One World South Asia
To mark the global 16 days campaign against gender violence that kicked off on Nov 25, OneWorld speaks to writer-activist Binalakshmi Nepram of Manipuri Women Gun Survivor Network who shares her absolute passion to empower women in conflicted areas.
This year's 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence focuses on peace and women in the heart of conflict. The work Manipuri Women Gun Survivor Network does is very relevant to this. Could you please tell us more about how does MWGSN work to address violence against women in the conflict ridden state of Manipur?
Binalakshmi Nepram: Our work with women survivors of gun violence started predominantly in 2007. There are various forms of violence against women. Violence at home - it can be physical abuse, it can verbal abuse. Then, there is violence in public places such as buses, trains where women are sexually harassed. Then we have a third form of violence where there is conflict, where there is structured conflict going on since decades. And that is where work of Manipuri Women Gun Survivors Network comes into existence. Women in Manipur face all the three types of violence. Manipur has the second highest rate in domestic violence in the country.
The second problem is public places. Manipur's public places are severely men dominated. If you are having a cup of coffee in a café, they will look with suspicion If you go to a cinema hall, you will be considered as a bad woman just because public places are for men. This is the irony of women in Manipur.
Now third one is the real problem. There is conflict going on in Manipur from last five decades and it has become worst in last 30 years. In Manipur, 32 armed groups are struggling with India for their political demands. In the process we have those 32 armed groups plus 60 battalions of Indian Army operating. Besides these, there are paramilitary operations by armed police. So, a woman in Manipur faces armed violence both from state and non-state actors and this is where our organisation comes in. Because in an area where there is an influx of weapons which is either state owned or non-state owned, how a woman can live a normal, safe life, that's a big question.
So, we try to address armed violence against women through three ways. First of all, whenever we come across any woman who has been affected by armed violence particularly by gun violence, we visit her house to see what the situation is. In Manipur each year 200-400 men between 19-41 years of age are shot dead because of insurgency and counter-insurgency operations – the highest in the country. As a result, young women with young children are widowed and these women have to fend for themselves. Even when an FIR is filed they are presumed to be ‘terrorists' and so government of India doesn't even give the compensation.
For us, a killing is a killing, whether it is done by state or non-state actors. When a main bread-earner is killed, what happens to the woman and the children? We try to deal and tackle with that and try to see how we can get her on her feet. First she should have enough food for herself and her children, education and future to dream on. We can't work at all levels but we start at a very basic level. We open the bank accounts of these women. So, hit upon the idea of opening bank accounts, not because of money and banking system but to provide them with their identity. It gives them an identity and secondly, money is saved. We donate money from our salaries and open the bank accounts of these women. That's how we started. This was the first level.
In second level we see what skills these women have. A lot of women survivors told that we want to work in our houses for our livelihoods. Home based household way entrepreneurs they wanted to be. So, we started giving them small sum of money for weaving, poultry, fishery, piggery, mushroom cultivation and even making second hand clothes. We don't impose a different skill on them, we just try to find out what skill they have and what they want to do. We call it economic empowerment of women. We have 120 women now who have been supported by us.
OWSA: What will make women feel safe in the region?
BN: Women will feel safe in any society if there are certain structures in place. Even in your home, you have no fear that you will be attacked either by insiders or outsiders. So, we look at safety at home first no matter even if we are physically weaker and this is everyone's responsibility. Outside is a state's responsibility. If we are going in a Delhi bus at 10 in the night, we are looked at. After 8'o clock I don't want to be in a Delhi bus because of the kind of eyes looking at me.
"AFSPA is a legislation which is the remnant of 1942 British Ordinance Act"
So, it is government's responsibility to make sure that inside the homes and out side, women are not treated like cattle and picked up in trucks and raped in cars. Just like the government has “Incredible India” campaign and even Bell Bajao Campaign was great, we must have some programmes to end this violence against women and to make men aware that you can not raise your hand against women. They should think twice before they physically attack us or abuse us mentally. I think it is the combination of both the home and the societal structure you are in it should be taught that it is not right to do what you want with the women. Nobody can say, “Oh, she was dressed like that so she asked for it.” You can not even rape a prostitute for that matter. The only thing I am saying is, you can not do whatever you want.
Recently, a 19 year old Manipuri-Naga girl was killed by an IIT engineer. It was done in her own rented apartment, it was not outside. She was stopped by this man living in his neighbour and he killed her by burning her in a gas stove. We handled that case. We lit 100 candles at her place. This was really tragic. This is what we are looking at.
Social conditioning of mind starts from home and it's very important to inculcate that value in the minds of men that when you will come out of your home you will respect women.
OWSA: The controversial Armed Forces special Power Act (AFSPA) is facing much criticism following alleged human rights violations by the Indian security forces. J&K has appealed to the central govt to repeal the Act in the state. “Iron Lady” Irom Sharmila has been on a hunger strike for over a decade now. What are your views?
BN: I would like to place this in record that AFSPA is a legislation which is the remnant of 1942 British Ordinance Act that was raised to clamp down on Mahatma Gandhi and India movement followers. It's a piece of colonial legislation which in free India actually has no place. It is a colonial legislation and is adopted by us. It was made to crush India movement.
In 1958, when the AFSPA was passed with just 3 hours of debate it was supposed to be effective only for six months. But now, it is there for 53 years in our country. India is the only country in the world where there is no declaration of war but there is an emergency law like AFSPA. In no nation of the world, Army is used for conducting operations against its own citizens. India is the only country where armed forces are operating against their own citizens.
"We are not against Army. Army is needed in our country to protect us from external aggressions and to protect our borders"
So, it is very important to note that AFSPA is a colonial legislation, passed without proper discussion and is strongly criticised.
It violates four principles of Indian constitution. First is right to life. Article 21 of the Indian constitution gives every Indian right to life but this act says you have no right to life because it gives a power to anybody in Indian Army can take his weapon if they suspect, in mere charge of suspicion can arrest, can interrogate, can shoot and can kill and that for me as an Indian is wrong. I am a proud Indian and it's a wrong legislation that takes the right of the Indian in another part of India away.
When you go to arrest anyone in Manipur, you don't need a warrant. This is wrong.
Now secondly, article 33 says, if anybody is arrested, he/she has the right to go to court. But under AFSPA, you can not even go to court. You don't have right to go to court which is again unethical.
This is the true picture of violation of rights. We have nothing against Indian Army. The Indian Army is an arm of the government; they will just follow the orders of the government's laws passed in the parliament. We are not against Army. Army is needed in our country to protect us from external aggressions and to protect our borders. But they are not doing that. They are operating in our rice fields, in our shops and in our homes. As a young girl many times I had seen Army coming to our houses and they could come at any time of the day. This is not the Indian we know.
We won the independence without firing a single bullet. It's not the armed India that we got from British. We threw British out of the country through non-violent means and now we have a group of our country forced with weapons to resolve their grievances. Solve it, talk it out but why use the military?
For me AFSPA is a blot on Indian democracy and this has to go out. People may say that if you lift AFSPA then you encourage insurgency, it is not true. Insurgency has increased after AFSPA has been invoked. Infact, insurgents are just 2% of the total population. The rest 98% of the people want peace!
"There is a misconception among the people that Home Ministry wants to remove AFSPA but defence forces don't want that"
You can not handle the violence with armed police. Army persons are trained to kill their enemies. Manipuris are not enemy to India. We have always dreamed of joining Indian civil services which is the highest form of services in India.
I have spent days with Ichen Irom Sharmila. Ichen in Manipuri means “sister”. Many of us have high regards and on that principle we support her and AFSPA needs to go but the method of indefinite hunger strike is worrying. Mahatma Gandhi also used hunger strike as a strategy but not more than two weeks. So, in that point we differ because struggles should be done with a good amount of public pressures plus you need a continuous dialogue. You can not say that my dad doesn't give me better shoes so I'll not eat. As a child we used to do that. We want Iron Sharmila to eat, to be healthy and to be strong so that she could lead the people of Manipur. Hunger strike is not an end, it is the means to end. We are worried about her. We want her to lead a normal life and continue her struggle.
There is a misconception among the people that Home Ministry wants to remove AFSPA but defence forces don't want that. No, my humble submission is just don't debate like that. It is all about Indian parliament. That act came into existence in 1958 in Indian parliament and that act has to go through Indian parliament. We have talked to Indian Army as well. Army people are doing a good job. They are helping people in natural calamities. They help victims when there are floods in Bihar and other parts of the country. So, we have nothing against Indian Army, it is a decision that should be taken by political leaders to resolve this crisis. We appeal them to do that.
At least once, give the people of Manipur and Jammu & Kashmir the greatest confidence building measure. Once remove this act and then see for yourself. We have told this to PM so many times. If you will take care of your own people, they will protect this country for you. We appeal to government of India to wake up, be visionary. A government should be like second set of parents. They should listen but right now they are not listening to us and a s a result Irom Sharmila continues to be on strike. Even the Indian Army after 53 years of operations and no results facing demoralise. Let them do their actual job. If there is an external aggression, they are so battle-fatigued , how will they fight with Pakistan and China?
OWSA: You have been recently conferred the CNN IBN Real Heroes Award 2011 for the welfare of women. What will be your future course of action to rebuild peace, providing justice and political rights in a society marred by years of conflict?
BN: Earlier we were very sceptical of the media. But they visited the places where our women worked for 2-3 weeks. I am very grateful to them because when people notice your work then it provides a safety net, especially for women. It is not sought for fame; it is a way which reinforces the people to recognise women's work.
They also change my perspective about the media. Now I feel, media can intervene in a good way. A lot of people across north-east and world are following our work understanding the dynamics of the conflict. When a Naga and Manipuri fights using arms made in America or Israel.
"At least once, give the people of Manipur and Jammu & Kashmir the greatest confidence building measure"
We want to highlight this element of gun-violence and small arms trafficking. We have put that on the table, not in the North-East but in the country. To initiate peace in a society starts with healing yourself because violence effects as in many ways, it's not just about political peace talks. So, for us, we always work from the grassroots, with the survivors. We don't work from top down. We work bottom up.
We always focus on the women first because she is most affected by the violence. She is a mother, she has children. So, we try to take care of her to see that she has enough food to eat, she has livelihood, whether she is able to generate her income, whether she is able to send her children to school. Very basic questions these are. We are very small organisation, we can help 100 women, 500 women but if government or any international organisation wants to, they can help thousands.
So, we realise the limitations of our work. So, what we do is, we try to look at national policy on rehabilitation for men, women and children affected by violence and try to understand the government of India's schemes, research about them and see how can we implement them For example, I was sharing about Project Assist which is about the helping the children whose father has been shot in the conflict. It provides education upto the age of 21 to these kids. We also look at international treaties and international norms because we learn a lot through looking around the world.
"If you will take care of your own people, they will protect this country for you"
We try to learn how women in Afghanistan or any other conflicted are rebel for their rights and how they are building their lives and how we can support each other. it's very important to work locally, keeping in mind what's happening nationally and linking out the movements for women around the world, at UN and other international forums. This is how we work.
When we started about working for disarmament, it was just a phenomenon but we learned that every year 5,000 Indians are shot dead due to these illegal fire arms not just in Manipur alone but even places like Delhi. For instance, Soumya Vishwanathan was killed by a country pistol.
We raised question of disarmament in Indian parliament a year and a half back. Through our supportive MPs , we go inside the parliament to brief the government about the situation.
We are also looking forward to partner with international organisation at UN level so that we could together work. Women should know their rights in conflict areas. For that we provide them booklets, which they could carry in their bags.
For people indulging in conflicts, they should also know the rules of war. Even the international humanitarian law says that even in a war zone you cannot stop medicines and food supply. Again the law says, if a woman has infant or she is pregnant, you can shoot her even if she is your enemy. So, we have started spreading these norms of war. I am also engaging the north east police in this. It's very important for the people who are engaged in conflict to know the rules of the conflict. Manipuri women have taught me how 120 women can change their lives and lives of others and what does Rs120 mean. Just give them a small capital and they will make out profit. We are just helping women to get economic, political and social justice.