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Assam: The Under-Reported Story Of A Life Lost To Indifference And Discrimination

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TW: Graphic violence, sexual assault. 

Assam, with its complex geography and multi-ethnic society, battles with a unique set of issues every day. The state either comes under good light or under the worst limelight because of the politics of identity that serves as an interesting case.

A 12-year-old tribal girl from Karbi Anglong was set ablaze on April 22, 2021. She was working as a domestic help in the house of Prakash Borthakur of Raha, Nagaon for the past four years. She was tortured to death by Prakash and his son Nayan Jyoti Borthakur and they have been arrested under section 120B/302 of IPC.

Social media abuzz was not as immediate and impactful as it should have been. In the Assamese scenario, employing young girls or boys from tribal communities is quite common among the people of Brahmaputra valley. A ‘plains people’ hegemony, oppression, and domination upon nearby hills people are very obvious. Every time the oppressed are met with rude behaviour. This has its roots in casteism and racism, no matter the denial among the influential and the influencers that Assam is supposedly a caste-free state. Well, for starters that never was the case.

More importantly, employing her was a clear case of child labour. With a few videos surfacing on social media platforms, where activists are seen speaking against this atrocious and inhuman act, it has been learnt the young girl was sexually assaulted and postmortem reports indicate that she was pregnant. This also means the perpetrators should be tried under the POCSO Act of 2012.

In a Twitter post, the chief of Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA), Pradyut Manikya wrote, “What happened to Surmilla (sic) is not just a shame but a dark reality on how young women girls are taken to urban places and kept as slaves’. The government of Assam must act.” He tagged Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal in the post. Consequently, Governor Jagdish Mukhi has ordered for the constitution of an enquiry committee to be led by IAS officer Moloy Bora.

In 2018, Karbi Anglong was in the news when two Assamese speaking musicians were brutally lynched to death by a mob as fake news spread across the village that the duo were child-lifters/kidnappers. There were online and offline protests seeking justice and the intensity of the course of action by the civil society was very swift. In fact, the voices were so strong that the entire Karbi community was stereotyped. But, such has not been the case with the young girl.

Image source: Twitter/@KhonTeron

It must be noted that Karbi Anglong is the largest district area-wise, yet most people are marginalised here with low levels of development. It is again interesting, in my opinion, that the reversal of identities and geographical location of crimes can show the collective mentality and mood of the people. Are young girls and women really safe in the state of Assam, is the question.

Assam made headlines last year for being the most unsafe place for women as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, as the state topped the list in the rate of crime against women. The crime rate stood at 166 (per lakh population) whereas the national average was 58.8 in 2018. Such a sorry state of affairs is only going to deepen the pre-existing gender imbalance ensuring that they are systemically left out.

Cases of witch-hunting are very high within the state, wherein women after being branded a witch or daini are at the receiving end of torture, extreme forms of physical violence including rape and murder. Sometimes, as mob mentality is involved in punishing or beating up such women, it becomes an arduous task to identify the perpetrators.

This entire episode reminds one of the Adil Hussain-starrer Assamese film, Maaj Rati Keteki, directed by Santwana Bordoloi, released in 2017. The film tries to portray the complexities between different ethnic groups and caste and class groups within the Assamese society. There was one character of an unpaid servant played by young Mahendra Rabha that was so poignant that it would lead the viewers to introspect upon the different relationships that exist among groups within the state.

Every region in India has unique social evils that are a product of a patriarchal mindset. These social evils are fraught with extreme forms of violence, mental and emotional harassment. Assam and other Northeastern states, in general, have been portrayed as places where women are respected, empowered and comparatively live in safer environments. While this can seem to be true to many of us living here, but the facts say something else. Societies in the northeast are equally patriarchal if not less, giving rise to unique cases of violence against women.

Will human rights organisations now step in?

Featured image source: Twitter/Chhotubhai Vasava.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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