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Auditing Gender Equality Among Santhals

Sudipta Ghosh* and S.L. Malik*

There is a slim line of demarcation between ‘being different’ and ‘being unequal’. The latter one is a hierarchical model, often associated with the concept of superiority / inferiority and is thus socially value loaded. In order to investigate gender differences in activity patterns, health and nutritional status of Santhals, a cross-sectional sample of 400 households of Santhal from 18 villages of Bankura district, West Bengal was collected. Santhals of this area belong to low socio-economic class. In terms of nutritional intake, no gender differentials are evident. Both men and women take their meals together at least twice a day, sharing every preparation equally. Analysis of BMI suggests that Santhals are either ‘Underweight’ or ‘Normal weight’, but are rarely ‘Overweight’ and almost never ‘Obese’. Such a distribution of BMI might be due to their low socio-economic conditions. Both men and women do most of the agricultural work together, except ploughing, which is tabooed for women. Generally, women do relatively higher level of physical and muscular activity, which is evident in their greater Mesomorphic component than men in body physique.

* Department of Anthropology, University of Delhi, Delhi 110007, India

In any human society, at the very least, there are some differences between the role of men and women. This stems from the fact that women give birth but men do not, and that there are obvious differences between male and female anatomy. However, every culture gives a meaning to these differences in its own way by explaining how this two kinds of people resulting from the differences should relate to one another and to the world at large, causing tremendous variations from one society to another. Anthropologists use the term gender to refer to the cultural elaborations and meanings assigned to the biological differentiation between the sexes.
Gender differences are as old as human culture and arose from the biological differences between early human males and females. Back then, males were about twice the size of females, as they are today among certain species like gorillas, orangutans and baboons. With human evolution, however, the biological differences between the two sexes were radically reduced. Thus, whatever biological basis was there for the gender role difference largely disappeared. But, cultures have maintained some differentiation of gender roles ever since. These differences are far greater in some societies than in others. Paradoxically, gender differences are more extreme in our mainstream or so called civilized societies than they are among food-foraging peoples whose way of life are more like those of our late Stone Age ancestors. In some societies, men and women may be regarded as unequal, with the former outranking the latter. Gender inequality may sometimes be seen in societies that are not otherwise stratified; in such instances men and women are always physically as well as conceptually separated from one another. This is known as gender stratification.
Some division of labor by sex is characteristic of all human societies. However, the sexual division of labor cannot be explained simply as a consequence of male strength, male expendability, or female reproductive biology. Instead of looking for biological imperatives to explain the sexual division of labor, a more productive strategy is to examine the kinds of work done by men and women in the context of specific societies. In this context, William A. Haviland (1990) has identified two different configurations, one featuring flexibility and sexual integration, another featuring rigid segregation by sex. The flexible / integrated pattern is seen most often among food foragers and subsistence farmers. In such societies, up to 35 percent of activities are performed by both sexes with approximately equal participation. In addition, those tasks considered appropriate for one sex sometimes performed by the other, without loss of face, as the situation warrants. On the other hand, sexually segregated societies are those in which almost all work is rigidly defined as either masculine or feminine, so that men and women rarely engage in joint efforts of any kind. This pattern is frequently seen in pastoral nomadic, intensive agricultural and industrial societies, in which men’s work keeps them outside the home for much of the time.
Gender differences in health and nutrition could be due to biological differences, but also to differences in nutritional requirements as a result of different physical activities. In addition, these differences can be the result of intrahousehold resource allocation processes (Bolin et al 2001). Amartya Sen opined that there are systematic disparities in the freedom that men and women enjoy in different societies and these disparities are often not reducible to differences in income or resources. While different wages or payment rates constitute an important part of gender inequality in most societies, there are many other spheres of differential benefits, e.g. in the division of labor within the household, in the extent of care or education received, in liberties that different members are permitted to enjoy (Sen 2005). Studies on gender inequality among indigenous populations of India suggest different perspectives in this context from what we had found in earlier researches. For example, some tribal societies of West Bengal show a declining trend in male-female ratio in line with other schedule castes or general castes (Tisdell 2002). In addition, it is observed by scholars that in the post-Independence era tribal society has been witness to unprecedented change, where women do not enjoy any better social status anymore than their counterparts in the larger Indian society (Xaxa 2004). Further, it is suggested by previous investigators that this increasing tendency towards growing inequality in gender relations among Indigenous societies of India, are more pronounced in societies that have integrated with mainstream Indian society (Basu Mullick 2000).
The present paper aims to investigate gender differences in activity patterns, health and nutritional status of Santhals focusing on whether differences between men and women in these aspects lead to gender inequality.
Materials and Methods
A household survey of 400 households was conducted on Santhals of Bankura district of West Bengal. In order to study gender differences, data were collected from 400 men and 400 women from these households. Men ranged in age from 40 years to 87 years with a mean age of 57.5 years, whereas women ranged in age from 35 years to 83 years with a mean age of 48.6 years. Data were collected from several villages of Ranibandh block of Bankura district, West Bengal, using multistage random cluster sampling method. Date of birth of subjects was recorded by asking them. Decimal age of each subject was calculated by subtracting the date of birth of the subject from the date of data collection, using Decimal Age Calendar (Tanner et al. 1969).
Ranibandh block is one of the 22 Community Development Blocks of the district Bankura. The total land area of the block is 428 km2 with a population density (244 per km2), the lowest as compared to the other blocks. The total population of the block is 1, 08,591. The sex ratio of Ranibandh of 964 is the highest as compared to the other blocks and is also higher than that of the district, as well as the state average. The total number of tribal population of this block is 49,321 out of these 24,912 are males and 24,409 are females.
Information gathered on marriage / mating pattern suggested that Santhals of Ranibandh strictly follow the rule of tribal endogamy and clan exogamy. As a consequence, not a single intra clan marriage was found in this population. Moreover, they have the preference of bringing their brides from the same village or from the neighboring villages with a marital distance not more than 15 km. Hence, on the basis of nature of mating pattern, this tribe could be considered as a Mendelian population.
According to Guha’s racial classification (Guha 1944), the Santhals belonged to the Proto-Australoid, which he considered to have arrived in India soon after the Negritos. Currently, they are the largest tribe to retain an aboriginal language, known as Santali, belonging to Austro-Asiatic, sub-family of the Austric family. This language is closely related to Mundari as well as Ho, Korku, Savara and Gadaba languages spoken by smaller tribes (Culshaw 1949).
The Santhals have been living in southern and western part of the West Bengal for at least five hundred years. It was found that some of the Santhal villages in Bankura district are over three hundred years old. They live in tropical environment, which is humid and hot. Their habitational places are generally covered with forest and hills that are intercepted by streams and springs. In some parts, there are ranges of low hills, while in others, the conical shaped hills rise abruptly from the undulating plains. Most part of the countryside is covered with the Sal forest that contributes to the well being of the dwellers. The area in the plain is characterized with the lateritic reddish soil having scanty water supply.
The primary occupation of the Santhals is agriculture, though food gathering and hunting are their important subsidiary occupations. Familiarity with animal husbandry contributes marginally to their livelihood. Santhals are expert hunters who hunt a variety of games that are available in the surrounding forests. They fish in river, ponds and other water- logged areas with the help of nets, traps, bow and arrows. They also do fishing with the help of poisonous plants. Monogamous marriage system is the most prevalent one among Santhals, though polygynous marriage system is also found in some cases. There are seven accepted forms of marriages or Bapla namely, Kring Bahu Bapla, Ghardi Jawae Bapla, Itut Bapla, Sanga Bapla, Kiring Jawae Bapla, Tunki Dipil Bapla and Nirbolok Bapla. The Santhals are divided into 12 exogamous totemic clans, locally known as Paris. These are: 1) Hansda, 2) Marndi, 3) Soren, 4) Hembrom, 5) Tudu, 6) Kisku, 7) Murmu, 8) Baske, 9) Besra, 10) Pauria, 11) Chore and 12) Bedea. Pauria, Chore and Bedea clans are on the verge of extinction and not even a single member of these three clans was found during the present study.
Each subject was interviewed to obtain information regarding their education, activity patterns, morbidity pattern of last three years and dietary intake.
In addition, ten anthropometric measurements were taken on each subject, following standard methods (Martin and Saller 1957, Tanner et al. 1969). These measurements were: Body weight, Height vertex, Bicondylar humerus, Bicondylar femur, Mid upper arm circumference, Mid Calf circumference, Skinfold at triceps, Skinfold at subscapula, Skinfold at suprailliac and Skinfold at calf. Sum of skinfolds was calculated by using the four skinfolds mentioned above.
On the basis of the formula given by Martin and Saller (1957), Body mass index was calculated, which is the percentage ratio of the weight to height. Body mass index = [Weight (kg) / Height2 (cm)] ×100. Later, each subject was categorized by using the classification of National Institute of heart, lung and blood, US (, 2005): Underweight = <18.5; Normal weight = 18.5 – 24.9; Overweight = 25.0 ≥.
Anthropometric somatotyping was calculated and rated, using Heath and Carter’s method (Carter 1980, Heath and Carter 1967). Mean Sex Difference Index (MSDI) was calculated using the following formula, which is MSDI = M1 – M2 / (M1 + M2 / 2), Where, M1 is the variable mean of males and M2 is the variable mean of females.
In statistical analysis, Mean, Standard error and Coefficient of variations were estimated for somatotype components using computerized statistical software, SPSS and MS Excel. Chi-square and t- tests were calculated, using SPSS software, to examine the sex differences in Body mass index (BMI) and Somatotype components respectively.
Results and Discussion
In this section gender differences in certain socio-economic aspects and body physique among Santhals of Bankura would be discussed. Dietary habits of the Santhals are presented in Table 1. Their staple diet is rice and they don’t take any wheat-based preparations. Majority of them (80.6%) take meals thrice a day, whereas some of them (15.0%) take meals twice a day and only a few (3.8%) have meals four times a day. Pulse intake on regular basis is rare among the Santhals. Consumption of pulses is restricted mostly to three (31.1%) or two (33.0%) days a week, with a negligible percentage of them consuming it on daily basis (6.1%). Some of them (21.5%) even intake pulse only one day per week. One of the prime reasons behind the dearth of pulses in this population is that Santhals do not cultivate pulses; instead they purchase it in cash (not through barter system, which they do in case of green vegetables and rice) from market. As milk is scarce, consumption of milk is almost nil in this community. They usually neither consume milk nor they put it in tea and leave it for cows to feed their calves. Although they relish non-vegetarian food, they can ill afford to devour these on regular basis. Consequently, they consume fish or meat only once (70.1%) or twice (22.3%) a month. Very few of them can afford to consume non-vegetarian food thrice (4.5%) or four (3.1%) times a month. Therefore, their daily meals consists boil rice and green vegetables. They don’t purchase fruits from market but collect them from forest; so, the consumption of fruits depends on the season. From the glimpse of nutrition intake among Santhals it is apparent that in general they are nutritionally deprived and therefore malnourished. However, from the information based on intra-household allocation of food and nutrition, it is evident that Santhals do not discriminate between men and women on this ground and as a result no evidence of gender inequality is observed. All the household members take their meals together after distributing every preparation equally. Hence, this visible nutritional deprivation is due to their low socio-economic status and not because of any gender inequality at household level, as it is present in both men and women of this community.
The distribution of Santhals according to their primary occupations is represented in Table 2. The majority (72.5%) of the Santhals are self-cultivator cum daily laborer. Santhals falling under this category own only a small piece of cultivable land, which is generally not sufficient to sustain livelihood. Therefore, to substantiate, they work as daily laborer in the construction sectors or in the land of affluent people. A sizable number (18.7%) of them are self-cultivators, who have required amount of cultivable land to maintain their subsistence pattern. Some of them (6.8%) serve the government, whereas for a small percentage (1.5%) of Santhals daily wage is the only source of income, as they do not own any land. A negligible percentage (0.5%) of this population is in business. Further, the role of gender in occupational status and activity patterns of Santhals is identified. Santhal men, who are self-cultivators, carry out all the agricultural activities and animal husbandry. Women of these households, on the other hand, in addition to assisting men folk in agricultural activities and animal husbandry, perform all the household work that includes collecting fodder and fuel, for which they often travel 10-15 km up and down. Besides, women from the household of daily wagers go to work in construction area or to other affluent people’s cultivable land with their husbands, giving equal effort and exertion to earn their daily wage. Thus, it is evident from the above results that women of this community play equal role in household income or activity patterns with the men folk.
Educational status of Santhals is examined both in older and younger generations, to identify changing role of gender among the adult Santhals over the period of time in their educational system. The educational status of the Santhals of older generation is represented in Table 3. Majority (87.5%) of Santhal women from older generation are illiterate, while less than half (43.5%) of the men from this generation fall under this category. Most of the men from this generation have formal education and are qualified up to primary (18.8%), followed by lower secondary (18.3%) and secondary (14.0%), against negligible percentage of women having formal education up to primary (5.0%), lower secondary (1.8%) or secondary (0.5%). On the other hand, both men and women from younger generation are better educated as compared to their older counterpart (Table 4). In this context, development in education of women from younger generation is surely admirable. Majority of the Santhal women from this generation have formal education and most of them are qualified up to lower secondary (28.5%), primary (20.0%) or secondary (13.3%). A sizable percentage of men from younger generation are qualified up to secondary (36.3%), followed by lower secondary (24.8%) and higher secondary (11.8%). Besides, 6 women graduates, 29 men graduates and 1 male doctor are found in this population. Although it is clear from both the tables that Santhal men are better educated than the women, with times women of this community are having more opportunities and thus not far behind from men in achieving their formal education. Further, as compared to women from other tribal populations of India, Santhal women are educationally better off, as percentage of literacy is considerably higher in Santhals (44.9%) than that among Jaunsari (34.8%), Raji (16.7%), Oraon (42.3%) or Bhattara (3.1%). The reason for comparatively higher percentage of women literacy among Santhals might be due to the fact that they do not discriminate between man and woman in accomplishing their formal education and believe in giving equal opportunity to their children of either gender. Santhals are not even skeptical about higher education of women, as it is evident from the present study.
Gender differences in health status among Santhals are investigated through both subjective and objective measures of health and physical fitness. The objective measures are body mass index (BMI) and body physique. The subjective measures are based on questions about major chronic or minor health problems faced by them in last three years. Health is a function of nutritional status, but not only of nutritional status. Other factors such as the availability, quality and cost of health care services, living standards, sanitary conditions, the quality of drinking water and even psychological stress are also important (Case 2002). Morbidity pattern of Santhals for last three years, based on the questionnaire related to their health problems is presented in Table 5. The investigation reveals that men of this society tend to be more ill than women. Major diseases like bronchitis, leprosy, jaundice or pneumonia are observed only in men and not even a single case from women is found during the present study. However, occurrence of malaria is higher in women (43.2%) than in men (33.9%). High prevalence of malaria in this population, as compared to other illness, could be because of the preponderance of mosquitoes in their inhabited forest area. T.B. is conspicuously more prevalent in Santhal men (21.7%) than in women (4.1%), which could be because smoking habit is present in almost all the men but only a few women from this population smoke. Higher incidence of arthritis in women (5.9%) than in men (3.1%) might be due to the more laborious and strenuous work done by women than men in this population. Thus, overall men of this community are more prone to diseases than women. Although gender differences in nutritional status are not evident during the present research, gender differences in morbidity pattern could be result from biological or genetic factors. For treatment, Santhals always first consult the village Shaman, which every village has. If he fails, then only they consult doctors in primary health centers, which are distributed all over the block with the main center being located at Ranibandh.
Body physique is one of the important objective measures to examine the health status of a population. Both Santhal men and women are predominately Mesomorphic in their body physique (Table 6). Of the other two components of somatotype, Ectomorphy dominates over Endomorphy in men, whereas, they are co-dominant in women (Figure 1). Interestingly, sex differences in the variability in Mesomorphic and Endomorphic components are marginal, whereas in Ectomorphy it is much higher in women than in men. Mean sex difference indices suggest relatively greater Endomorphy and Mesomorphy in women, while higher Ectomorphy in men. Sex differences are statistically significant (P < 0.05) in all the three components of somatotype among Santhals. The subsistence pattern of Santhals compelled them to do lots of muscular activity in their day-to-day life, irrespective of gender. As a consequence they have highly developed and strong muscle mass, apparent from the predominance of Mesomorphic component in the body physique of both men and women. Relatively higher Endomorphic component in women and comparatively greater Ectomorphic component in men is in line with previous investigations (Sidhu et al. 1985, Roy and Pal 1997). Comparatively higher Mesomorphic component in women than in men is perhaps because of the extra-strenuous works performed by the women than their counterpart men. As mentioned earlier, Santhal men basically carry out the agricultural activities and animal husbandry. Women on the other hand, in addition to supporting their husbands in agricultural activities and animal husbandry, perform all the household work that includes collecting fodder and fuel from far off places. Previous studies have established that gender difference in body physique is due to the combined effect of genetics, physical growth, maturation, body composition, nutrition and environment (Heath et al. 1961, Eiben et al. 1986, De Garay et al. 1974, Stepnicka et al. 1976, Carter and Parizkova 1978, Stini 1979 and Malik et al. 1986).
One of the crucial measures to study the health and fitness of a population is body mass index (BMI). In the present study, gender differences in health and nutritional status are examined by using this measure. Body mass index (BMI) among Santhals of Bankura is presented in Table 7 and Figure 2. Prevalence of ‘Underweight’ is observed in both Santhal men (55.0%) and women (52.5%). Nearly equivalent percentage of men (44.0%) and women (44.7%) are ‘Normal weight’ in this population. Only a negligible percentage of Santhals are ‘Overweight’, where, as compared to men percentage of ‘Overweight’ women is slightly higher. In addition, one obese woman is found during this survey. Overall, Santhal women have higher BMI than their counterpart. However, gender difference in body mass index is statistically non-significant at 5% probability level. Therefore, the results suggest that in general Santhals of Bankura are malnourished in respect to their BMI, but women are not nutritionally deprived than men. Instead, women are marginally better off than their men counterpart, which could be due to certain biological factors as gender inequality in nutritional and health status is not evident in this population.
Thus, from the glimpse of socio-economic status of Santhals, it is apparent that in general they belong to low socio-economic class. As a consequence, they cannot afford to consume fish, meat or pulses on regular basis, even though they relish them. Their daily meals consists boil rice and green vegetables. Santhals mostly reside in kaccha and single storied houses with a room and a kitchen. They use forest wood as fuel and kerosene lamp to light their houses. Although the literacy level and educational level is higher in Santhal men, the difference between men and women is fast diminishing. Even in higher education they are now less hesitant and resistant to send their daughters to relatively far off places. Further, the examination of gender differences among Santhals, especially in their nutrition and health status indicates that women from this society are not deprived nutritionally or in health care services. Gender roles in household production, food production and processing are clearly demarcated and thus specialized, e.g. women cannot plough the paddy field or men do not go to collect fuel and fodder. Despite that, no gender inequality is noticed in health and nutrition in this population. Specifically, body physique, BMI and morbidity record of men and women suggests that, women are comparatively more muscular, physically fit, strong and less prone to diseases than men. Overall, the phrase “Separate but equal” accurately describes relations between the genders among Santhals, with members of neither gender being dominant nor submissive to the other. Hence, though there are gender differences among Santhals in terms of their activity patterns, education, occupation, health and nutrition, these differences need not necessarily lead to gender inequality.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT We gratefully acknowledge the financial assistance rendered by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Govt. of India, for this investigation.

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Table 1: Dietary Habits of the Santhals
Table 2: Distribution of Santhals, by Primary occupation
Table 3: Distribution of Education among Santhals, by sex (Age group: 35 years – 90 years)
Table 4: Distribution of Education among Santhals, by sex (Age group: 18 years – 35 years)
Table 5: Morbidity pattern of Santhals, by sex
Table 6: Somatotype components, by sex
Table 7: Body Mass Index, by sex

Figure 1: Somatotype components, by sex
Figure 2: Body Mass Index, by sex

Table 1: Dietary Habits of the Santhals
Dietary habits No. %
Meals taken per day Once
Four times or more 2
15 0.6
Pulse intake / week One day
Two days
Three days
Four days
Seven days 94
28 21.5
Meat or Fish / month Once
Four times or more 280
12 70.1

Table 2: Distribution of Santhals, by Primary occupation
Primary occupation No. %
Owner cultivator cum Laborer 290 72.5
Laborer 6 1.5
Owner cultivator 75 18.7
Government employee 27 6.8
Businessman 2 0.5
Total 400 100.0

Table 3: Distribution of Education among Santhals, by sex (Age group: 35 years – 90 years)
Educational level Males Females Total
No. % No. % No. %
Illiterate 174 43.5 350 87.5 524 65.5
Literate 22 5.5 21 5.3 43 5.4
Primary (till 5th) 75 18.8 20 5.0 95 11.9
Lower secondary (till 8th) 73 18.3 7 1.8 80 10.0
Secondary (till 10th) 56 14.0 2 0.5 58 7.3
Total 400 100.0 400 100.0 800 100.0

Table 4: Distribution of Education among Santhals, by sex (Age group: 18 years – 35 years)
Educational level Males Females Total
No. % No. % No. %
Illiterate 27 6.8 123 30.8 150 18.8
Literate 6 1.5 13 3.3 19 2.4
Primary (till 5th) 46 11.5 80 20.0 126 15.8
Lower secondary (till 8th) 99 24.8 114 28.5 213 26.6
Secondary (till 10th) 145 36.3 53 13.3 198 24.8
Higher secondary (till 12th) 47 11.8 11 2.8 58 7.3
Graduate 29 7.3 6 1.5 35 4.4
Post graduate / Professional 1 0.3 0 0.0 1 0.1
Total 400 100.0 400 100.0 800 100.0

Table 5: Morbidity pattern of Santhals, by sex
Name of the ailments Males Females Total
No. % No. % No. %
Bronchitis 3 1.2 0 0.0 3 0.7
Asthma 11 4.3 4 2.4 15 3.5
Cold and cough 38 15.0 25 14.8 63 14.9
Typhoid 22 8.7 20 11.8 42 9.9
T.B. 55 21.7 7 4.1 62 14.7
Malaria 86 33.9 73 43.2 159 37.6
Diarrhea 11 4.3 5 3.0 16 3.8
Chicken pox 11 4.3 16 9.5 27 6.4
Phyleria 1 0.4 4 2.4 5 1.2
Arthritis 8 3.1 10 5.9 18 4.3
Leprosy 1 0.4 0 0.0 1 0.2
Jaundice 1 0.4 0 0.0 1 0.2
Epilepsy 3 1.2 4 2.4 7 1.7
Piles 1 0.4 1 0.6 2 0.5
Pneumonia 2 0.8 0 0.0 2 0.5
Total 254 100.0 169 100.0 423 100.0

Table 6: Somatotype components, by sex
Somatotype Components Males Females Sex Difference
Mean S.E. C.V. Mean S.E. C.V. MSDI T - value
Endomorphy 1.98 0.05 49.22 3.16 0.08 48.73 -0.46 14.16*
Mesomorphy 4.81 0.06 25.86 5.43 0.07 24.26 -0.12 7.38*
Ectomorphy 3.98 0.08 34.42 3.17 0.08 49.50 0.23 8.23*
* P < 0.05 MSDI = Mean Sex Difference Index

Table 7: Body Mass Index, by sex
Body Mass Index Males Females Total
No. % No. % No. %
Underweight 220 55.0 210 52.5 430 53.8
Normal weight 176 44.0 179 44.7 355 44.3
Overweight 4 1.0 10 2.5 14 1.8
Obesity 0 0.0 1 0.3 1 0.1
Total 400 100.0 400 100.0 800 100.0
df = 2 Chi-square = 3.752 ( P > 0.05)

Figure 1: Somatotype components, by sex

Figure 2: Body Mass Index, by sex
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