With globalisation, the world saw new interconnectivity. Similarly, with structural adjustment, the capitalist system/market started growing in India. The garment industry was also one of them, which had considerable demands. Since the effects of globalisation on vulnerable groups, mainly women, are always a matter of concern, this capitalist demand with the combination of the Brahmanical patriarchal system raised the Sumangali scheme.
According to Brahmanical tradition, as prescribed in the Shastras, only Stridhan is the sole property of women who have been a bride. It is called Dahej or Dowry, which has become illegal in the eyes of the law since 1961 but is even practised nowadays. Dowry is known as Dahej (Hindi), Varadhachanai (Tamil), Jahez (Urdu), Joutuk (Bengali), Jiazhuang (Mandarin), Ceyiz (Turkish), Dot (French), Daijo (Nepali), and Idana (African countries). It is an unwanted gift the bride gets from the parents and has always been a core element in marriage institutions. One party (mostly the bride) gives presents to their daughters who are marrying off (to the grooms and their families). As Madan C Paul states that to promote one status, dowry becomes a similar symbol of social status and prestige.
The Shastra notions of Stridhan, Kanyadaan, and so on show the daughter as a commodity with no identity, no home, and no autonomy and suppress them in this institution called marriage. This social phenomenon, as Sonal Shukla says, is now a deep-rooted patriarchal issue and a matter of grave concern.
The idea of the Sumangali scheme is also based upon this notion of dowry. When the scheme includes more Dalit women than others, it also signifies the problem with the caste system where a family is so pressurised in this patriarchal system which sees dowry as social status, where the male members of the family have all the authority and rights over their members. Also, since the system cannot generate more income for other members, the adolescent girl is made to produce payment for her dowry. The dowry system is so ever-present that women from the Dalit communities are caught in this nexus to generate dowry for their prospective Dalit grooms. Brahmanical Patriarchy enforces caste-based marriages.
The Tamil word Sumangali is often used to refer to an unmarried girl. Hence the girls who were in this scheme were mainly of the adolescent age. The Sumangali scheme, which was a form of forced labour in India, is said to have started in 1989. The scheme is known as the “marriage assistance system.”, is also known as Sumangali scheme, Sumungali Thittam, Suba Mangala scheme, Subha Mangala scheme, Mangalya Thittam, Thirumangalam thiruman thittam, the marriage scheme, and the camp coolie system.
The idea behind Sumangali was to give a job (a real-life mockery of the term “job”) to adolescent girls to generate income for their dowry. Despite dowry being illegal in India, several families continue the tradition of the bride’s parents providing the groom’s family with substantial money. Hence, traditional discrimination and difference have become the base of this system.
Sumangalis were recruited either directly by the management of factories or through the agents of the factories. In the case of recruitment through agents, the agents are paid commissions. The scheme aimed to recruit girls aged 13 to 17 to three-year contracts in the mills. The girls and their parents are promised that their daughters will get a large payment at the end of the contract period to help them arrange the daughter’s marriage —the final price value.
Under the Sumangali scheme, girls’ parents, usually poor and from the lower castes, are persuaded by brokers to sign up their daughter(s) to be employed at garment and textile factories. The scheme promises a bulk of money after completing a three-year contract working in the factory. It ostensibly meets the needs of low-income families while providing a stable workforce to factories.
Organisations like Terre des hommes have talked about how the scheme is a way to exploit girls. There have been many incidents and news that indicate how this scheme is not only problematic in the sense that it restores the idea of the dowry system but also, it reinstates other problems around this. For instance, there have been major issues with the accessibility wage gap, sexual harassment in the workplace, harmful working conditions, and so many other things. The report Understanding the Characteristics of the Sumangali Scheme in Tamil Nadu Textile & Garment Industry and Supply Chain Linkages, by the Fair Labor Association and Campaign Against Sumangali Scheme, also talked about similar issues.
Also read: Why Are Dowry Payments Rising In India?
Ruth Manorama, the Dalit social activist, highlights the multifold identities of Dalit women and their being “thrice discriminated against and alienated based on caste, class, and gender, making their deprivation unique and systemic.” On a similar note Abirami Jotheeswaran, general secretary of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikhar Manch, had also talked about how “Brahminical patriarchy plays a critical role in keeping women down. More than 90 per cent of women involved in the Devadasi practice are Dalit women. More than 95 per cent of women engaged in manual scavenging are Dalit. For instance, the Sumangali Scheme in textile mills (particularly in the Coimbatore region), where more than 60 per cent of the women and girls, guaranteed to get money for a dowry, are forced into bonds at these jobs, are Dalit. It’s clear that it’s not just a gender issue; it’s a caste and gender issue.”
Although the scheme does not exist in theory anymore, one can find incidents reporting similar practices in at least the newspapers. The foundation of the scheme, dowry, although now illegal, is quite prevalent in the social reality. In several places, dowry is given according to professions, age, social status and several other factors. Similarly, it is not just about the money. It is now also about the gifts in terms of things associated with household chores. If somebody is not giving it willingly or unwillingly, they are stigmatised and humiliated. From such schemes Sumangali, it is essential to raise the question of whose Mangal(prosperity) is happening from these kinds of practices and institutions?
Rinku Kumari is a Dalit feminist and is currently a student of Women’s Studies at TISS, Mumbai. Rinku is an artist, writer and researcher and can be found on Instagram.
Featured image source: SOMO.nl