The removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa) in several areas in the Northeast has been welcomed. But, perhaps, the cohort that will feel most relieved will be women who have disproportionately suffered the brunt of this law. Many speak of the trauma of seeing male family members being taken away on mere suspicion of being aligned to underground outfits. Women themselves were subject to many violations, as in the case of Thangjam Manorama, who was taken away on similar unfounded suspicions and raped and murdered. Her killers have yet to be apprehended.
Research on the situation of women under Afspa conducted by the North East Network (Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland), a non-governmental organisation, showed that there was a decline of men’s participation in agriculture; shortening of women’s work time in the field and the household, for fear of getting caught in any encounter or firing, imminent danger of house searches by the security forces; earning precarity with minimal cash income and mental trauma because of the uncertainties of their daily lives compounded by the dangers of confrontation and despair at the thought of losing their family members.
Patricia Mukhim, editor of the Shillong Times, says, “For women the fear of rape was like the Sword of Damocles in areas where Afspa empowered security forces to forcibly enter their homes on a search and seizure operation. Women were pushed around and even slapped if they stood in the way when search operations were going on. Hopefully with Afspa gone in many areas, women and young girls will breathe easy and understand what it is to live a full life away from the shadow of the gun and the threat of being reduced to a statistic after being raped. Often women have seen their brothers, fathers or husbands killed in cold blood in what are fake encounters. This too will hopefully be a thing of the past.”
The conflict in the Northeast led to severe repercussions on the lives of youth and women in the form of lack of employment, absence of institutional support and absence of regular classes. What has been remarkable is the resilience of women despite the blockades, crossfires, house searches, and the killings. Women must now get a fair chance at being mainstreamed in jobs, since unlike in many other parts of the country, they are not held back from many jobs by caste, social exclusion and purdah systems.
Women must be given more opportunities in sports, performing arts, use of digital media and biodiversity. Attention should be focused on rural women in agriculture, their role in preserving and storing indigenous seeds, herbs of medicinal value, land-based activities for replenishing the soil and creating a wealth of natural resources. This would open opportunities for earning if backed by knowledge in online marketing.
Monisha Behal, former executive director of North East Network, says, “Government support for women’s organisations to impart training programmes is critical at this juncture. During the conflict and the enforcement of the repressive law, women suffered many forms of mental, physical, emotional and economic abuse, sexual violence and vulnerabilities of their health that are well documented by women’s organisations like ours.” She adds that women affected by violence must be given counselling and easy access to relevant information through digital media.
For the women of the Northeast, this is the first step to a normal life. They should be given all the support and succour denied to them for decades to make the most of their enormous potential.
The views expressed are personal
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