Kandhamal (Orissa), Feb 24 (IANS) Reena Rana, a tribal woman in her 20s, is waiting for her five-year-old son to be returned to her. Her husband married another woman a few years ago and Reena had to leave his house. She is voiceless, like many other tribal women in Orissa’s Kandhamal district who are victims of domestic violence.
‘I had a son and a daughter, but my daughter passed away. Then my husband forcibly took my son away. I want my son back and some financial support to live a life of dignity,’ wailed Reena.
Most of the women victims of domestic violence in Kandhamal, 250 km from state capital Bhubaneswar, have been forcibly evicted from their homes. They have no means of livelihood, forcing them to live a life full of loneliness and destitution.
Around three dozen of these women gathered at a public hearing at Kandhamal, the first of its kind in this area, last month. With tears rolling down their eyes, they said they were looking for some financial support to raise their children with dignity. The women were brought together by Swadhikar Forum, a group of 40 non- governmental organisations working for the welfare of tribal women with focus on shielding them from domestic violence.
The forum came into existence in 2003 after NGO Oxfam conducted a study on institutional response to women’s need of shelter in Orissa’s 21 Short Stay Homes (SSH) spread over 15 districts.
Subhashree Das, convenor of this forum, told IANS: ‘The problem is that in many cases tribal men are misusing the tradition of ‘Jhinka marriage’ where a tribal male forcibly takes a woman away and makes her his wife. Men often get married more than once. The first wife then has no option but to move out, and she often ends up as a destitute as she has no means to earn a livelihood.’
Tapan Das, district co-coordinator of the Kandhamal forum, told IANS: ‘We have set up a women’s resource centre to take up such cases. These women are voiceless. We start with counselling and then help them to take recourse to legal remedies.’
‘The problem is that the tribal women victims have neither the time nor resources to wait for local courts to decide on such issues as it could take years,’ he added.
So it was decided to hold a public hearing where instant justice could be delivered. The decisions are binding on both the parties as they give written consent. A series of such public hearings would be conducted in various parts of the state over the next few months.
In the first public hearing, Reena’s husband was directed to bring her son at the local Woman Support Centre and told to pay a fixed amount as maintenance to her. The amount would be deducted directly from his salary and given to Reena so that she could raise her son properly.
Namrata Chadha, a member of the state legal authority who has been working on this issue at the state level for several years, said, ‘The tribal women have rights too. They have to learn to assert.’
According to Subashree Das: ‘The problem of domestic violence in Orissa’s tribal areas is assuming alarming proportions. We have set up support centres for women in five districts; we are in the process of setting up more such centres.’
The Swadhikar Forum and other NGOs working on this issue often send many of the victims to the Shelter and Short Stay Homes, which are owned by the state government but mostly run by different NGOs.
According to official records, from 2007 up to September 2009, 826 cases of domestic violence were registered by district level protection officers in Orissa.
‘The actual number is much more. A large number of tribal women are suffering domestic violence, but these incidents go unreported due to lack of awareness. Also there is pressure from the victims’ families not to report such cases. The victims are often scared of litigation, so they avoid reporting such cases and continue to suffer silently,’ Subashree Das said.
(Arun Anand can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)