ON THE night of 13 December last year, an 18-year-old girl was gangraped by 16 boys in William Nagar, the headquarters of the East Garo Hills district in Meghalaya, 240 km from Shillong. She was returning from the winter festival in the town along with two friends when the incident happened. “While my friends managed to escape, the boys hit me with stones and I lost consciousness,” says the victim. When she came to her senses, she found that her clothes were torn and the boys were raping her. Nine of the rapists were juveniles, and one a distant relative.
In the past decade, Meghalaya has seen over 800 rape cases, 500 of which are still pending trial in various courts. Contrary to the popular belief that women have greater control over their lives in matrilineal societies such as in Meghalaya, the condition of women seems to be no different here from the rest of the country.
“Our matrilineal society has become mere words on a placard, while the factors contributing to crimes against women in Meghalaya remain the same as in Delhi or Assam,” says Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times. “There is little political will to change the situation.” In fact, there was a six-fold rise in cases of rape registered annually in the state between 2001 (26 cases) and 2010 (149 cases). In a state that boasts of women’s empowerment — where women inherit property and are seen at the forefront of domestic and public life — 830 rape cases between 2002 and 2012 should have shaken the conscience of the political parties and the administration, and forced them to act. Instead, the conviction rate remains awfully low, compensation is hardly awarded and there are only three fast track courts dealing with rape cases — one each in the Jaintia Hills, West Khasi Hills and East Khasi Hills districts. In the Garo Hills alone, which does not have a single fast track court, 23 rape cases, including two gangrape cases, have been pending for over a decade.
Though the William Nagar rape victim received a compensation of Rs 25,000 after human rights groups took up her case with the government, she asks, “What will I do with the money when I can no longer lead a normal life?” Her mother alleges that the doctors at the William Nagar Hospital refused to get her daughter admitted even though she was bleeding profusely. “Not only had the boys raped her, they had also mutilated her private parts and perhaps tried to kill her.”
The victim’s father thinks that the alarm bells are ringing for the community to wake up. “Earlier, there was no ‘culture’ of harassing women, but now the youngsters from the community — most of them school dropouts — are becoming violent and girls like my daughter become their victims.”
However, local community leaders and the political parties do not seem to care. “When we organised a public meeting after the William Nagar gangrape, none of them turned up. They only talk about the insurgency,” says Jaynie N Sangma of the Peoples’ Movement for Democratic Rights.
Even as Meghalaya goes to polls on 23 February, no party has raised the issue of sexual violence despite at least 13 women candidates expected to join the fray, including the lone woman in the Meghalaya Assembly, Urban Affairs Minister Ampareen Lyndoh. Also, of the total 14.8 lakh voters, 7.49 lakh are women, clearly outnumbering the 7.32 lakh male voters.
Deborah C Marak, one of the most prominent Congress leaders in William Nagar and the working president of the party in the state, did not even visit the rape victim. She did not respond to TEHELKA’s repeated attempts to contact her. “When she was attacked by militants in November last year, we took out protest rallies. She should also show the political will to fight for women,” says a woman Congress supporter on the condition of anonymity. The MP from Tura constituency in Garo Hills, Agatha Sangma from the NCP, also never took up this issue.
Jaynie has an explanation for this pervasive apathy. “Why would the politicians take up the William Nagar rape victim’s case and risk the wrath of the families of the 16 accused? In Meghalaya, each vote counts. As the community itself is least bothered about the issue, the political parties can afford not to speak out,” she says. Another factor is that women politicians have never had a strong voice in any political party in Meghalaya, as Mukhim points out.
WOMEN ARE unsafe not only in the underdeveloped Garo Hills, but also in the coal-rich Jaintia Hills and the relatively more developed Khasi Hills. In 2007, a 16- year-old girl was raped by her boyfriend and her throat slashed in Nongstoin in West Khasi Hills district. Though the girl survived after a month in hospital, the police passed it off as a “family matter” and the magistrate suggested a “compromise”.
“The entire system is indifferent towards rape victims. And if the accused are related to the powerful coal lobbies, there is huge pressure on the victim’s family to withdraw the case,” says Agnes Kharshiing, president of the Civil Society Women’s Organisation, which has been agitating against improper handling of rape cases.
The report of a committee on crime against women formed by the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly showed gross delays in the investigation of rape cases, but there is little pressure on the candidates of the 23 February poll to raise their voice for the rape victims. As the William Nagar rape victim puts it: “Women voters in the area should collectively decide not to support any political party unless they make crime against women a poll issue, but I guess women in Meghalaya are too weak to take such a bold step.”
*NAMES WITHHELD TO PROTECT IDENTITIES