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Padma Shri: 5 Incredible Women From Northeast India Who Deserve Our Respect

Padma Shri: 5 Incredible Women From Northeast India Who Deserve Our Respect

You may not have heard about Padma Shri recipients like Trinity Saioo, Lakhimi Baruah, Hanjabam Radhe Devi, Birubala Rabha and Pi B. Sangkhumi, but these inspirational women from the Northeast deserve your respect.

Among the recipients of the Padma Shri in 2020 and 2021 from the Government of India are incredible women from the Northeast, who have not only excelled in their field but also positively impacted their fellow citizens and preserved the best facets of their traditional cultures.

(Image above of Padma Shri awardees Trinity Saioo on the left and Birubala Rabha on the right)

While these awards may have shone some light on them, it’s imperative to consistently highlight and reiterate their incredible contributions. Here are five women from the Northeast who received the Padma Shri in 2020 and 2021, whom you should know about:

Trinity Saioo

A school teacher from Mulieh village in West Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya, Trinity began cultivating turmeric about 18 years ago. Through her own research and knowledge obtained from ancestors, she understood that the Lachein variety of turmeric—largely grown in West Jaintia Hills district—was low on yield and the cancer-fighting curcumin content. Instead of Lachein, she saw the Lakadong variety as a more viable option. While your regular supermarket varieties of turmeric usually have 3 per cent to 5 per cent curcumin content, Lakadong Turmeric goes as high as 12 per cent.

“Farmers, especially women, were intrigued when my family started earning three times higher from lakadong farming. This curiosity made it easy for the Spices Board and me to impart training to them. As days passed, the number of people cultivating turmeric increased,” she told The Better India. As word got around, Trinity got invitations from village heads to involve their farmers in the programme. Today, more than 900 farmers in the state are growing Lakadong.

Lakhimi Baruah

Before starting Konoklota Mahila Urban Cooperative Bank (KMUCB), the first all women co-operative bank in the state of Assam, Lakhimi worked in a bank.

What she noticed was that women from marginalised communities, lacking formal education, struggled to access formal banking services. To address these concerns, she first started a Mahila Samiti in 1983 at Dakshin Sarbaibandha area of Jorhat district, where she worked with many economically and educationally deprived women. Even though some of these women were engaged in activities that were generating income, they lacked financial literacy.

She then started KMUCB in Jorhat, with an initial capital of Rs 8.46 lakh, in 1998. The bank received its licence from the Reserve Bank of India in 2000.

Today, her bank employs only women (21 of them full-time), and has four branches and 45,000 account holders, who are mostly women. The bank has assisted thousands of women in Jorhat, Sivasagar and Golaghat districts.

Hanjabam Radhe Devi

Radhe Devi, who is fondly known to many as Abok (grandma) Radhe, is an octogenarian who till this day makes exquisitely tailored Potloi Setpi (traditional Manipuri bridalwear designer). A native of Wangjing Sorokhaibam Leikai in the Thoubal district of Manipur, Radhe has devoted nearly six decades designing bridalwear and preserving this traditional craft. To the uninitiated, Potloi is a traditional bridal wear adorned by many Meitei Hindu women in Manipur.

Radhe’s story from a child bride at the age of 15 to a recipient of a Padma Shri award is truly remarkable. She began apprenticing under Thounaojam Priyosakhi, a woman in the neighbourhood whom she called eche or elder sister, in the craft of making Potloi Setpi to find better means of supporting her family since her husband, an astrologer, was struggling to provide for the family. Despite being in no mood to retire, Radhe is feeling her age as she approaches 90, and wants to open a school where she can teach the skills she has perfected.

Birubala Rabha

For decades, Birubala, a native of the remote Thakurbhila village in western Assam’s Goalpara district, has been crusading tirelessly against witch-hunting. Showing no fear, she has faced angry mobs with weapons to save women accused of being a ‘daini’ or ‘witch’ in different villages across Assam and Meghalaya. In 2000, when a public meeting near Lakhipur town in Cachar district decided to brand five women from a village as witches, she challenged the mob and proclaimed: “There are no witches, witchcraft does not exist.”

Through her organisation called the Thakurvila Mahila Samiti, she has visited many villages challenging superstition and raising public awareness against practices of witch-hunting and other social hills. As her campaign against witch-hunting began in the mid 1980s, she also joined other women’s organisations in the state like Greater Borjhara Mahila Samiti, who appointed her as a secretary, and the Assam Mahila Samata Society in 1999.

No surprise, it’s women who are often caught at the sharp end of the witch-hunting stick. “Every village has an oja, a medicine man and astrologer. He is the one who reads our fortunes,” said Birubala and added, “And if he mentions someone as a witch, everybody believes him.” Women branded as such are often killed or chased away and their family’s land and other assets are seized.

Northeast Women
(On the Left): President Kovind presents Padma Shri to Hanjabam Radhe Devi for Art.
(On the Right): President Kovind presents Padma Shri to Dr Birubala Rabha for Social Work. (Images courtesy Twitter/President of India)

Pi B. Sangkhumi

Sangkhumi comes from a long tradition of activists in Mizoram fighting for the rights of women. A former public servant, she went on to lead the Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl (MHIP), an apex body representing several local women’s groups and a prominent pressure group in Mizoram, in different capacities for decades. Challenging archaic laws, customs and the violence meted out to Mizo women, her shining moment came in late 2014 when the State Assembly passed the landmark Mizo Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance of Property Act, 2014. This law for ordinary Mizo women was the result of a struggle that MHIP led for over a decade.

“The newly enacted law called the Mizo Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance of Property Act, 2014 will allow divorced Mizo women to inherit property of their former husbands. This would also ensure protection to the women from being divorced at the drop of a hat by their husbands,” notes this report in the Press Trust of India. This piece of legislation had its share of shortcomings, but it shouldn’t undermine the work of activists like Sangkhumi.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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