Saturday, April 11, 2015

Meera Vijayann - A dangerous silence in India’s north-east

Unlike the 2012 Delhi gang rape, the violence meted out against women in India’s north-east has not elicited widespread calls on the government to act. The silence is proving costly.

In early October 2014, the body of a young tribal girl was found facedown in Meghalaya’s East Garo Hills. Her body had been decapitated, charred, bruised and left naked in a densely forested area near Kisumgolgre village in the sprawling East Garo district. The girl, identified later by the police as Richina Sangma, was a 15-year-old Garo. She had been reported missing a few days earlier. Parts of her body that were severed and strewn in the jungle, when discovered, had already been partly eaten by wild animals.
India’s rugged north-east — which consists of the seven states of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and the Himalayan state of Sikkim — has seen a rise in crimes against women over the past decade. In 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau reported that six of the north-east states have witnessed an accelerated increase in crimes against women. These crimes ranged from rape and kidnapping through to dowry death and domestic cruelty.
Let us pay closer attention to the events at Williamnagar, the town that Sangma belonged to. The town is the district headquarters of the East Garo Hills in Meghalaya. According to reports, the teenager was lured by her stepfather (who allegedly claimed that he was taking the girl for a medical check up) and raped before she was killed. The girl’s mother had also reportedly complained to the police that her husband had been sexually assaulting the girl for over a year.
Williamnagar has witnessed many crimes against young women. In March 2013, another young girl from the town was lured into the jungle, and gang-raped by four men. In December 2012, a few days after the gruesome Delhi gang rape, an 18-year-old girl was raped by 16 men on the way home after attending the Simsang festival.  Her private parts were mutilated after the brutal act. The police found that eight of the accused were juveniles. It took immense pressure from NGOs, human rights groups and the community to ensure that the accused were brought to justice. In the end, the government merely offered a compensation of 25,000 rupees to the family of the victim. The young girl’s mother helplessly asked the media: “What will I do with the money when I can no longer lead a normal life?”
In 2013, Tehelka, one of the few national magazines that followed the Sangma case, reported that Meghalaya alone had over 500 pending rape cases in court and pointed out that conviction rates in the state still remained notoriously low. The Garo Hills, for example, despite facing brutal acts of violence against women, had no fast-track court. It was only recently that the government established one in Tura, the main town in the West Garo Hills district. Crimes against women and children rose by 23 percent in 2013, according to a few sources. Women face a constant threat from insurgent groups, rebels and the police in reporting violence. Here, sexual violence remains a secret protected by the community, with cases silently hushed up by tribal clans and local residents.
The pervasive apathy of lawmakers and the government has made it routinely difficult for women in the north-eastern states to report sexual violence. Often these women live with the accused or stay silent given that they have little or no power to take on authorities in their poverty-striken conditions.
The apathy of the Indian state to look into this mirrors a deep societal bias against women who are poor and members of tribal communities. In Williamnagar, the victim of the 13 December 2012 gang rape was moved to Tura and denied admission in a local school. Back in the village, her family was constantly harassed as people tried to photograph her when she walked outside. Six of the accused who were convicted in the Williamnagar gang rape were awarded ten years of rigorous imprisonment, while others were to be tried under a juvenile court.  
Biplab Dey, a journalist who works in Tura, focuses on the specific challenges that Garo tribes face in Meghalaya. Since communities follow a clan system, he says, most issues that concern sexual violence are kept within the group. “There are no shelter homes or hospitals available for victims of violence here,” he says, “and there are literally no channels that they can access to report crimes.” He points out that there is a lack of media scrutiny in the region as very few journalists work out of these remote towns. He adds that costs prove a huge burden as although some hospitals have basic necessities, they lack facilities such as trauma care, childcare or physiological assessment. Meghalaya also has a policy where rape victims are not offered more than  50,000 rupees (807 dollars) and the waiting time involved in receiving compensation can sometimes take more than three years.
A pressing challenge that both men and women face is the constant threat of militancy. Dey points out that extremist activity around the town of Williamnagar affects those who live there. “Both state actors like the members of the army and non-state actors such as people from groups from GNLA (Garo National Liberation Army) have family in the town,” he observes. “The terrain of the Garo Hills is also very hard to police because it is heavily forested.” Heavy militancy in the area, lack of access to economic opportunity and education has left many women vulnerable to becoming severely affected by trafficking, violence or systemic abuse.
Anjuman Begum, a human rights expert on north-east affairs, talks about the worrying pattern of youth migration from the region because of violence. “Young people are career-oriented and often migrate to other parts of the country for better employment opportunities,” she says. “They lack strong role models to stay back and yearn for a better life after witnessing life here.” One of the main problems this has led to, she suggests, is the serious problem of human trafficking.
Another problem is that the lack of opportunity and poverty has also pushed a lot of youth to drop out of high schools. According to official statistics published in 2011, the secondary school drop out rate in Meghalya is 58.87 percent. As a result, young boys are reportedly taking up arms in the Garo Hills, while young girls are lured into the sex trade. In Meghalya’s capital Shillong, prostitution is rampant, and tribal girls are mostly victim to this. Earlier this year, 12 teenage girls were kidnapped and tortured by self-styled activists in the area who suggested that the girls were in the “illegal sex trade”. 
India’s silence on crimes against women in the north-east is proving costly. There has been a lot of noise about the media’s consistent ignorance of the north-eastern region, but there seems to be little interest about this from the mainstream press. Unlike the Delhi gang rape, there are no protests on the streets, calls to action or pressure on the government to act. Sangma’s story is a reminder that the need of the hour is to listen; not to the stories that we read in the papers but to what the people are really trying to tell us.