Laws banning sex determination at birth and other criminal laws to protect women and the girl child did have an effect in improving the general condition of women, but female feticide and health condition of victims of crime still remain undiscovered or unaddressed in Manipur. R.K. Lakhi Kant caught up with Nonibala Narengbam, Convenor of Women in Governance – (WinG) Manipur on the sidelines of a cluster consultation carried out by her for Community Based Organisations at Bengi village in Thoubal district, to talk about why violence and redressal process still haunt women and girls in a society that is not able to come to terms with, at every instance, equality for women and the girl child.
Lakhi Kant: No one wants to study and collate the various factors on crimes against women and the girl child. Why is it an uncomfortable question?
Nonibala Narengbam: Some sections have found it uncomfortable but others have documented such violence based on media reports or through personally gathered evidence from the field. For us, we also have records of those who come to us or whom we meet on the field. At the same time I would accept also that advocacy has been less than expected.
We haven’t been able to affiliate and use the information compiled in our work for women and the girl child in the right place and manner for advocacy. We haven’t been able to submit such information on the number of women who died, were raped or are missing, to the government agencies, like for instance the Manipur Women’s Commission or the different government departments.
Also they haven’t asked for it. I am not sure how much material the women’s commission may have on them, or how they have documented it, but certainly they have their records also. For instance, the women’s commission has not till date brought up important issues like budget or policy on women. We in the civil society have, on the other hand, begun taking up matters concerning general policy and general purchase.
At the same time the National Women’s Commission did address the issue of increase in domestic violence during Covid, and has said that different kinds of violence against women did take place as families were confined indoors, with the burden falling on women.
Lakhi Kant: Is female infanticide underreported in Manipur?
Nonibala Narengbam: A few days back a survey group reported that Manipur has the lowest sex ratio in the country, though there is no evidence yet of female feticide. The survey group has said the sex ratio is 757/1000, but if any female feticide is to be discussed, it could be only through monitoring by the government and other concerned groups.
The question is whether it’s by virtue that less female children are being born. The matter of female feticide comes under the PC-PNDT Act of 1994. The main deterrence in this Act is the ban on sex determination tests, by way of curbing those who want to find out the sex in the fetus. The point is the government should be monitoring this important aspect. There’s already a large imbalance in the sex ratio at 757 female per 1000 male at birth, and if it climbs down further it will seriously affect the society in Manipur.
Lakhi Kant: Why are females asked to put up with discomfort? How do you explain a society that allows females to be uncomfortable?
Nonibala Narengbam: Women’s issues are still an undiscussed agenda and undebated also. We started enquiring with those on a larger platform concerning this subject matter and found that though there are women’s empowerment programmes, women are still not able to voice out. We have been contemplating these questions on whether women will continue to remain in the discomfort zones created by others. Some learned people did mention if because of the latest population ratio will women as a group start disappearing, and how population will increase if that happens.
We are questioning from an entirely different perspective that does this concern recognise women only as baby making machines. We are not in a progressive society when a section is in the discomfort zone, while another is in a comfort zone. What I understand about the discomfort zone is that for any idea of progress society has to dispense education and learning, mobility, and political and economic freedom to women to create their own opportunities and space for leaving the discomfort zone.
Those who can make this possible are the ones in power and authority derived from the comfort zone, among other factors. Their duty is to see that those in the discomfort zone come out of it. It will take a lot of time and energy for those in discomfort to transform the situation, so it’s arguable that those in the comfort zone should give sincere thought and time to the betterment of those in the discomfort zone, so that women don’t have to lengthen their journey more than required.
Those women in the discomfort zone, who are without much power or economic and social advantages, should also move towards occupying the space and opportunity accorded to them by those in the comfort zone. Some say power sharing is a very painful process as people in power start taking pleasure in it. What we are saying is that denying those in the other section, who are told they will get equal sharing but are not included, creates a disequilibrium that stops society from being progressive.
What we see in 2020 or by 2025 is the new generation being in a wider educated spectrum. Being hampered by the discomfort zone they are expected to remain in, this generation will be part of an inter and intra conflict created by inequality. To side step this restlessness in society which could be coming soon, the present generation has to think clearly about such a future situation and create equal space for both the comfort and the discomfort zones.
Lakhi Kant: What is the idea of consent for women?
Nonibala Narengbam: Idea of consent hasn’t really been applied in their lives in family and society. The society we are living in has parents as a dominating factor. That’s the message we receive from this idea. The girl child has limited consent in education, profession, mobility, or the time restrictions on when she has to be in and out of home. It’s mostly the parents rule and decision.
In 10-15% families it may occur otherwise, but in 85% families the idea of consent is minimal as of now. Not just the question whether the girl child gets freedom to choose, in most cases the fact is even basic education is unavailable to them; the idea of getting her consent, hence, doesn’t figure at all. Daily activities like household chores are customary for them. There’s no choice in this. It’s a defined structure in which girls are put, even though they might dislike this. Consent is not discussed at all and is an unaddressed matter. There’s no question of the girl child liking it or not. There’s no choice or second opinion available to them. Girls are defined and bound by society in accordance to the stereotyping of their role and responsibilities.
There are many women and girls who want to free themselves from this definition. They prefer to add mobility and earn money but society has permeated their existence with unquestionable rules and responsibilities. Even in our programmes at the villages girls are unable to be present in time as they have to finish their household work first. Usually we have to time the programmes according to their convenience. So traditional roles work as shackles or unseen ropes for us women.
It’s imperative that a new tradition of acknowledgment of the idea of consent is established now, and for this, consideration and understanding of those in the comfort zone would be required.
Lakhi Kant: How can classmates, teachers and parents intervene in the schooling and life of victims of crime?
Nonibala Narengbam: In our experience young girls find it embarrassing and uncomfortable socially, especially in cases of sexual assault. They are wary of comments from others. They sometimes like to stay in the government’s designated homes when the perpetrator of crime is living just next door. The trauma makes it impossible for them to remain at home.
There are a couple of such girls who wanted to stay at a home, whom we pooled in money amongst us to provide for them. One of these girls joined a boarding with our help in Class VI and now has completed Class XII. We do come across such cases but do not ask them about their past as we only want to normalise their lives. The government has homes and I have heard they sponsor their studies.
Regarding awareness among classmates, like in this case in 2012-13, the classmates didn’t give the child company because of stigma caused by parents of other children telling them to stay away from her. The girl was feeling isolated and went through mental problems.
At present there have been some changes in the general mindset due to laws like the POCSO and also the civil society coming to the aid of the victim. Stigma, however, has not reduced for the victims.
Lakhi Kant: Could you tell me about mental suppression of women of the minority communities?
Nonibala Narengbam: it’s not in those whom I am in touch with. They do not seem to feel oppressed. But they do feel left out in education and in exposure to the world outside. Among the ones I know there are Muslim women who are certainly less exposed to society outside their homes in comparison to the Meitei women.
Mental oppression due to lack of a healthy environment is a kind of violence. Even telling a woman she has not borne a male child or that she doesn’t earn or she is dark complexioned is a kind of violence only. Physical violence can be proved with tangible evidence, but mental harassment and mental violence cannot be proven, and that’s an area where women suffer the most.
Lakhi Kant: Are crimes against women and the girl child due to them getting limited voice in household and public spaces?
Nonibala Narengbam: I feel limited space requires it to be taken or given. But as we discussed earlier, the change needs to come from family and structure. Brought up matters and family is a very important institution for this. Girl children need to be taught how to capture their space and opportunity. This has to be discussed with the children.
A woman who started in an inferior situation will take a lot of time to claim her social space. But a woman already having a space beginning from the family will find it easier in the social space. Women with upbringing in patriarchal families will have some amount of suffering surely. The discussion has to start from each family. At the same time the family could produce male children who do not feel they are superior in any way. The structures have to be redefined and reviewed within the families.
Girls shouldn’t be given the belief they belong to the discomfort zone, same as boys need to be told the comfort zone is not exclusive to them. When the family is a balanced institution, social balance will be there. That’s the need of the hour. We have counsellors doing this kind of work for victims fighting under POCSO, survivors and other victims. We work at the grassroots and learn the reality from them.