting Caste,The New International Magazine,2005.

A Transgender’s Lonely Fight, Hyderabad Journal,July, 2010

Andharia J.,Dalit Women movement in India


Collective Action, Hardin, R. 1982. Resources for the future

A Cry for Dignity: Religion, Violence and the Struggle of Dalit Women in India, Mary Grey, Equinox Books,2010.












www.cscsarchive.org, nobody’s girls




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