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The Invisible & the Unheard: Pahari women of CHT

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In a fairly homogenous Muslim-Bengali country, the indigenous people living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-eastern region of the Bangladesh are an ethnic and religious minority with a distinct culture, language and religion of their own. Violence and conflicts between the Bengali land-grabbers, the military and the indigenous people has been a common phenomenon in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region for decades now. During conflict, post-conflict and militarization period in the hill tracts region, the indigenous women have been victims of sexual abuse, rape, murder, religious conversion, kidnapping and molestation by Bengali settlers and men in the military. Indigenous people, especially the women have been identified as the most vulnerable and marginalized group of people in the entire country. Chanchana Chakma concludes that the suppression is “deeper and more widespread on indigenous women in comparison to Bangladeshi women” (Chanchana Chakma, pp 181). This is the combined effect of lack of state recognition, severe oppression by mainstream Bengalis and the discrepancies posed by the rigid patriarchal nature of Jumma societies.
In response to the indigenous people’s demands for self-determination, regional sovereignty and constitutional recognition, a Peace Accord was signed between the Jana Samhati Samity and the Government of Bangladesh in 1997. Even after the insurgency has ended and the ‘Peace’ accord has been signed, physical and sexual assault towards indigenous women are widespread. The neglect of the Government of Bangladesh in addressing the violation of human rights too is evident. The National Policy for the Advancement of Women, 1997 does not take into account the crimes committed against indigenous women living under military-led administration as an area that needs special consideration. Moreover, even though there are innumerous cases of occurrences of gender-based violence in the hills, there is no proper documentation of the exact number of women who have been victims of sexual assault by Bengali men and the army. The state is yet to take drastic measures to improve the situation of the indigenous women.
In her article, “Women in the CHT-The Violent Hills,” Hana Shams has provided an overview of the condition of indigenous women living in the hill tracts. She has also discussed the government’s reluctance in ensuring effective implementation of the Peace Accord and failure to provide social security, protection and justice to the indigenous women living in their homeland. In her article, she has also said that the growing concern about matters related to rape and other forms of direct violence committed against these women is “…the lack of access to justice and absolute impunity that perpetrators enjoy” (Hana Shams,pp,11). To support her case, she gives evidences of sexual abuse where it was hard to prove a case of rape in front of the court because of doctor’s unwillingness in producing authentic reports of physical examination of victims and inability to find a witness because of fear of intimidation and harassment which eventually allow the criminals getting away without even being identified, located, arrested, tried or punished. Shams mentions the cases of three indigenous girls, two from Tripura and one from Bandarban who were raped by Bengali men-one in her own home in Khagrachari, one in a farmland in Bandarban where she worked and the other one in a hotel in Chittagong. From these evidences, it is clear that the indigenous women suffer from extreme lack of security. Be it at home or in the workplace, these women are victims of direct and structural forms of violence. Through various case studies of rape victims, the author has done a tremendous job in portraying the vulnerability, helplessness and voicelessness of Pahari women and the extent to which the government’s negligence has catalyzed gendered crime in this region.

Domestic violence and marginalization are widespread within the indigenous communities. Within the households and their communities too, Jumma women are subjugated by little or no decision making role in household affairs, no parental rights or guardianship over their children, discrimination in the religious sphere, biased inheritance laws that gives males the monopoly on birthright (Illira Dewan, pp 191). Even though indigenous communities allow their women to dress much more liberally and go out to work more often, the societal norms and customary laws are patriarchal or male-dominated. In her article, the author cites a researcher who concluded that ‘…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 CHT is a double struggle…” (Hana Shams, pp 14). Here the author helps us gain a better understanding of the exploitation and oppression that tribal women are subjected to in their own societies and in the feudal-communal rule that is in place. For a broader picture, the author mentions the social pressure, stigmas and stereotypes that further suppress these women. She says that when an occurrence of rape takes place, “…the girl is placed under immense social pressure from the stigma surrounding it” (Hana Shams, pp 11). In addition to physical and psychological trauma and sometimes social exclusion, there is also immense administrative pressure that threatens the victim and her family if they want to seek legal assistance.The discrimination at a state-level has a political agenda to it. However, there may be several diverse reasons why women within Jumma societies have historically been silent bearers of discrimination. A thorough analysis of the reasons behind such gender bias at home and in Jumma societies could help the readers understand the roots of discrimination more precisely. I strongly believe besides historical evidences of discrimination by the British colonizers and then the government of Bangladesh, other issues such as abject poverty, lack of skills and women’s education, access to information and livelihood strategies, other geo-political and religious reasons have been contributing factors to widening gender inequalities in indigenous societies.

Families are the basic units of any society. In my opinion, if we are to build a progressive society where women are to be treated with compassion, honor and dignity, our attitudes towards women have to first change at home. Instead of treating girls as social beings, we must treat them as natural beings. For the suppression to be eliminated in Jumma societies, families must first start treating their women as equals to men. Only when women are treated justly in the domestic arena, the equality will be mapped at a regional and then at a national scale. Without a boost in literacy and education rate, increased infrastructural support and constitutional recognition this may be unachievable. The author is justified in rightly pointing out that as long as the state does not recognize indigenous people as inhabitants of this country, its people will still look at them as “other.” the Bangladeshi government should accept indigenous people as inhabitants of this country and this land, address the situation of the indigenous women living under military-led administration in the hill tracts separately in the Government of Bangladesh’s Policy for the Advancement of Women and grant them fundamental freedom and political rights for we do not want any more voices to be silenced and innocent lives falling prey to sexual assault or homicide.

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