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Resisting violence against women and working for gender justice in Manipur

Author: Swapan Singha
Posted on: Monday, 11th September 2017
Set up with the aim of leading peace initiatives in the strife-ridden Chandel district of Manipur, the All Tribal Women’s Organisation (ATWO) is now leading the resistance against violence against women.

Manipur is known for nature’s bounties and ethnic and cultural diversities. However for last few decades, it is known more for protracted ethnic conflicts. Thousands have lost their lives to violent ethnic conflicts. Many more have faced physical, emotional and sexual violence that have left irreparable scars, and damage to relations among the ethnic communities. Amongst all who have experienced violence, women and children were the worst sufferers and continue to live in depression and trauma, haunted by past tragedies, without any psycho-social care.

The people of Chandel district in Manipur also had similar experience. They experienced Naga-Kuki conflict, Kuki-Paite conflict and shared consequences of all other conflicts in the state. Civil society organizations of the district joined hands to restore peace, heal scars and re-build relations among communities through conflict mediation initiatives. Women in the district were in the forefront of such peace and mediation initiatives. They kept vigil to safeguard their men and children from violence and atrocities of armed groups.

The growing involvement of women in peace initiatives, under the guidance of Rural Education and Action for Change (REACH-M), led to formation of the Lamtack Women’s Organisation (LWO), with the objective to facilitate women’s participation in local governance and conflict resolution. Soon it was realized that women’s role in peace building was much more than anticipated, thus women’s bodies of 11 tribes/sub-tribes in the district and formed the All Tribal Women’s Organisation (ATWO) in 2001. ATWO unites women of different tribes giving motivation to re-invent their inner strength and regain the confidence to become an able and independent individual who can stand firm for herself, family and even serve the society to bring positive change. ATWO works towards building a self-reliant society with gender equality and sustainable peace.

In the initial years ATWO’s focus was peace building, and then by 2005 it expanded into issues of women’s rights and gender justice. After peace-talks were initiated between various non-state armed groups of the hills communities in Manipur and Government, scale and nature of conflicts have changed, ATWO’s engagement on peace initiative declined, consequently its engagement on gender justice came to the forefront. ATWO began focusing on the deep-rooted discriminatory customary laws, patriarchal norms and structures that perpetually discriminated women in all spheres of life. Patriarchal conditions are manifested in various forms of violence and discrimination against women including sexual assault, trafficking, discrimination to the degree of denying women access and positions in local governance structures, denial of rights to land, resources and properties, discrimination against girl child and restriction in stereotypical gender roles.

Such discriminations were entrenched deeper due to the persisting conflict environment. In the name of conflict, women’s rights were suppressed, and women were used as a weapon in the conflict situation. The easy availability of drugs, wide spread prevalence of HIV & AIDS also is a constant threat to the safety and overall well-being of women. With the reduction of conflict, ATWO started coming across instances of women as conflict survivors, whose stories of trauma, misery, anger were as yet untold and therefore their issues were left unaddressed.

It was at this juncture in 2011 that ActionAid started working with ATWO as part of the long term intervention in collaboration with Reach-M.

As part of the Fortnight Campaign to end violence against women, spread the meassage of the Beti Zindabad Campaign and other awareness programmes on women’s rights and gender justice, ATWO reached out to more than 5000 women in 50 villages in Chandel district. It formed Village Women’s Societies (VWS) in the villages and members of the VWSs were trained in leadership skills. The VWS helped ATWO identify women in difficult circumstances – conflict survivors and victims of violence. They could also assess needs of women in difficult circumstances – including psycho-social care, legal aid, relief and rehabilitation, short stay homes and occupational therapy. In 2013 ATWO established a One Stop Crisis Centre (OSCC) at its office premises.

“Through the OSCC, we strive for a deeper reflective approach to bring out the severity and brutality of cases of violence against women – an outcome of patriarchy entrenched deep in customary practices, which get more pronounced in the protracted conflict environment,” shared Ms. Lalam Mate, President, ATWO.

The establishment of the OSCC has opened a platform for women in distress to share their issue and receive support from. Since its establishment victims of violence and discriminations are increasingly approaching ATWO to support them in ensuring justice. Thus, ATWO has almost become a centre facilitating gender justice. So far OSCC rescued 36 trafficked women, four women victims of violence were sheltered in the short stay home. It has engaged with different stakeholders to ensure delivery of justice to 39 women, who were victims of violence, identified amongst 45 cases reported. The cases include domestic violence, rape and molestation. The OSCC has provided psycho-social counseling to hundreds of women, suffering from depression and trauma due to violence.

ATWO runs 2 training centres for women in distress – one on knitting, tailoring and weaving and another centre facilitates training on food processing. So far more than 500 women have been trained on various livelihoods skill. More than 238 women victims of violence were provided with livelihood supports. Livelihood trainings and livelihoods supports worked as occupational therapy for women in depression and trauma. Livelihoods rehabilitation could be carried out due to support from Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Chandel, Manipur Weaver’s Society, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) and ActionAid. 

The Manipur State Legal Authority opened a Legal Aid Clinic in 2015 at the office premises of ATWO, which further strengthened OSCC. The Authority appointed 10 volunteers of ATWO as para-legal volunteers since 2015-16. They are responsible for providing legal awareness and legal aid, bringing cases including that of violence against women to notice of OSCC/ATWO. The Chief Judicial Magistrate of Chandel district sits twice a week in the Legal Aid Clinic to hear cases and ensure cases reported are taken to competent authority for justice. ATWO could garner OSCC under ATWO initiative could garner support from other stakeholders like the Department of Police, Department of Health.

“The establishment of OSCC and the Legal Aid Clinic have facilitated in empowering women. Now, women have a platform to share their stories of discrimination and injustices encountered. They receive psycho-social and rehabilitation care and support and guidance in their journey for justice. It took decades of engagement for ATWO and other alliances to ensure inclusion of women in traditional governance bodies of the village and community. Now, women have become members in village authorities in 5 villages, of which 2 women became the village Chief. One woman has included as member of the Kuki Inpi, an apex body of the Kuki tribe. The guardians of customary and traditional institutions and other power centres of private and public life, have not able to accept the idea of gender justice, thus there is resistance from such stakeholders. Thus, we have long way to go to see a gender just society, ” said K. Moikham, Secretary, ATWO.

There is a long way to go, and there is the commitment to stay the course for gender justice and a violence free world.