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Women of the Thar Desert

Written By Zulema Ali.


The Thar desert spans across India and Pakistan, with 85% of its land in India and 15% in Pakistan, it is a territory of over 200,000 square km. With a population of around 16 million, the people of the Thar desert are ethnically diverse. Religion and language differ depending on the region of the desert the people reside in. Sindhi predominantly spoken in the southwest, Lahnda spoken in the northwest and the Rajasthani languages amongst the central and eastern populations.


Its name derives from ‘thul’, a term used for the desert’s sand ridges. It’s an arid landscape with little vegetation cover. Famous for its shifting sand dunes in continuous motion, their shapes differ in height and shape with the winds. Limited rainfall means the desert faces water scarcity for up to 11 months of the year.


Historically colonialism impacted the desert as it interrupted the natural and native way of life there. Under colonial rule, the desert was deemed an ‘unproductive’ space, where no money could be made. Their solution was to create more farmland which could be taxed. And so irrigation was introduced to these semi-arid lands to create cropland. Now the right to graze animals was reserved for those who owned the land, disrupting the nomadic cattle farmers. Other colonial policies such as planting more woodland for timber, a result of the British demand for the material, disrupted the delicate balance of the ecosystem. The desert would never be the same again, as successive governments continued these policies.


The image of the Thari women, carrying taankas of water on their heads, is known by most. The images are always striking, the contrast between their colourful clothes and the arid background, their resilience palpable from their expression. But it is also a portrait of hardship, often these women walk a few kilometres to find water.


A noticeable feature of the dress of the Thari women is the prominent bangles that adorn their arms. These bangles are a symbol of marital status. A long-established tradition where the length of the bangles indicates whether a woman is married or single. White bangles are worn only on the arms when the woman is single but if they reach all the way up to the upper arms then it is an indication that the woman is married. Traditionally these bangles were carved of Ivory but modern versions are now created using plastic.


Life in the Thar desert is tough. For many the main source of income is agriculture and livestock. Men of the families often migrate to the cities to help support their families, leaving the women to look after everything left behind. Surviving drought and bad harvests - there is a lot on the line for these women. This life has proved them to be tough and resilient. Women become the forefront of the fight against poverty and for survival.


In recent years, the droughts in the region have been more frequent. Making life all the more harder in these areas. Now the women are fighting to protect themselves. Adaptation is their only solution to the increasingly dry landscape.


It is these regions and people that are most vulnerable to the disruption of climate change, suffering both social and environmental consequences. Climate change has a disproportionate effect on those who themselves contribute nothing to the problem but bear the brunt of the aftermath. Reports worry of the rise of food insecurity in these regions due to recurring droughts.


In the village of Derasar, a village near the border of India and Pakistan, the women have set up a self-help group, under the guidance of ICRISAT - the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, that empowers the women left behind. Helping women to combat the devastating effects of climate change. This women-led initiative gives advice and helps others adopt integrated farming methods suited to the region, and planting different crop varieties that are better accustomed to the environment, all whilst keeping the women's local knowledge at the centre.


These women are fighting a battle for survival, against climate change, and the historic colonial impact on the desert. Powerful together they persevere.


 

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