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International Women’s Day: Adivasi Women Pay the Price for Defending their Lands

Across states, Adivasi women have been at the frontline when it has come to stand up for their lands. However, gender-based violence against them continues unabated till today.
Adivasi women

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New Delhi: Adivasi women in India continue to pay the price for being defenders of their lands, shows a report by advocacy group Survival International released on the occasion of International Women's Day.

The report titled ‘Brutalized for resistance: The assault on Indigenous women in Modi’s India’ documents the triple punishment that Adivasi women are being meted out with -- for being indigenous, for being women and for standing up for their rights against corporate interests.

The report highlighted that the violations of Adivasi rights are in direct contravention of national laws and international obligations.

Around 57 million Adivasi people live in Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, which are being exploited for coal, bauxite and iron ore. With most of the mining being proposed on Adivasi lands, thousands of people may lose their homes if unchecked mining continues, the report pointed out.

Across states, Adivasi women have been at the frontline when it has come to stand up for their lands. However, gender-based violence against them continues unabated till today. The report said that the states clamp down on dissent through false cases, incarceration of protesting women, intimidation, and defamation. Women defending their rights are also at the risk of facing sexual violence acid attacks, it added. Extrajudicial killings remain rampant too in the form of 'encounter killings in the government parlance.

“Adivasi women who stand up against the might of the state and corporations which are seeking control over their lands and resources are punished viciously. Security forces, for example, justify squeezing Adivasi women's breasts by saying they need to ascertain if they are producing milk, claiming insurgents are rarely mothers. Adivasi women face gender-specific violence such as beating pregnant women and acid attacks. A particularly gruesome feature of the violence against them is the sexualized mutilation of victims – before and after death,” the report said.

Since the Modi government came to power, there has been a 190 per cent increase in the number of women charged with sedition – another signifier of how women continue to bear the brunt of standing up for their rights. The use of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) remains unscrupulous, with 13,000 people charged with sedition in the past decade and, in 2017-18 alone, 10,000 Adivasi people charged with sedition in Jharkhand for erecting customary stone plaques at the entrances to their villages, the report observed.

“Villagers who protest against the government handing over these lands to corporations are being jailed. We have lost faith in the government but will continue to fight to save our sacred lands and our forests,” said Hidme Markam, an Adivasi activist from Chhattisgarh who has faced harassment by the police last year.

Speaking on the large-scale devastation faced by Adivasi women, Jo Woodman of Survival International told the reporter, “Adivasi women have been doing everything in their power to stop the violation of their rights and the brutal treatment of their people. In return, the state does everything in its power to silence them rather than hear them. Women are marching, sitting in protest, standing in front of bulldozers – laying their lives on the line for their lands. Yet, at best, they are dismissed – as 'inconvenient' Adivasi women; at worst, they are raped or murdered for speaking out.”

The government must be held accountable for the atrocities, Jo added. “ Or will it continue to simply pave the way for the big corporations, annihilating Adivasi lives, lands and all our futures?”

India’s security forces use rape and sexual violence as weapons of punishment, intimidation and control against Adivasi women across the mining belt. While the National Human Rights Commission had slammed the Chhattisgarh government for the sexual abuse of Adivasi women by security forces in Bastar, the then deputy superintendent of Raipur Jail in 2017 had spoken out against the atrocities committed against Adivasi women and girls in prisons. Following that, she was suspended.

The report reiterated that Adivasi people have the right to their livelihoods and subsistence, protect their lands, manage their affairs, give or withhold their consent for projects on their lands, practice their religions and determine their futures under the Indian Constitution and laws. "So by privileging the profits of mining corporations over the rights of the Adivasi peoples, Modi's government is undermining the rule of law," the report said.

It added that there is an urgent need for the government to fulfil its Constitutional obligations.

The advocacy group urged the government to not carry out any mining on Adivasi lands without their informed consent and to respect the right of Adivasi village councils to protect their lands.

The state and national-level human rights commissions should be well equipped with human and financial resources to function effectively, observed the report. The other recommendations included commissioning an independent nationwide investigation into the violation of Adivasi lives and rights in mining areas and investigating allegations of sexual violence by security forces. Forest officers, the police and paramilitary forces should be well trained to protect Adivasi women's rights.

Ritwika Mitra is an independent journalist. Her views are personal.

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