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Female vigilantes replace poor policing

Last week, a woman – let’s call her Thaba – came to us seeking justice. She had been badly beaten by a man to whom she had lent some money. Her husband was ill and she needed the money back. So she had asked him to return the money.

The man had found her when she was on night vigil with other women of her locality in the local meira shang (women’s shelter), a lean-to constructed at the approach road of the locality.

As a result of the ongoing armed conflict situation in Manipur, over the last few decades it has become customary for women in the state to sit during the night guarding their homes and family against army and police operations and harassment. These vigilantes are known as or Meira Paibi, which means literally torch-bearers.

Thaba was dragged out from the lean-to and beaten up in front of the very women who are regarded as the epitome of women power in the state. Her phanek (a traditional wrap skirt similar to a sarong) fell in the tussle, exposing her lower body. This is, to a Manipuri woman, the highest insult to her dignity. In our society, the exposure of a woman’s body in public view is regarded as the height of shame and indignity.

A case was accordingly filed with the nearest police station and we are consulting legal experts on what possible action we can take up. But when we go to file cases at the police station, we are usually asked to first negotiate and settle the matter amicably between the two parties.

I feel that this is the highest form of corruption and shirking of work in itself. The police are there to help us in such matters, why should they hesitate to take down our complaints or even advise us to settle the matter without involving them. This means that they do not want to work.

Most significantly, police stations in Manipur are not women friendly. There are a high number of gender violence related cases in the state. But when the women go to register a complaint, they have to talk to a male police officer as all investigating officers are male.

The district police headquarters might have one or two women homeguards, but apart from that most police stations are 100 per cent male. So how could you expect a woman who has just been a victim of gender violence – say rape, molestation or domestic violence – to open up fully and state their case in detail. That is why the complaints registered in the police stations often have lots of missing details and the perpetrators use these loopholes to escape. Even in this case, Thaba missed a lot of significant details in her complaint as she was speaking to a male police officer.

Counselling cells only exist in Imphal East and Imphal West district police headquarters – both of which are located in central parts of Manipur. These cells could help traumatised women register their complaints and seek help properly but they do not exist in police stations in periphery areas and other parts of the state.

On most occasions we counsel the victim and accompany them to the police station and to see legal experts. But as the police stations are not gender friendly, the women baulk from going to the police to seek help. This is sad and results in a lot of cases being hidden and the victimised women continue to suffer in silence.

We have been lobbying and shouting that there should be women police personnel in every police station and outpost no matter how big or small the station or outpost is. Though the Director General of Police has often been quoted in the media as saying that this would be done, there has been no significant change in the situation so far. Until the police departments are gender friendly, we cannot hope for proper redressal and gender justice.

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Takhelchangbam Ambravati