It is the sad truth that women are widowed in Manipur on a regular basis due to ongoing violence. With no one left to support them financially, these women often find themselves unable to feed their families. Things are changing however, and due to the untiring efforts of one woman, there is now a support group for them which does not dole out charity but makes them capable of earning a livelihood.
Sometimes all it takes is one incident to transform one from being a mere spectator to a participant in change. For Binalakshmi Nepram, that moment came on a gloomy Christmas eve of 2004 in a village near Imphal, the capital of Manipur. As an academic researcher she was talking to a group of women activists, when gun shots shattered the peace. In the flash of a second, one of the women in that meeting – Rebika Akham, 24 – had become a widow.
Nepram recounts what happened, “We were at Wabgai. The gun shots sounded less than a kilometre away, leading to the death of a 27-year-old man.” The victim, Buddhi Moiranthem, had been dragged out of his car battery workshop by three assailants and shot at point blank range. To date, his wife and family have no clue about who his killers were, or what their motive was.
“Rebika, all of 24, stood with us, shell-shocked. Amid the crying, I remember her mother’s helpless words, ‘Now how will I feed you?’ That was the turning point of my life,” says Nepram. It was then that she decided to set up a support system for women left isolated because of the violence around them.
Growing up in Manipur – a state that shares borders with Myanmar, as well as with the other north eastern states of Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram – which is possibly one of India’s most conflict-ridden regions, Nepram understood even as a child that life was uncertain given that armed violence was a regular occurrence. “My parents tell me that even on the day I was born, there was a conflict raging and my father had to scramble for the medicines that my mother had needed. Violence cast its shadows on our very minds,” she says.
When she joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi in 1997, she shared some of the realities of the region with friends and classmates, who often could not comprehend the extent of violence that marked everyday life in Manipur. “They could not believe it when I told them that people could actually disappear and not be seen alive again,” remarks Nepram. In JNU, Nepram began systematically researching into the situation, often travelling in the state to collect primary data. But despite her research, she was unprepared for those gun shots that rang out in 1994, changing a young wife into a widow in an instant.
Soon after that killing, Nepram collected Rs 4,500 to buy a sewing machine for Rebika Akham, so that she could earn an independent income and stitch together the pieces of her life again. With that the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network also came into being. Nepram points out,
I realised there is no point in doing endless research if there was to be no intervention. There are so many young women, just in their twenties, who have been widowed overnight. Children have lost their fathers; mothers, their sons. These women needed help to start their life afresh.
She also realised that monetary relief was, at best, temporary relief and that soft loans were perhaps more appropriate. The Network then took on the role of providing small loans to women victims and helped them open their own bank accounts.
The lives of many women were turned around in the process. Take the case of Huidrom Tanya Devi, 18. Her father’s untimely death 10 years ago shattered her young life. A karate instructor, he was gunned down by the armed forces in 2001. The young girl still asks in a haunted voice, “Even today I don’t know the reason for my father’s death. I ask everyone, what crime did he commit to meet such an end?”
The Network gave her mother, Huidrom Geeta Devi a loan of Rs 3,000 in 2007 with which Tanya was able to start a small business. As the months rolled by, her confidence as an entrepreneur grew. This April, she became the proud owner of a shop that sells embroidered dress materials, incense sticks and household goods. Two other women have similarly set up their own shops with the Network’s help.
Mumtaz, another victim, whose husband, a lecturer by profession, was killed in gun violence in 2009, was in a similar distress. With five children to look after, she couldn’t be more grateful when the Network extended her a loan of Rs 8,000 to run her business.
Her success as an entrepreneur has whetted Mumtaz’s interest in public life. She now wants to contest the local panchayat elections in order to help bring change in her village in the Thoubal district of Manipur. She also links up affected women like her to the Network and is, in the process, contributing to the expansion of an initiative that had started small with 25 women survivors of gun violence and today reaches out to over a thousand.
The first of its kind in South Asia, the Network has 150 are active members, most of whom had been victims themselves. The assistance they render is multi-pronged. The immediate need of women who have been bereaved is a support system – some regular source of food, the continuation of their children’s education, and the like. Then comes the need for a sustainable income. Loans are provided to address this requirement, with the money put to use in setting up a small vegetable vending enterprise or acquiring a loom to weave cloth.
The Network also provides legal assistance to the women to fight their cases for justice and compensation since they themselves are most often too poor to afford lawyers. Medical assistance is provided to take care of the health needs of the affected women. The Network does this by entering into arrangements with doctors who are willing to provide free check-ups or dental care.
In order to function smoothly, meetings are held every two months in an informal setting – like the courtyard of a member’s house – to discuss individual problems as well as general issues, like the treatment accorded to widows in society. Nepram comments,
In many parts of India, when a woman who has lost her husband wears bright clothes or takes up employment outside the home, eyebrows are raised, questions asked, and motives ascribed. This is simply unfair – it is only right that women in such circumstances try and reclaim their lives. Girls, as young as 21, are widowed in an instant. Surely they have the right to live a normal life?
The Network meetings are not just to discuss problems, but are also meant as a time of togetherness over tea and snacks. The idea is to reach out and explore ways to address common problems. “We can only reach a limited number of women. If the government wants, it can connect with lakhs of them, but that would need political will,” observes Nepram. She emphasises that the Network is apolitical. In any case, politicians generally stay away from such interventions. Not only has no Member of Parliament come forward to be associated with the work the Network is doing, ministers in Manipur have actually mocked its efforts. But for Nepram this only points to the great lack of sensitisation among politicians to the gender dimensions of violence.
The lack of political response has not, however, discouraged the women members of this unusual Network. Right now, they are busy studying government schemes for women and children and searching for ways in which they can benefit from them.