IMPHAL: Does the 'empowered Manipuri woman' actually exist or is the phrase just a myth? Even though the world sees the militancy-ravaged, but culturally-advanced and sport powerhouse, state as one of the few places in the country where women are truly free and respected, the womenfolk of Manipur - 'Nupi' in the Meitei dialect - still see themselves as victims.
Issues like domestic violence, HIV, sexual assault, gang rape, murder and now human trafficking still plague the women of the state. This perhaps explains why Manipur is home to numerous women-empowerment groups - there is one for HIV-positive women, another for widows of conflict, and another for victims of domestic violence. But these organistaions have not been able to shift the world's focus from shocking incidents - including recent naked protests by elderly Meitei women against rapes by Assam Rifles. Manipuri women, along with the rest of the country, now looks in awe at the fast by Irom Sharmila Chanu, the "Iron Lady of Manipur", who for the last 11 years has been protestiong the imposition of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
Sobita Mangsatabam, secretary of Women Action for Development (WAD), said: "An outsider sees the women on Manipur as the most empowered lot. The reality, however, is completely different. We are caught between state and non-state actors. Women are victimised and the real culprits are protected."
Mangsatabam has a point. According to data compiled by the organisation from various newspapers and media outlets, there were 15 cases of rape, four rapes and murders, eight rape attempts, 19 suicides, seven murders, one murder attempt and 13 assaults on women in 2011. Also, 71 women were reported missing and five others abandoned in the year gone by.
L Brajeshwori Devi, co-convenor of the Conflict Widows' Forum, said: "Widows are looked down upon. It is the same story for widows of even policemen killed in encounters with militants. There is no respect. The in-laws torture and drive out the widowed daughter in-law and often the women face sexual harassment from the in-laws."
Mangsatabam added: "The victims are only compensated by the government but then the culprits are set free. We have never tasted democracy, we have only smelt it." According to her, in the last 10 years, with the Congress at the helm, the issue of crime against women was raised in the assembly only once. "The historic day was December 20,2011, when the outgoing assembly sat for the last time. We submitted a memorandum to each of those legislators to raise the issue of crime against woman and CPI legislator N Mangi took it up before the house. It was first time in 10 years that the chief minister spoke on the plight of the women in the state."
Though Mangi recommended the state to set up of an effective investigating agency to deal with the menace, the various women-empowerment groups have now decided to take the matter into their own hands. Long before the ruling Congress was finalising its strategy to retain power in the state, Manipur's women wrote to party president Sonia Gandhi urging her to end "crimes against humanity".
As many as six women's groups - including Conflict Widows' Forum, Christian Network of Positive Women, Survivors' Action for Human Rights, and Domestic Violence Survivors' Group - staged a demonstration at Imphal's Palace Compound on January 8 urging the state to set up an extra-ordinary court to deal with cases of crimes against women and children.
With the January 28 polls around the corner, members of WAD are organising training camps across constituencies. "We are urging people, particularly women, not to vote for those who offer money. We must elect the ones who has concerns for the country," Mangsatabam said
"Whoever forms the next government should establish a working group on violence against women and children and form a competent advisory committee with due representation of civil society members to deal with the prevailing situation. We want political parties to emphahise their stand to protect innocents women from injustices in their manifesto," Brajeshwori said.