Women in Conflict: Multiple Marginalities through Displacement
By Subhajit Sengupta
It was raining heavily when we reached Gossaigaon, a sleepy town in Assam’s Kokhrajhar district. We had to cross a sloppy field which had been converted into a football ground by the local children. At the corner of the field, there was a small thatched house. This was our destination. We were told by some of our local contacts that a family had sold off two of their girls to a broker from the bride deficit land of Haryana.
The door was locked, thus we decided to wait at a sweet shop close by. By the time we reached the shop, the rain was so heavy that the kids had to abandon their game and take shelter there. We stood out as outsiders and soon curiosity got the better of these children. And we were only too keen to give in to their demands for a conversation. Amidst our chat about football, rain, and sweets, we carefully broached the topic of this family. We are told they would be back in a couple of hours. It emerges that they are from the neighbouring Chirang district and have moved into this Bengali dominated area only after the 2012 riots.
A bloody riot between the indigenous Bodo tribe and the Bengali speaking Muslims broke out in July 2012. Close to 80 people were killed and more than 4 lakh others were displaced from their land. They had to settle in areas where there was a substantial Bengali population. Over 500, mostly Bengali Muslim villages were destroyed in the riots. This family too was a victim of that carnage.
About four hours later, when the rain had subsided, the inhabitants of the house finally returned. We posed as United Nations workers and began speaking to the middle-aged woman Rubiya and her daughter. We were told that her elder sister Hasina had lost her husband in the riots. For a year she was in one of those 240 odd relief camps, which had come up in Gossaigaon town and adjoining areas. Later when Rubiya managed to secure this house, she too moved in with two of her teenage daughters.
Initially both of them used to work as domestic helps to run the household, but soon Hasina fell ill and within 2 weeks she passed away. Rubiya recounts, “Or Bukhar hoysilo, dawa pani ditam kintu o moira galo” (She got fever. I gave her medicines and took care of her but she passed away). Now Rubiya was left alone with 3 mouths to feed.
She clearly felt short of the job at her hand. She was candid enough to confess that because of her sister’s daughters even her own daughter couldn’t get the square meals. This is when her cousin came up to with a ‘lucrative offer’. She was told, in a distant land over 2000 kilometers away there is a dire need for virgins. Thanks to the frequent female infanticide and sex selective abortions, the state was falling way short in maxing the demand for marriageable girls. Thus the men of the area were looking elsewhere to find a bride.
Rubiya claims that she got them married, so that the teenaged sisters could get a better life. But the man at the sweet shop later told us that post the send-off, her spending power went up by a few notches. An NGO working in the area told us that apparently a deal was struck for Rs. 25,000. For the record, Hasina’s daughters were 14 and 16 years old.
Between Rubiya, Hasina, and her nieces, it is difficult to pin point who is not a victim. Displaced and jobless, what were the options before Rubiya? But then what about these teenage girls who were pushed into an uncertain and hostile environment far away from their motherland?
Kokhrajhar has been at the centre of the movement for a separate Bodoland. In this strive to ‘Divide Assam 50-50’, the Adivasis and the Bengali Muslims have been the biggest victims. Thousands of people have died and millions displaced in this five decade long struggle. But even in this conflict, women remain doubly marginalised. Seen as liability in a patriarchal set up, girls are often sent away to distant lands in lieu of money. Sometimes as bride, sometimes as domestic help and often as sex workers. Since 2012, over 5500 children have gone missing from Assam. Most vulnerable are the forest dwellers, half of them do not vote, living in abject poverty on the Indo-Bhutan border. They are often lured to displacement for as little as Rs. 5000.
As per the UNICEF figures, 80% of the districts in India have been showing declining sex ratio since 1991. A Hindustan Times report quoting UNICEF says, “Despite these horrific numbers, foetal sex determination and sex selective abortions by unethical medical professionals has today grown into a Rs. 1,000 crore industry.”
Thus, the requirement for women from other places continue. And in a conflict zone which produces 100s of orphans, where 1000s of people lose their livelihood, the predators can swoop in and fly out with girls for cheap. Thus, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and certain parts West Bengal have ended up becoming the hubs of human trafficking.
In her paper, “The pregnancy and rape risks for women displaced by conflict”, Margaret Bell writes that “[d]isplaced women have many of the same women’s health concerns as women anywhere, such as a need for access to family planning and a safe place to deliver babies. But women’s specific health needs are exacerbated by being on the move, and access to medical care is reduced or non-existent all along the displacement journey. While every displaced woman follows a different journey, many flee due to conflicts. These circumstances can have a devastating effect on health infrastructure, meaning that women lose access to healthcare even before they leave. Once on the move, healthcare can be out of reach due to lack of services, distance, transport barriers, lack of finances or uncertainty about available services.”
During the Muzaffarnagar Riots of 2013, which led to the death of 62 people and over 50,000 were displaced across Western Uttar Pradesh. Many camps were set up for the internally displaced people in the adjoining districts. Most of these came up in and around Kairana. Here the forest lands were used to provide temporary accommodation to thousands of Muslim families, who were too scared to return to their villages. One of the biggest camp was in Malakpura, which was basically a cluster of plastic tents virtually in the middle of nowhere.
The riots between the Jats and the Muslims took place in the month of August. But the trust deficit between the two communities was so high that even by December, the displaced Muslims were scared to move out of these camps and return to their houses. The camps soon became an eyesore for the government. By December, the state wanted to show that all was well again and all those displaced were back in their villages. But alas, on the ground the situation was not as comforting. While the government knew a lot of the displaced citizens would not go back to their own houses, they wanted them to leave these camps.
Thus began the sinister design of stopping medical camps, the milk service, and government attention in these camps. The December chill had set in and the tarpaulin tents were now leaking dew drops. By late night the beds became soaking wet. This particular camp in Malakpura had a number of lactating and expecting mothers. Without any state support and abject poverty, it became an uphill challenge for them to just get by.
Soon the news of death of infants and pregnant women started coming out. But the district administration continued to deny it. By the time we reached the camp for a spot check, the number of deaths in the camp had gone up to 39 in a calendar month. The camp had close to four thousand residents.
Life in any camp for internally displaced is difficult, in these trying conditions it becomes even worse, for a woman the battle becomes tougher at multiple levels but for lactating mothers the entire question of survival becomes a game of chance.
Thankfully after we aired our report, the Supreme Court took suo motto cognizance of the situation and ordered Uttar Pradesh government to immediately resume the emergency services. But access to healthcare and better living conditions were just one of the challenges.
In the wild western Uttar Pradesh, where ‘ghunghat’ and ‘purdah’ are prevalent, women are held up as the community’s batch of honour. Thus whenever a community is attacked, their women’s honour becomes the target of male pride. In Muzaffarnagar, too, the story did not deviate from the script.
While allegations of rape could be heard in hushed whispers in almost all the camps, seven women could finally fight the system and register a First Information Report (FIR) with the police. To report a case of sexual assault requires herculean effort. First the victim has to convince her family, then her community, third comes the insensitivity of police, and finally threats from the predators.
Instead of giving these survivors trauma care, the elements of the state often collude with the perpetrators to force them to withdraw the case. A year after the riots, one of them had succumbed to the powers that be and had withdrawn her case. But the other six continued the fight. One amongst them was particularly feisty. She not only kept up the pressure on the police for the arrest of the accused, but also spoke out on our camera how the woman Investigating Officer of her case asked her to withdraw her complaint. In return, she was being offered some money.
While displacement affects everyone, these threats exists only for the women. It is not just conflicts which lead to such displacement. After the earthquake brought an entire country down, we traveled across Nepal to witness the mammoth challenge that lay ahead of the Himalayan nation. Over 9000 people were killed in an earthquake which read 8m on the Richter Scale. Over 22000 people were injured and lakhs were displaced.
While physical damages were apparent everywhere but the graver threat remained beyond the obvious. While traveling through the worst hit districts we came across a team from Maiti Nepal, a not for profit organisation dedicated to help the victims of sex trafficking. Over a casual chat, one of their workers told me, “Worst is not over, it is yet to come”. I gave her a quizzed look and she started explaining how with so many people losing all their life’s possession, trafficking of minor girls would skyrocket.
We tried to pick up any chatter of trafficking from the ground, though much wasn’t said, it was clear, boom time for displacement of young girls from their homes to all across South Asia was only about to begin. In 2018, Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB) finished a research which said trafficking from Nepal has gone up by 500% in the last 5 years. As per the SSB data, 33 victims were rescued in 2014, this number jumped to 336 in 2015. Subsequently the number continued to rise every year. For every victim rescued, there are 100s who are transported across the country.
As per a report published in The Times of India, routes taken by traffickers, SSB says Nepalese girls from villages are first taken to Kathmandu, either to the guest houses or carpet factories, or from there to border towns in Nepal, where they are sold to brokers. The brokers then travel by bus or by train to Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi or even to smaller cities and sell these girls to a brothel owner or madam (referring to female agents in India) for up to Rs. 50,000. Most brokers travel by local buses to Delhi, and then Mumbai by train.
Here displacement of women has a caste dimension. As per the data recorded by the Social Welfare Ministry of Nepal, most of these women who are trafficked belong to the Scheduled Castes of the impoverished hill districts. In a social hierarchy, the worst hit during any crisis which leads to displacement are those who are economically weak and marginalised.
Unfortunately even in the twenty-first century, the women of these communities remain at the bottom of this social chain. In the privileged circles, the position of women has considerably improved in the post liberalized India. The new working class of women who have emerged post 1990s have added to this movement as economic independence has helped women to fight for equality in the household and society. The year gone by, 2017, was particularly remarkable in this regard. The #metoo campaign saw women across the world taking down powerful men and calling them out for what was for long being accepted as ‘men’s privilege’. But the real change will happen when this phenomenon trickles down to the downtrodden. Thus the only hope that one is left with is that the ‘trickle down theory’ will not be as laggard socially as it has been economically.
An award-winning journalist who is known for chronicling the mundane, Subhajit has a decade’s experience covering internal conflicts, communal disturbances, disasters, and displacement. Won the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award 2016 for a documentary which focused ethnic riots in Assam, the cause behind the strife, and the subsequent displacement. He is currently working with CNN-NEWS18.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.