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Kabita Chakma: Sexual violence, indigenous Jumma women and CHT, Bangladesh

13 June 2013

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New Age - 12 June 2013

PART I

Sexual violence, indigenous Jumma women and CHT

.‘Amader dhamanite Kalpana Chakmar rakta’ (The blood of Kalpana Chakma runs through our veins)... Kalpana Chakma was abducted 17 years ago.

The ruthless systematic sexual violence against women in Bangladesh, however, did not end in our land in 1971. Another period of systematic sexual violence targeting non-Bengali, Jumma or indigenous women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts was initiated soon after 1975, when the CHT was militarised, writes Kabita Chakma

SEXUAL violence against women in the context of armed conflict has been examined in feminist scholarship from at least the 1970s. In the 1990s, feminist scholarship showed that rape has been used historically in armed conflict as ‘an instrument of terror’, and classified rape as ‘a war crime and a crime against humanity’. However, it has also been illustrated that all wars do not involve indiscriminate rape — examples include the Israel-Palestine and El-Salvador conflicts. During the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, the Pakistan army, in collaboration with local Bengali men in paramilitary forces, systematically committed acts of sexual violence against Bengali women. Sexual violence in the 1971 conflict involved nationalist intentions. Because the West Pakistani rulers held the view that East Pakistani Bengalis were not ‘pure’ Muslims, Muslim Bengali women were raped with the gross intent ‘to purify the Bengali nation’. They also targeted Hindu Bengali women because of their non-Muslim religion. A religious nationalism entangled with hegemonic Urdu linguistic nationalism led to ‘rape’ being used as a ‘weapon of war’. Bengali women were raped in their thousands, but the exact number still remains controversial, with the highest number given being as large as 200,000. Twenty-five thousand women alone who were held in ‘rape camps’ were impregnated. An unknown number of Urdu-speaking, non-Bengali Bihari Muslim women were also raped by Bengali men. For over four decades justice for sexually violated women during the war in our land remained a marginalised issue. Ongoing trials at the International Crime Tribunal of Bangladesh of a number of leading Bengali collaborators in the 1971 war bring a ray of hope for justice in response to the coarse injustice committed over four decades ago.
The ruthless systematic sexual violence against women in Bangladesh, however, did not end in our land in 1971. Another period of systematic sexual violence targeting non-Bengali, Jumma or indigenous women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts was initiated soon after 1975, when the CHT was militarised. The state’s 1978-1979 policy of mass transmigration, settling 350,000 Bengalis from the plains into the CHT made the situation worse. There had always been a scarcity of usable land in the CHT. The state, with its military, took the violent solution of eviction and extermination of indigenous peoples to implement its transmigration programme. This resulted in an escalation of retaliation attacks on settlers and the military by the Shanti Bahini, the indigenous guerrilla force. Reprisal attacks by the military on the Shanti Bahini, and indiscriminate attacks by the military, other security personnel and settlers, on Jumma civilians followed. In such attacks, Jumma women were sexually targeted.
From 1979 to 1993, researchers recorded 14 mass-scale massacres of Jummas in the CHT, describing them as ‘creeping genocide’ and ‘ethnocide’. Amnesty International recorded a horrific testimony, in which a survivor describes the sexual assault of Jumma women in the 1984 Bhushanchara massacre. In this description, a clear nationalist intent can be recognised of using sexual violence against women to destroy a perceived enemy — the Chakma nation:
My village falls in the Barkal rehabilitation zone where a large number of Muslims have settled over the years. There is thus continuous tension between the two communities. In the summer of 1984 there were frequent clashes and the Muslims often used to threaten us saying that the army will come and teach us a lesson.
The army came on May 31, accompanied by a large group of Muslims some of whom were armed. They destroyed our village, raped women and killed people. I saw two women getting raped and then killed by bayonets. One Aroti, who is my distant cousin, was also raped by several soldiers and her body was disfigured with bayonets ... Five or six of us were hung upside down on a tree and beaten. Perhaps I was given up for dead and thus survived. The memories of that day are still a nightmare for me. Even now I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat remembering the sight of the soldiers thrusting bayonets into [the] private parts of our women. They were all screaming ‘No Chakmas will be born in Bangladesh’.
This extreme desire to eliminate a nation by mutilating women’s body parallels the Pakistan army’s ‘purifying’ of the Bengali nation by impregnating Bengali women. The use of hegemonic nationalism to rationalise the calculated strategic use of sexual violence against the women of a perceived enemy is common to both armies.
In 1991, summarising the extent of sexual violence against Jumma indigenous women, the CHT Commission reported that ‘[r]ape is used systematically as a weapon against women in the CHT’. There are limited statistics on sexual abuse against Jumma women during the time of armed conflict. But of the limited available sources, the 1995 Hill Women’s Federation document reported that ‘[o]ver 94% of all alleged cases of rape of Jumma women between 1991 and 1993 in the CHT were by “security forces”. Of these, over 40% of the victims were children.’
The CHT Commission notes the circulation of a secret 1983 memorandum to all army officers in the CHT encouraging them to marry the CHT’s indigenous women. The memorandum institutionalised sexual targeting of indigenous women. The state’s military institution thus singled out indigenous women from their own women (Bengali) and coded them as the ‘other’. They have likewise been singled out from the other sex (indigenous males) of their own communities. The state thus targeted indigenous women for their ethnic and gender identity. It would thus appear that the stationing of Bengali army officers in the CHT and bringing transmigrant settlers in invasion proportions to the area between 1979 and mid-1980s was not enough. The policy was also to occupy women’s bodies, to colonise women through marriage.
The 1983 policy memorandum had far-reaching implications. It is in that decade that a Bengali army officer flew his Chakma bride by helicopter from her remote village to a major town in the CHT. The event was rare for any bride in the country. One reading was that it was perhaps a way to honour a military officer who has claimed an indigenous bride. However, it appears instead that the army needed to provide protection to the newlyweds, as there was mounting opposition to the marriage from the Jummas. The bride was not interested in the marriage, but she had agreed to save her family and the villagers, who were under pressure from the military authority. Ultimately, the villagers were forced to attend the wedding party.
A Chakma woman marrying a Bengali man in the CHT is not yet an easy affair. Although rarer, a Chakma man marrying a Bengali woman in the CHT has been accepted (albeit among Hindus, not Muslims), particularly in the time before 1975.
The violent outcome of the policy implied by the memorandum did not remain limited to military men in uniform, but also encouraged actions by civilians, particularly settlers. It manifested in a violent turn, with marriages occurring after abduction or after applying force. In the 1980s there were abductions of many Jumma village women by Bengali civilians. Some Jumma women, who escaped to refugee camps in Tripura, gave accounts to the 1990 CHT Commission of their forced marriage to their abductors.
The instruction of the memorandum had a long-term impact, lasting into the post-accord CHT. The 1997 CHT Accord formally ended over two decades of armed conflict. But the non realisation of the most important provisions of the Accord, including de-militarisation of the CHT, resolution of land disputes, and rehabilitation of displaced Jummas, has meant that the CHT has remained a conflict zone with different dynamics. Recent 2011 to 2012 figures gathered by the CHT Commission and the Bangladesh Indigenous Women’s Network shows that 95 per cent of the perpetrators of sexual violence against indigenous women were Bengali settlers, staff members of the forestry department or members of the armed forces.
In June 2012, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha, Karmojibi Nari and BIWN called a press conference to highlight sexual targeting of indigenous women in the country. It detailed incidents of violence against women for first half of that year. Sixty-three per cent of these cases were in the CHT while the rest were in the plains of Bangladesh. Eighty-three per cent of the CHT cases were sexual assault, including rape, rape and murder, gang rape and attempted rape. Eighty-six percent of the rape victims were children. For the CHT all perpetrators were Bengalis, 92 per cent of them were settlers. Maleya Foundation’s data for the later half of 2012 showed that 70 per cent of the cases in the CHT were rape, gang rape and rape and murder, and 75 per cent of these cases involved Bengali men.

Concluding part to be published tomorrow.

Kabita Chakma is an executive member of the International Council for the Indigenous Peoples of CHT and the Human Rights Coordinator of the CHT Indigenous Jumma Association Australia.

New Age, 13 June 2013

CONCLUDING PART

Sexual violence, indigenous Jumma women and CHT

There has been a high rate of violence against women all over Bangladesh in recent years. Kapaeeng Foundation figures for January 2007 to December 2012 reveal that Jumma women and girls endured three times higher violence rates than their indigenous sisters living in the plains of Bangladesh, writes Kabita Chakma

SEXUAL violence against non-Bengali hill women by Bengalis was not an issue in the 18th, 19th and more than half of the 20th century, even though Bengalis have been regular visitors to the region at least from the later decades of the 18th century. One of the earliest accounts of the region recorded in 1798 by Francis Buchanan, a British surveyor and traveller, testifies that Bengalis were working in the hills as seasonal labourers. Small numbers of Bengalis have been living in the hills at least from the second decade of the 19th century when Raja Dharam Bux Khan brought Bengali labourers to introduce plough cultivation.
There has been a high rate of violence against women all over Bangladesh in recent years. The Bangladesh Mahila Parishad records show an increase in women’s death resulting from violence relating to dowry demands, rape and assault. There were 1,373 deaths in 2009, 1,377 in 2010 and 1,450 in 2011.
An examination of police records of 2012 reveal that rape cases in the first three quarters of 2012 almost reached the total number of reported rape cases in 2004. A complete picture of violence against women in the country is difficult to obtain because many VAW cases remain unreported across the country. Many VAW complaints are not followed up by authorities. ‘Marital rape’ is not even recognised as violence against women in public discourse in the country.
Kapaeeng Foundation figures for January 2007 to December 2012 reveal that Jumma women and girls endured 3 times higher violence rates than their indigenous sisters living in the plains of Bangladesh. It is difficult to obtain any comparative analysis of violence against indigenous women vs. Bengali women in the country. But it is clear that while most cases of sexual assault against indigenous women are by Bengalis, there are hardly any reports of assaults of Bengali women by indigenous men. There is often a mistaken assumption that sexual assault of CHT’s Jumma women by indigenous men does not occur. However, the Maleya Foundation reported that in the last half of 2012 there were four cases of indigenous men committing sexual violence against indigenous women, including two shocking gang-rapes of Jumma school girls aged 15 and 12.
Human rights organisations in Bangladesh have repeatedly reported that CHT Jumma women do not have adequate access to justice, and perpetrators enjoy impunity in cases of violence against CHT indigenous women. The CHT’s traditional justice system mainly works on cases within indigenous communities. It maintains limitations in dealing with cases where there is involvement of non-indigenous perpetrators. There is also growing frustration from indigenous women’s rights activists regarding traditional arbitration, which often perpetuates patriarchal values and practices. Given the large number of cases committed by Bengalis, it is imperative for many CHT women to have access to the formal justice system.
The state has shown indifference to indigenous women’s access to formal justice. In 2000, it omitted the three districts of the CHT when it set up the Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunals in the other 61 districts of Bangladesh. The high occurrence of violence against CHT women should have made tribunals in these districts a priority. Only in 2009, after a High Court order in response to a writ petition by the Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust, were they established.
Information from the home ministry on violence against women in the CHT for January 2010 to December 2011 gained by BLAST under the Right to Information Act showed that only 2 out of 22 cases in Bandarban and 2 out of 17 cases in Rangamati were given a verdict. The perpetrators were not punished in any of these cases.
This persistent culture of impunity is reminiscent of the 1996 abduction case of Kalpana Chakma, the organising secretary of the CHT Hill Women’s Federation. The alleged abductors were Lieutenant Ferdous Khan (17 East Bengal Regiment) with a group of armed but plain-clothed military and paramilitary men. Despite a long 17-year campaign for justice for Kalpana, not a single perpetrator of the crime has been brought to justice.
There is a need to build confidence in the tribunals. There have been delays and many complications, including non-cooperation from the police department, hospital authorities, and many other actors in the tribunal process. Many cases are trapped in bureaucratic procedures and delays caused by corruption in processing. Tribunals in the CHT are yet to deliver justice within a reasonable time.
Tribunals remain inaccessible to many non-literate indigenous village women, exacerbated by their non-familiarity with the court’s bureaucratic and complex procedures. Many encounter economic hardship in following court processes, in travel costs and in loss of income while in the court system. In addition, there is fear of further marginalisation of victims seeking justice through the courts, heightened by the lack of support from family and the community. Many victims also face threats and intimidation from perpetrators when seeking justice.
In Jumma society, like Bengali society, sexual assault of women is usually judged using patriarchal values. Sexual assault of women often brings ‘shame’ to the victim rather than the perpetrator. Sexual assault is considered an act that destroys the ‘honour’ of the victim’s family, increasing the physical and psychological harm to the victim. Survivors of sexual violence may face further degradation through social stigmatisation as a result of being a victim, sometimes being ostracised by their own family or community. As a result, many victims conceal sexual attacks against them, and refuse to talk or take any action against the perpetrators. Similar patriarchal values partly impeded justice for the birangana for many decades after the war of independence, and rehabilitation, if any.
An indigenous grandmother and a day labourer, who was gang-raped by the military and settlers in the 2003 Mahalchari communal attack, were abandoned by her husband. Other rapes during the 2003 attack were not disclosed for fear of social rejection. In November 2010, two CHT indigenous women were raped when picking vegetables in the forest. The rapists were members of Ansar, a Bangladesh paramilitary force. Unusually, when the friends of two women went to the nearby army camp to complain, army personnel beat the Ansar men and handed them to the police. The police, however, released the suspects shortly after. Khagrapur Mahila Kalyan Samity, in dealing with the cases, reported that one victim refused to file a rape case because her husband threatened her with divorce if she publicly admitted to the rape, even though the perpetrator had confessed to the crime.
A poignant slogan of the 2013 Women’s Day was ‘Amader dhamanite biranganar rakta/Amader dhamanite Kalpana Chakmar rakta’ (The blood of war heroines runs through our veins/The blood of Kalpana Chakma runs through our veins).
The slogan expresses the hopes of a new generation of women, namely, that ethnic divides which had separated previous generations of women will gradually give way to solidarities among women, based on feminist counter-reading of nationalist history, solidarities that are based on resistance to militarisation and to state-sponsored violence against ‘other’ women, whether conducted by the Pakistani state during 1971, or the state of Bangladesh post-independence.

Kabita Chakma is the coordinator of the CHT Jumma Peoples Network of the Asia Pacific and the Human Rights Coordinator of the CHT Indigenous Jumma Association Australia.

P.S.

The above two part article from New Age is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use