Women in the CHT: The Violent Hills

Hana Shams Ahmed

Published in Forum on 5 March 2011.

This piece argues that women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts struggle to survive as quadruple minorities.

On January 26, 2011 a 30-year-old Tripura woman in Matiranga in Khagrachhari was brutally raped by a group of Bangali settlers in her own home, in front of her husband and children. They had come in to her house with the intention to rob the house in the remote hill village.

On February 10, 2011 a 22-year-old Tripura woman was raped by Bengali settlers in Naikhyongchari upazila under Bandarban district. On the morning of that day she along with her brother-in-law had gone to a farmland 3 kms away from her home. Whilst working on the farmland, she was caught by five Bengali settlers who had been working there as day labourers. Two of them raped her.

On February 16, 2011 a teenage Marma girl from Bandarban was raped by a hotel manager and the owner of the hotel in Chittagong. She had come to visit the city with her uncle. The two Bangali men allegedly broke into her room, tied up her uncle in a separate room and raped her.

Pahari women are among the most marginalised and vulnerable groups of people in Bangladeshi society. They live as quadruple minorities under present social and political institutions. In a patriarchal and male-dominated society, they are a gender minority. In a Muslim-dominated country they are a religious minority. In a nationalist, Bangali-dominated society they are an ethnic minority. Within their own patriarchal community they face marginalisation, exploitation, and increasingly, violence. A strong political movement exists to resist this multiple marginalisation, but it has not been able to create enough resonance within the wider political structure.

The overwhelming number of Bangali settlers in the CHT has resulted in harassment and violence against Pahari women within the once secure neighbourhood of their homes. With no control over land dispossession and the non-functioning of the Land Commission to blame for this, and no sign of the army’s loosening its grip over the CHT, it is indeed a worrying trend. There is no documentation of the exact number of women physically assaulted or sexually harassed or raped by the army and Bangali settlers in the CHT. Before the CHT ‘Peace’ Accord was signed there were reports of mass rapes by the army, some of which were documented in CHT Commission’s report ‘Life is not ours’ and Amnesty International’s reports ‘Unlawful Killings and Torture in the CHT’. But there have been no investigations and no subsequent legal redress. And this impunity still continues even after insurgency ended more than 13 years ago.

The biggest concern in rape and other violence against women in the CHT now is the lack of access to justice and absolute impunity that perpetrators enjoy. In rape cases, the victim ends up going through further harassment from the side of the administration and law enforcers — there have been instances where doctors at hospitals have refused to give Pahari women physical check ups or delayed the physical check ups so that the evidence disappears; the victim’s family is asked to produce a ‘witness’ by the police; there is intimidation from the security forces, in at least one case the raped girl was further molested by the physical examiner himself; one victim who did not know Bangla had to ‘act out’ the crime in front of the court; there have been complaints about police delaying/refusing to take the case and many have been too afraid to file a case in fear. These and many other administration-led intimidation and harassment ultimately results in the perpetrator getting away with his crime. The bias by the administration is revealed in this rape case of a young disabled girl in Khagrachhari.

On July 31, 2009 a physically challenged 16-year-old Chakma girl was raped by a Bangali man in Dighinala, Khagrachhari. He took away her stick and grabbed her from behind and forcibly took her to her bedroom. Without her stick she did not have any strength in her body to fight back. A case was filed against the man. However, he managed to flee from the CHT and till today there have been no reports of his whereabouts. When a group of lawyers from two NGOs went to investigate the case, the bias from the administration was obvious. There was a new Investigating Officer on the case and without even speaking to the victim he claimed that the bank official was not guilty and it was a false case by the Chakma girl and it was politically motivated by a local Pahari women activists’ group.1

Lawyers in CHT lament about how difficult it is to ‘prove’ rape in a court of law. An essential requirement to adjudicate a case as rape is a medical test of the victim to find semen from the rapists’ body. From the moment a rape takes place a girl is placed under immense social pressure from the stigma surrounding it. Although this stigma may be the same or more in the Bangali culture, in the hills another kind of pressure is put on the victim and her family — pressure from the administration. Women’s rights activists have reported that the attackers are usually Bangali settlers and the administration, both civil and military, support in establishing impunity. Lawyers from BLAST (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust) have reported that many girls avoid making complaints or do so too late, by which time the evidence of rape from her body will have disappeared. Many times people from the administration threaten the girl and her family even if they do complain or try to mediate the matter by offering the poor victim’s family financial benefits.

The bias in rape cases is also clear when an eye-witness account is asked to be produced in a rape case. In the hill tracts, homes in remote villages are not located very far from each other and it is impossible to hear what is happening in one home from the next. This bizarre problem was recently faced by the mother of a 10-year-old raped girl.

After the mother made the complaint the police station kept pressuring the mother of the child to produce a ‘witness’ to the crime. The mother was unable to produce anyone as a witness as no one had actually seen the crime taking place. Some locals who had seen the girl lying on the ground in a pool of blood said that they had not seen how this had happened and refused to give evidence. In the latest update to this case, the government lawyers have filed a case against the girl’s mother for filing a ‘false case’.2 The mother is being accused of filing a false case because she could not produce an eye-witness.

Photo: ZAHEDUL I KHAN

Perpetrators of violence against women often manage to evade being identified, located, arrested and tried, let alone be punished. Many crimes against women take place over land disputes in the CHT. In the absence of prosecution and punishment there is less deterrence against any future offences.

In the 1950s, 98% of the population of the CHT was Pahari. With the building of the Kaptai hydroelectric dam, 100,000 families were displaced. Some went to India as refugees and others remain internally displaced. With the arrival of the settlers in 1970s/80s during insurgency the population ratio changed and the Paharis became minorities in their own land. These Bangalis brought with them their culture and social norms. Rape, sexual harassment, intimidation by Bangali men still continue today along with land grabbing. Clothing of Pahari women had to become more conservative to ward off unwanted attention from settlers.

The freedom of movement that existed before is not there anymore. Earlier, a lot of women used to be involved with selling vegetables and other necessities in the bazaar, the number of women doing that kind of work has come down. In our culture we don’t wear blouses and when we go out not fully covered up the army and the settlers look at us in an odd way and make us feel uncomfortable. Not only that the army and settlers regularly harass us by deliberately pushing and touching the women’s bodies in the bazaar. The women can no longer independently roam about in these places.3

Lack of government policies and legislations
The Government of Bangladesh has endorsed international treaties like the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). They all talk about ensuring equal rights to men and women to enjoy civil and political rights and prevent discrimination.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) has provisions for security and protection of indigenous women, to free themselves from discrimination and to empower them to assert their rights and preserve their culture. However, the Government of Bangladesh has refused to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution and the Foreign Minister in April 2010 was quoted as saying that Bangladesh did not have any indigenous people.4 The government asserts that the Bangali ethnic communities have been living in the country for longer than the other ethnic communities and as such are the original inhabitants (i.e. the ‘adibashis’, the Bengali equivalent of ‘indigenous’) of the country.

In 2010 the country passed the ‘Small Ethnic Communities Cultural Institute Bill 2010′ for indigenous people as a further assertion to non-recognition of indigenous people. Although the Paharis assert themselves as ‘indigenous’ (with exception from one political group UPDF — United People’s Democratic Front — which uses the term ‘ethnic minorities’), the government now uses the term ‘small ethnic minorities’ for them.

Furthermore, the Government of Bangladesh’s National Policy for the Advancement of Women, 1997 does not address the unique position of the indigenous women or those indigenous women living under military-led administration in the CHT.

Bangladesh ratified the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Populations (Convention No. 107) in 1972 which gives protection to indigenous women but there has not been implementation of this convention. The progressive Convention No. 169 is yet to be ratified by the government. This Convention recognises the aspirations of indigenous peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, noting that in many parts of the world they are unable to enjoy their fundamental human rights given that indigenous people have their own social, cultural and economic conditions. Article 3.1 of the Convention (on Fundamental Rights) says, “Indigenous and tribal peoples shall enjoy the full measure of human rights and fundamental freedoms without hindrance or discrimination. The provisions of the Convention shall be applied without discrimination to male and female members of these peoples”. Article 20 also talks about equal remuneration, equal opportunities and equal treatment for men and women and protection from sexual harassment. Part five of the Convention discusses social security and health of indigenous men and women.

Physical violence and marginalisation within Pahari communities
The CHT ‘Peace’ Accord failed to safeguard the women of CHT. Although women took part in the armed struggle during the insurgency in various ways, they were not allowed to participate in the peace talks that resulted in the CHT ‘Peace’ Accord in 1997. As such the Accord has kept no provisions for giving compensation in the form of rehabilitation or counselling to the raped and physically abused and tortured women (or men).

Although Pahari societies are much more liberal than the majority Muslim-Bangali society, their customary laws and family roles are just as patriarchal and discriminatory. Women are still expected to take all responsibilities of household work and child rearing. Domestic violence against Pahari women, according to women’s rights activists, is increasing.

In terms of customary law, the most discriminatory is that most Pahari women are not entitled to inherit land from their parents. Women from the Marma community are an exception and are entitled as women to inherit land, but only from their mothers. If parents want they can choose to leave land for their daughters. Many Pahari men resist change to this law by saying that Bangali men would then marry Pahari women to dispossess them of their land. Others say that the overall marginalisation of Pahari people must be dealt with first by implementation of the CHT Accord, before the case for women can be taken up. Pahari women strongly protest these justifications by the men. The Pahari women activists who gave their analysis for this article, have said that both these reasons are a way to further marginalise women.

The traditional structure of the Pahari community is also very male-dominated and patriarchal. Men are by default the circle chiefs (or king) of the three circles (Chakma, Mong and Bomong). Only in the absence of any men, can a woman become a circle chief or queen. The headman or mouza chief (a mouza is a group of villages) is next in line in the traditional hierarchy and karbari (a village chief) thereafter. Currently there are less than 10 women headmen an karbaris out a total of 300 headmen and more than a thousand karbaris in the CHT.

Resistance politics and the women’s movement in the CHT
The women of the CHT have been actively involved with the movement for emancipation from since the 1970s insurgency. The CHT Mohila Samity, the first political organisation of the hill women, was formed on January 21, 1975 by PCJSS. Talking about what gave rise to this group, a researcher writes, “the society of the hill communities is based mainly on the feudal and patriarchal ideology and system. So the struggle of the hill women of the CHT is a double struggle — on the one hand, against the feudal, imperial and extremely communal rule, exploitation and oppression; and against the patriarchal exploitation in their own society on the other”.5 They started training in armed conflict during the insurgency. Women, during that time played their dual role of being involved in the insurgency and taking care of their homes in absence of the male members of the family.

Apart from the Mohila Samity, there are now the Hill Women’s Federation of both the UPDF (the breakaway group from JSS that opposed the signing of the CHT Accord) and JSS. They are very actively involved in field level protests and with the arrival of the Internet and other technology, acts of violence against women are quickly disseminated to a network of human rights activists. Not very many mainstream women’s rights organisations are involved directly with indigenous women’s rights. There are some like the Bangladesh Nari Pragati Sangha (BNPS), Nari Paksho, Durbar Nari Network and Nijera Kori which are worth-mentioning6. Ain O Salish Kendra and BLAST offer legal aid. Even with those that have received a lot of media attention, there has been little result. A case in point is the Kalpana Chakma case.

The case of the kidnapping of Kalpana Chakma, the organising secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation (the resistance movement by Pahari women), still remains unsolved. Just before the 1996 General Elections, Kalpana was picked up, allegedly by the army, in presence of her family members. No case was ever filed against the alleged perpetrator although there are witnesses to this crime according to several news reports.7

Vijay Nagaraj, Research Director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy, in an interview with Cassandra Balchin said8, “…although bigotry and prejudice is often at the core of religious intolerance; religious fundamentalisms encapsulate very conscious political projects. While religion itself might be invoked in support of a whole host of claims that are being made, it is important to understand that fundamentalisms are about power, and not just about prejudice.”

The roots of discrimination of indigenous women of the CHT start with British colonialism when India and Pakistan were divided along religious lines. When East Pakistan realised its alienation along language and ethnic lines, its secessionist struggle began. Unfortunately, the struggle for independence of Bangladesh was fought along the Bangali nationalist ideology with a ‘state-sponsored political project aiming at the cultural homogeneity of its entire population with the Bengalis.9′

The political struggle, the state discrimination and army/settler harassment meant that women had to become strong for their own survival. However, survival is still an uphill battle for Pahari women in more ways than one. They are the least educated and farthest away from access to justice. The first Mro woman is said to have just enrolled into university.

The Bangladeshi state first needs to get over its nationalist insecurities and communal outlook and accept indigenous people as inhabitants of this land and then take special measures for indigenous women if it truly believes in human rights, democracy and rule of law as manifested in the UN and other international ideologies. Unless the state recognises and welcomes indigenous people, its people will still look at people of other ethnic origins as ‘other’. The Awami League-led government needs to fulfil its 2008 election pledge to completely implement the CHT ‘Peace’ Accord, and through dismantling of all temporary army camps and land dispute settlement assure the rest of the world that it is committed to giving the highest priority to human rights.

*****

1 From an investigation by two local NGOs, ALRD and Ain O Salish Kendra.

2 Advocate Sowrav Dewan, BLAST.

3 From an interview by the author with a Pahari women’s rights activist from Rangamati.

4 Diplomatic correspondent, “UN keen to help conduct war crimes trial”, 12 April 2010.

5 Mangal Kumar Chakma, ‘The Status of Adivasi Hill Women in Light of the CHT Accord’, BNPS, 2009.

6 Mangal Kumar Chakma, ‘The Status of Adivasi Hill Women in Light of the CHT Accord,’ BNPS, 2009.

7 Kajalie Shehreen Islam, ‘The Disappearance of Kalpana Chakma’, The Daily Star, June 20, 2008.

8 ‘Human rights, fundamentalism, power and prejudice’, an interview by Cassandra Balchin on OpenDemocracy, 17 November 2010

9 Amena Mohsin, ‘The Politics of Nationalism The Case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Bangladesh’, UPL, second edition 2002, page 49.

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