On 13 December last year, a 18-year-old girl was gangraped by 16 boys in William Nagar, the headquarters of the East Garo Hills district in Meghalaya. After TEHELKA reported on the incident, activists allege that pressure is mounting on the victim's family to withdraw the case.
In the article (Gangraped by 16 Men. Yet No Outrage in the Hills, Issue 6, Volume 10) TEHELKA had reported that the victim's parents were very apprehensive about her future and their apprehension came true, revealing the ugly side of the social prejudice in Meghalaya. The victim who was moved to Tura, the main town of Garo hills, only to be denied admission by school and private girls' hostel, and back home in William Nagar people tried to photograph her every time she stepped out of her village. It's over three months since the incident happened, and Meghalaya Commission for Women (MCW) has been handling her case in a sluggish manner. Even questions have been raised on the state government's dealing of the case as one of the accused is a relative of Meghalaya Social Welfare minister Deborah Marak.
"In her village, the relatives and family members had been coming to their house and trying to influence them. We are told that they even took the girl's picture. Thus the parents moved the girl to Tura where she has been denied admission. We are told that the women commission has arranged for a safe stay for her, but her parents were denied to meet her on 26 March. What we don't understand is what is so secretive about it that even the parents are not being allowed to meet her," says Agnes Kharshaiing of Civil Society Women's Organisation (CSWO), a NGO based in Shillong that has been working for women's rights in Meghalaya.
"The victim's family is very poor. They are running from pillar to post for the safety of their child as well as to get justice. We are told that she has been made to sign a paper where she agreed that she is happy in the way state women commission has handled the case and that she does not want to talk to media and even activists. We feel the family is under pressure and it is important that her statement is recorded in front of a magistrate as well," adds Jaynie N Sangma of the Peoples' Movement for Democratic Rights.
Meghalaya State Commission for Women (MSCW) had sprung into action only after the incident was highlighted by the media. However, MSCW chairperson Theilin Phanbuh defended the commission's late response, saying that, "We have taken the case very seriously. We are told that a school has agreed to admit her, she is safe and her parents are meeting her. This is not for the first time such crime has happened and we have always taken up the case to the best of our ability." Phanbuh informed that the commission will constitute a fact finding committee to look into the allegations that the victim's family is being pressurised.
The police has filed a chargesheet against the 16 accused, and the case will now be heard in a newly constituted fast track court in Tura. Meanwhile, Social Welfare Minister Deborah Marak met with state Home Minister Roshan Warjri to discuss on the developments in the case and both the ministers told the media that justice will be done to the victim.
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. In the past decade, Meghalaya has seen over 800 rape cases, 500 of which are still pending in various courts.
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 public authorities and forced them to act. Instead, the conviction rate remains awfully low and even compensation is hardly provided to the victims and their families. 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 fast track court, 23 rape cases, including two gangrape cases, have been pending for over a decade.
"Matriarchal society is a myth. Crimes against women in Meghalaya has been happening for a long time. Now media is proactive, so a lot of cases are being reported. But the lack of awareness about the sensitivity related to a rape case amongst common people, and even authorities, remains a great cause of concern. The society needs to take action and question the government, something that is not happening apart from activists fighting for the cause," says Particia Mukhim, Editor of The Shillong Times.