Breaking a barrier to gender equality, Hekani Jakhalu (in picture) and Salhoutuonuo Kruse became the first women to be elected to the 60-member Nagaland Assembly since the State came into being in 1963. Soon after her victory from the Dimapur III seat on Thursday, albeit by a slim margin, Ms. Jakhalu spoke to the local media, breaking into Nagamese, often the preferred lingua franca in a region which speaks different languages across tribes and villages.
“I want to tell all Naga women this is our win... I know that things will get better for our women, and when things get better for women, things will get better for the State,” she said. The 48-year-old, representing the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also congratulated fellow party woman Ms. Kruse, 56, who won her Western Angami seat by the narrowest of margins.
Before returning home to launch a non-profit for youngsters, Ms. Jakhalu had studied in Delhi, and law in the U.S. Both women will be aware that they have large shoes to fill — that of Rano Shaiza, first president of the Naga Women’s Federation and the first Naga woman to be elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977. Working at the height of the Naga insurgency, Ms. Shaiza had highlighted the plight of women caught in a conflict zone.
Ms. Jakhalu is based out of Dimapur, the business headquarters of the State and gateway to the capital Kohima. She has reasons to celebrate, for apart from the fact that women will now hope to find a voice in policy-making, there were only four women contestants among the 183 candidates. She plans to assess how things stand in her constituency — take a count of schools, healthcare centres, and look at roads. A doctor, who works in the area but preferred to remain anonymous, said he hopes her win will enable the repair of roads, keeping in mind that projects of community upliftment depend a lot on a good network of roads.
Ms. Jakhalu told the media she wants to “map the aspirations of young people,” and she has a vantage point on this, having championed YouthNet, an outreach programme to educate the youth and teach them skills that make them better equipped to find employment, a burning issue in the State. Many Nagas are forced to migrate in search of jobs.
Now that two women are in the Assembly — and Ms. S. Phangnon Konyak is in Parliament as the first woman Rajya Sabha member from Nagaland — it is the right time to again take up the election to urban local bodies. All-men tribal bodies have been resisting 33% reservation of women in ULBs ever since the Nagaland government enacted the Municipal (First Amendment) Act in 2006, claiming such reservation would violate Article 371(A) and destroy Naga culture.
Strikes, protests and violence have stalled the elections for decades. But after protracted court battles, including by women’s groups, that have gone right up to the Supreme Court, the State government has been asked to give a status report when elections can be held this year.
To a question on whether it is on her agenda, Ms. Jakhalu told the local media that she would fight for reservation for women —“I think women need them.”
Nagaland presents a conundrum for though on human development and social indices, women fare better than the national average on several fronts, it has not resulted in political empowerment. There are several reasons for this. First — and the male-dominated hierarchy of the State has taken refuge in this — Naga customs, culture and traditions do not allow women to participate in the decision-making process. Some people claim women have been hesitant to join politics, though most are educated and have the credentials to join the fray and can be expected to turn around a corrupt ecosystem.
“By nature, women are compassionate, we are more sensitive to people’s feelings. I want to try and ensure no person is left behind,” Ms. Jakhalu said. For a State still searching for peace — the sticky points in the peace deal with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM) are yet to be sorted out — people will take her words as a sign of hope.