Women activists in Churachandpur district of conflicted state of Manipur are defying all threats to fight for the rape victims allegedly attacked by existing ‘underground outfits' in the region.
Conflict in Manipur has been an ever-present reality for decades. As in most conflict zones, it is the women here who bear the brunt of the disturbances. But they have learnt to come together against the violence, whether it is caused by security forces or by militant groups. Women's groups like the Imphal-based Meira Paibis are well known, but there are many small local organisations in other parts of this conflict-scarred region, which are responding with courage and determination to atrocities on women.
The intra-ethnic violence between the state and non-state elements had reached such a point that the villagers were fleeing to neighbouring Mizoram in sheer terror/ Photo credit: AFP/ Files
Take the Hmar Women's Association (HWA), a group formed by the Hmar community women in Lamka, the headquarters of Churachandpur district. When its members learnt from media reports in early 2006 that about 25 women – many of them still in their teens – were being tortured, molested and sexually harassed by so-called ‘underground outfits' in villages like Parbung, Hmarkhawpui and Sipuikawn, they decided to fight back.
These villages are located in the Tipaimukh sub-division of Churachandpur. This sub-division, along with four others – Henglep, Thanlon, Saikot and Samulamlan – forms the epicentre of violence here. Claimed as ‘liberated zones' by insurgents, safe hideouts for as many as 13 insurgent groups, each claiming to represent a community or a hill tribal group or sub-group, are located here. Even non-tribal outfits from the Manipur valley claim to have a base in this district. Security forces, like the Assam Rifles, have been deployed in the area, and many of the insurgent groups ostensibly come under the SoO (Suspension of Operation) agreement.
The remote location – it takes two days to reach the villages by jeep from Lamka – did not deter the HWA women activists. Recalls Pi J.L. Sawmi (“pi” is a prefix used locally as a mark of respect to an adult woman), the head of the association and currently president of Churachandpur Joint Women's Union (CJWU), an umbrella body of various local women's groups, “The roads were atrocious, but that didn't stop us.”
The intra-ethnic violence as well as clashes between the state and non-state elements had reached such a point that the villagers were fleeing to neighbouring Mizoram in sheer terror. They had horrifying stories to relate. Reportedly these ‘militant' outfits made demands at gunpoint. As Pi Sawmi puts it, “The villagers would have to pay dearly if a demand, or rather ‘command' – which extended to sexual favours – was not obeyed.”
During the days of heightened protest against the Tipaimukh rapes, the activists moved from village to village. They came under all kinds of threats and their lives were in danger. As Pi Sawmi says, “We received several ‘unidentified calls', but ignored them or moved about incognito.” The group had to also face smear campaigns. The local media were very critical of their actions and alleged that they were engineering these protests at the behest of vested interest. “But,” Pi Sawmi says, “we also issued press releases and statements to clarify.”
Within days, rallies and protests were held against the Tipaimukh attacks, both in Lamka and Delhi, which forced the Manipur government to set up the Rajkhowa Commission to look into the allegations. Ironically, although the nature of the crimes involved rape, the Commission did not include any health experts, let alone women investigators. The hearings and examination of the victims was conducted in Parbung – the headquarters of Tipaimukh – with cross examination being undertaken by Human Rights Alert, a human rights group, and the Manipur Forward Youth Front – both of which are valley-based and non-tribal bodies.
Apprehensive and demoralised by the turn of events, the Hmar Women Association leaders went knocking at the doors of the National Commission for Women (NCW) in Delhi in May 2006. “Fortunately they heard us out patiently. Chairperson Girija Vyas and other members took the matter seriously,” recalls Pi Sawmi. Later, a NCW member and Northeast-in-charge, Malini Bhattacharya, visited Tipaimukh and met the victims.
In her report, Bhattacharjee stated that the girls who had undergone sexual assault and rape still suffered from headaches, listlessness and inability to concentrate, apart from various menstrual and urinary problems. Some reported impairment of eyesight and hearing, and there were also complaints of pain in the back and abdomen. Not surprisingly, every woman complained of living in fear. Bhattacharya also noted the abysmal lack of health care in the area: “There was neither hospital nor doctor, only a defunct primary health centre.”
It was only on the recommendation of the NCW that a free medical and trauma counselling camp was held in Parbung in November 2006. This move helped. According to Pi Sawmi, many victims felt better psychologically, as there was a lot of sharing with the full participation of the HWA members. One woman beneficiary put it this way, “When we talk about problems that only women can relate to, like abdominal pain, we feel better.”
A major fear among the rape survivors was of having contracted HIV/AIDS since many of their attackers were known drug-pushers. There was also the stigma attached to being raped. Several survivors have today left their homes to begin life anew in Mizoram and Meghalaya. But it is difficult to erase the past completely. According to Pi Sawmi, these women – most working as domestic help - are still “living death”, their hopes of marrying and settling down to a normal life completely dashed.
The campaign also took a lot out the HWA women. There was limited financial and legal support. Pi Sawmi adds, “All our funds were spent on travel and most of the time it was from our pocket. While the NCW members were required to be ferried by helicopter, the HWA team would leave for Lamka two days ahead in order to be there on time.”
A major problem, they believe, is the lack of support structures for women who undergo traumatic experiences, given local ignorance and illiteracy. The HWA team had a tough time dealing with the parents of the rape victims, most of whom wanted to keep the issue under wraps. It was only with time that they realised the importance of speaking out. The lack of health care infrastructure was another major challenge, with the victims not knowing where to go or whom to approach for medical assistance.
But the biggest lesson learnt was the need for local women to organise and come together, especially in a district like Churachandpur where different communities and ethnic groups live cheek-by-jowl. That was why the CJWU was convened in 2005. It comprises several community-based women organisations, including the HWA, the Zomi Mothers' Association, Kuki Women's Association and Ima Leimaren Apunba Lup. The Union collectively resolved that any rape accused, no matter his ethnic background, should be awarded exemplary punishment, and a minimum sentence of five years along with a fine.
Today, even as ethnic clashes continue to rage, the CJWU has successfully intervened in several incidents. They are also exploring ways of keeping the original issue alive and are thinking of filing an RTI petition on the action taken on the Rajkhowa Commission Report, which was submitted to the state government in 2007. So far, little seems to have come out of it.
Churachandpur's brave and feisty women activists want justice and are prepared to fight hard for it.