Northeast as harsh for its women as Delhi, if not more

Surajit Talukdar
Surajit TalukdarMar 13, 2016 | 16:16

Northeast as harsh for its women as Delhi, if not more

In February, a swanky bike came to a screeching halt from nowhere in front of a well dressed girl who was hurriedly walking past the Down Town Hospital traffic point as it had signalled red. Within a fraction of a second, the two youths who were on the bike attempted to drag her by grabbing her dupatta. The whole incident took place in front of my eyes. The area, in Guwahati, was teeming with people that evening, but nobody dared to protest.


The two molesters easily zoomed past the traffic point, leaving the girl in a daze.

Then on February 25, a minor girl sustained grievous injuries while fleeing the clutches of a man who was attempting to rape her on the eve of the Nyokum festival at Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh.

On August 10, 2014, a minor girl was allegedly gang-raped by four teenagers in Assam's Dibrugarh district. The incident took place close to a national highway in Dibrugarh town at around 10pm.

Then, a 19-year-old girl was allegedly gang-raped by seven men, including her "WhatsApp boyfriend" in Nagaon district of Assam in July 2015.

In December last year, in a horrific incident of moral policing, a girl was attacked by a group of men while coming out of the popular Crystal Bar at Zoo Road Tiniali of Guwahati at around 10pm. The men stopped her near the bar, slapped her and pulled her by the hair. They also touched the girl in an inappropriate way.

In a Nirbhaya-like case, a 13-year-old girl was gang-raped inside a bus at Goreswar in Assam's Baksa district in August last year.


These are not stray incidents that had taken place in the Northeast. But unfortunately, most of such cases never find their way to the police diary. The victims either choose to keep mum owing to various factors or the police don't take such cases seriously, thus encouraging the perpetrators to commit crimes each day with renewed vigour.

Women in Assam, in particular, and the Northeast in general are more vulnerable to crimes compared to places like Delhi and other big cities of the country because of a lack of awareness of their rights and privileges, and a lax and morally corrupt law enforcement system.

Even in a matrilineal state like Meghalaya, where the women call the shots, violence against them is increasing at a rapid rate. Quite interestingly, in the state's Khasi society, not only do children take their mother's last name, it is the men who move into their wives' home after marriage.

Not just that, even property is inherited by daughters and the youngest daughter acts as the custodian of ancestral property. Though the majority of tribal women in the Northeast toil in the fields, cook at home, raise children and fulfil a host of other responsibilities while the menfolk prefer to sit idle at home, gossiping, chewing tobacco and puffing bidis, women's status, both socially and economically, hasn't improved much over the years in these states.


Records reveal a stark reality

Records of crimes against women in this tribal-dominated region tell a sordid tale much to the chagrin of the authorities concerned who say that the situation is much better than before and the women here are enjoying greater freedom and social status compared to their counterparts in the Hindi-belt.

Even as India celebrated yet another Women's Day amid the usual rhetoric, not only is gender-based violence on the rise in the Northeast, it has also assumed insidious forms that are justified in the name of faith, community and development.

Assam Police records state that altogether 68,329 cases of crime against women were registered during 2005-2014. A total of 78 women died as a result of rape while 1,388 others were killed in dowry-related cases. The number of women killed in witch-hunting cases was 123. The number of rape cases registered during the period was 15,931.

According to a finding of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the statistics on violence against women in the Northeast are stark. About 31 per cent of married women from Tripura and 19 per cent from Assam have reported injuries as a result of physical violence.

A significant number of "less severe" domestic violence has been reported by women in Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. With regard to "severe" domestic violence, the same group of states reappears on the list, with the exception of Assam and Manipur. Above-average levels of sexual violence have been reported in Assam and Manipur.

An analysis of NFHS and National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data further indicates that the deficits in police reporting are 14 per cent each in Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura, and the northeastern states are among the few in the country that have the highest reported prevalence of serious injuries as a result of burns, strangulations, attacks with knives or other weapons. In terms of less severe instances of abuse, the gap widens considerably.

What do these figures really tell us?

If exposure to domestic violence is any indicator of the quality of life, the above-mentioned figures reveal that women in the Northeast have poor a lifestyle. On the other hand, if we take sociological and anthropological accounts on regional variations in gender issues into consideration, women in the Northeast play a major role in household decisions and even in property issues, unlike women in the north India who generally have lesser autonomy, mobility, a lesser say in household decisions and fewer property rights.

Another report states that Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh which have some of the largest disparities among the Indian states, particularly in terms of severe violence, perhaps have the worst institutional conditions for encouraging the filing of FIRs.

In some tribal societies of the region, violence against females is also manifested through deprivation, neglect or discrimination. In Mizoram, according to a study, female children are often subjected to physical torture like caning, throwing stones at them and not letting them eat for a long time by their parents and family members.

Why violence against women is increasing in the Northeast

Theoretically speaking, causes such as culture and gender-specific socialisation, culturally demarcated roles for women, expectations of performing fixed roles in familial relationships, women's economic dependence, limited rights over land and property, discriminatory laws on marriage, divorce, property and violence, minimum literacy, insensitive treatment by the police and judiciary, political under-representation among others, are fueling crimes against women in the region.

But are these causes any different from the causes of violence against women in other parts of the country? The answer is "no".

In the Northeast, the problem becomes severe owing to collision of an extremely modern culture (here many tribal societies allow free mixing of boys and girls when they are adult) with an extremely old one, full of rituals and superstition.

Owing to this problem, the thin line between a woman's freedom and her "limitations", as drawn by the society, often gets blurred, and the problem arises. Adding to the problem, very low level of awareness among women because of an almost non-existent campaign against gender-based violence and poor law enforcement system in the region have also made the situation worse.

The increase in subtle forms of crime against women like making contemptuous or obscene gestures, lewd remarks and so on are not even considered unlawful by the police. Even if such exchanges are fleeting, they leave their mark. In the Assamese society, teasing adult girls by adult boys is a norm rather than a crime. But the Assamese people may argue that the kind of teasing the boys usually do is just a "healthy" way to get introduced for the first time.

Need to correct ourselves first

When incidents of crime against a northeastern girl or woman, mainly tribals, take place in Delhi or other big cities of the country, it becomes a big issue. But these northeastern girls are not also safe in their own homeland. Girls often face harassment at night in Guwahati. Many of them are lured into sex rackets and the business of massage parlours in Guwahati, where male customers visit in large numbers in search of "ecstasy".

So blaming Delhi or other big cities for being the most unsafe places for a person from the Northeast, especially girls, will not solve the malaise that is deep-rooted. We, the people of the Northeast, need to change ourselves and our attitude towards our women. Treating women as inferior human beings and sex objects will only make the condition worse.

Last updated: March 13, 2016 | 16:16
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