Guwahati: Earthquakes, floods, famine, cyclones, riots, and the new addition of COVID-19 — natural or man-made, calamities have always put women in the most devastated and critical position. The physical, mental, emotional trauma through which a woman goes through during or post calamity is unimaginable. Though the recent lockdown was to stop the spread of deadly coronavirus, it is unfortunate that it had also a real nasty underbelly as gender-based violence or atrocities against women have increased three-fold in the last few months.
Witnessing the increasing atrocities against women among all sections of society, SAKHI one-stop centres (OSC) have extended helping hands to every woman in need. The constant mental, emotional, psycho-social, and legal support provided by the young and dynamic officials of OSC are bringing a new ray of hope in the lives of several violence hit, distressed or abandoned women.
It was on March 30, around 10.15 pm, Anindita, the coordinator of Sakhi One Stop Centre in Dibrugarh, got a call from an unknown number. Although quite late at night, she received the call immediately as deep down she felt that the call would have information about a woman in distress. Her guess went correct and the phone was from Chabua police, who informed her they rescued a distressed woman. Upon receiving the information, she requested the police to immediately bring the woman to the OSC for temporary shelter, and accordingly around midnight the police brought Anita Robi Das (name changed) to the centre.
Mother without hope
The story of Anita is the stuff that movies are made of. As per her admission, she is a resident of the Phoolbari area of Dinajpur district in Bangladesh and is on a mission to find her son’s murderer. Belonging to a financially backward background, her family earned their livelihood by making and repairing shoes. Around five years ago, Anita’s only son, who was then 19 years old, went to work in garbage business in Dhaka but he never returned. Since then, she is in search of her son. A few months ago, she learned from some source that her son was killed so she went out of her house searching for her son. She suspects her sister-in-law to be the culprit behind the killing of both of her son and brother.
Also Read: Top Assam bureaucrats test COVID-19 positive
After filing FIR about the deaths in Niphamari Police Station of Nilphamari district in Bangladesh, she has been aimlessly traveling in many vehicles, trains, and also by walking, asking strangers about the whereabouts of her son. Being illiterate and without much idea about roads and directions, Anita mistakenly crossed the border and somehow landed up in Dibrugarh.
“Anita was terrified when I first met her, all she wanted was to go back to her homeland but in the same time, she was scared to revealing her identity,” shared Anindita, adding, “At OSC we gave her a patient hearing made her feel comfortable, brought new clothes and other essential items for her. We also convinced her to help the police so that she can reach her homeland soon.”
For a few days, Anita was at Sakhi OSC. In April she was handed over to the Chabua Police and produced before a magistrate and for illegal trespassing without a valid passport under the Passports Act 1967, she was sent to jail for three months.
“We are closing working with state border police regarding this case, after the completion of her term, police will start the passport procedure. As it is the pandemic time and going to Bangladesh will be a tough affair so we are planning to put her in a temporary shelter home,” said Anindita.
“As the name goes, we are much more than just a government agency, in every sense, we try to provide every support to the women in need in any situation. The recent pandemic and lockdown have increased our task to quite an extent, but we are trying to do our best and help the needy as much as possible. No doubt it is challenging, but it is thrilling too,” she said.
A Sakhi to every woman
Sakhi is an initiative of the Union government and came into existence on April 1, 2015. The basic intention behind its launch was to provide integrated support and assistance under one roof to women affected by violence both in public and private spaces. In the Central level, the scheme is run by the Union ministry of women and child welfare (MWCD) and in Assam, it is run by the social welfare department.
It has branches in 566 districts of India and 33 districts of Assam. The scheme is funded by ‘Nirbhaya Fund’ and was created with the sole purpose of protecting the dignity and ensuring the safety of women in India.
In the mid-June 2019, 18-year-old Kempha Lengpi (name changed), a resident of Diphu, eloped with her longtime boyfriend Rakesh Barman (name changed). Kempha’s family didn’t accept the relationship because Rakesh was from a different community. The young couple decided to stay together and thus they ran away from Diphu to Shillong, where Rakesh was working as a mason in a firm.
Next four months, Kempha and Rakesh lived happily, until one evening when Rakesh ran away leaving Kempha in a devastating situation. Terrified, Kempha waited the whole night for her husband to return but he didn’t. The next day, with the help of neighbours, she went to the local police but as she did not have much idea about where Rakesh was so she couldn’t file a missing complaint. In the meantime, she found that she was pregnant. Left with no money, a pregnant Kempha started approaching nearby areas in search of work. Learning about her condition, a woman agreed to help, and accordingly, she referred Kempha as a domestic maid in one of her friend’s houses in Jagiroad.
From December, she started staying and working in their place. However, with the onset of the nation-wide lockdown, the owner of the house got to know about her pregnancy and they asked Kempha to return to her home, and accordingly, they dropped Kempha at Jorabat.
But destiny had some other plan for her, having very little knowledge about the roads, Kempha crossed the road which was on Meghalaya’s side. Witnessing Kempha waiting at Meghalaya’s side, Ri-Bhoi district police rescued and put her for 14 days quarantine in a designated camp.
Illusmita Konwar, the coordinator of Kamrup (M) One Stop Centre, said, “On the completion of Lockdown1, Ri-Bhoi district administration informed Kamrup (M) DC about Kempha and subsequently Kamrup (M) district administration called us for her temporary shelter. Upon learning her story we came to know that she doesn’t want to go home as she is scared that her family members might not accept her in this situation.”
“Currently, she is in an advanced stage of pregnancy and thus needs better care. So, we shifted her to ‘State Home for Women’ in Jalukbari,” Illusmita informed.
“Our main aim is to make women feel physically, mentally, emotionally, and even financially secure. Here in SAKHI, we counsel, guide, and help them to find ways in the utmost critical conditions,” she added.
All women, including girls below 18 years of age affected by violence, irrespective of caste, class, religion, and marital status, are getting support from Sakhi.
A vulnerable child
Eight-year-old Sabita Gogoi (name changed) is a foster child of an elderly couple. Being the eldest of four siblings, at the age of five, Sabita was sent to Rajib Sarma’s (name changed) in Sivasagar. Rajib Sarma and his wife Reboti (name changed) treated Sabita as their own granddaughter. They sent her to a nearby school, made her learn handicrafts; in short, they did their every bit so that her childhood did not get spoiled. Despite their attempts to give Sabita a normal childhood where she can enjoy her rights, everything went for a toss in the last week of May when they came to know that the little girl got molested in their house.
It was in mid-May when Sabita, just like any other day, went to take a bath when she suddenly felt someone was holding her from the back. Immediately she started screaming but unfortunately, no one listened and she was molested by a 20-year-old man whom she used to address as ‘Dada.’ Frightened Sabita somehow gathered courage and ran away from the house. Upon seeing her roaming in the streets, someone called the police.
On that night, police contacted OSC Sivasagar and dropped her at the centre for temporary shelter, “At the first sight only we understood Sabita is a victim of sexual abuse, it was night and she is a child so we did not ask anything, just requested her not to wash any clothes as it was essential for a medical procedure,” said Swapnali Saikia, caseworker of Sivasagar OSC, “Next morning during a conversation with her we learned that she has been molested by her next-door neighbour. Besides, the accused had earlier also tried to molest her.”
Without wasting much time, Swapnali and her associates took her for required medical tests and produced before the Child Welfare Committee (CWC). “As per CWC’s instructions Sivasagar police immediately arrested the accused and put him behind the bars,” she said.
The girl was completely shattered and broken when she reached the centre; however, due to the emotional, legal support, and timely action of Sakhi, her culprit was apprehended within a short period. Sabita has been sent to Ahana children home for a few days, after that, her real parents came and took her to Naharkatia, where she belongs.
(Note: For the safety of the survivors, their actual names have not been disclosed)
According to Neelakshi Sharma, the Manager of the 181 women’s toll-free helpline number, in the last three-four months, around 400 cases of atrocities against women have been registered from different parts of Assam, which is quite higher than other times.
“In the last few months many women from elite classes have also called and approached us for help, this is quite surprising,” she disclosed.
The rise of cases against women during the pandemic and recent lockdown very well proves that women are not safe at their homes too. It is the responsibility of every man to make women feel safe and secure both inside and outside the house.