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The plight of tribal women is the same anywhere in the world: They have to fight

Joanna Eede | London 25 Oct 2013, Vol 4 Issue 43

Tribal women have known brutal displacement, fear, murder and rape at the hands of invaders, for decades. They have suffered humiliation by governments that perpetuate the idea that they are somehow ‘backward’ or belong to the ‘stone age’.

They have seen their lands taken from them, their self-respect annihilated and their futures become uncertain. Yet despite their suffering, the resistance of many tribal women is growing.

This special photographic essay put together by Survival International (www.survivalinternational.org), a human rights organisation that campaigns for the rights of indigenous tribal peoples, reflects not only on the many tragedies that tribal women have endured, but also profiles some of the courageous and inspiring women who are fighting for their lands to be returned to them and for their fundamental human rights. Text by Joanna Eede.

1. CHITTAGONG’S JUMMA WOMEN: THEY LIVE TO FIGHT SEXUAL VIOLENCE

Since Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan in 1971, the indigenous Jumma people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the mountainous south-east region have endured some of the worst human rights violations in Asia. Gentle, compassionate and religiously tolerant, the Jumma differ ethnically and linguistically from the Bengali majority.

Sexual brutality against Jumma women is alarmingly high (Photo Courtesy: GMB Akash / www.gmb-akash.com)

Today, they are also one of the most persecuted tribal peoples. They are almost outnumbered by settlers and brutalised by the military. In one single act of genocide, hundreds of men, women and children were burned alive in their bamboo homes.

Sexual brutality against Jumma women and young girls is also alarmingly high: since August 2012, at least 12 Jumma women and girls have been subjected to sexual violence, although the number may well be higher; rape often goes unreported due to its social stigma.

According to Sophie Grig of Survival International, little has been done to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. This leaves Jumma women and girls increasingly vulnerable, as their attackers act with impunity.

2. “LET THEM CALL US PRIMITIVE”

The Bushmen are the original people of southern Africa. They can uniquely claim to be the ‘most indigenous’ peoples in the world, having lived on their lands longer than anyone else has lived anywhere.

In the 1980s, it was discovered that the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) lies in the middle of the richest diamond fields in the world.

Bushmen are the original people of southern Africa (Photo Courtesy: Survival International)

Between 1997 and 2002 almost all Bushmen were taken from their homes in the CKGR and driven to eviction camps outside the reserve, where they were not only deprived of their ways of life, but humiliated by endemic racist attitudes.

How can you have a Stone Age creature continue to live in the age of computers? asked Botswana’s former President, Festus Mogae.

Some Bushman women and their families have now returned to the reserve, but harassment and intimidation continue. In January 2013, reports emerged that some of their children had been arrested for possessing antelope meat.

“Let them call us primitive. Let them call us Stone Age people. Our way of life suits us. We have seen their development, and we don’t like it,” said a Bushman woman.

3. ‘DON’T FORGET OUR LANGUAGE, GRAB HOLD OF IT’

Boa Senior from the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean was the last remaining speaker of the Bo language. The ancestors of Boa Senior and other tribes of the Andaman Islands, such as the Jarawa, are thought to have been part of the first successful human migrations out of Africa.

Boa Senior died in 2010. Nearly 55,000 years of thoughts and ideas – the collective history of an entire people – died with her.

Members of the Jarawa tribe in Andaman Islands need to be left alone (Photo: Alok Das)

“They don’t understand me. What can I do?” Boa Senior asked before she died. “If they don’t speak to me now, what will they do once I’ve passed away? Don’t forget our language, grab hold of it.”

The Jarawa face a similar fate to Boa Senior unless a trunk road that cuts through their forest land is closed permanently to settlers, poachers, loggers and tourists. Before the Indian Supreme Court passed an interim order in January 2013 banning tourists from using the Andaman Trunk Road, hundreds travelled along that road every day in the hope of seeing the isolated Jarawa tribe.

Since 1993, Survival International has been campaigning to ensure that the road is closed and the policy of minimum intervention adhered to. In a major blow to the campaign, however, the Supreme Court reversed the order in March 2013, opening the door for the exploitative ‘human safaris’ to start again.

4. THIS ADIVASI TEACHER WANTS JUSTICE

Soni Sori is an adivasi (tribal) school teacher and mother of three young children from Chhattisgarh state in India. She was raped and tortured while in police custody, having been accused of being a courier between Maoists and a major steel company.

Soni has now been imprisoned for 17 months, with little hope of bail – accused of a crime for which there is little evidence. “Giving me electric shocks, stripping me naked, shoving stones inside me – is this going to solve the Naxal (Maoist) problem?” wrote Soni in a letter to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Soni Sori is a victim of police brutality (Photo Courtesy: Tehelka 2011)

Dr Jo Woodman of Survival International, said, Soni Sori has suffered horrific abuse at the hands of the police and remains in their custody. But what is this really about?

The state of Chhattisgarh’s desperation to silence those who speak out, while atrocities continue in the hidden war in India’s heartlands. Meanwhile, the suffering of the Adivasis of central India continues, and justice seems a distant dream.

“I want to go back and help my people,” said Soni Sori. “I want to use my education to empower them. If we don’t learn to speak for ourselves, tribal people will be wiped out.”

5. MEET LITTLE BUTTERFLY

The Awá are one of the only two nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes left in the Brazilian Amazon and is the most threatened tribe on Earth. For centuries their way of life has been one of peaceful symbiosis with the rainforest; they are so familiar with their lands that Awá women even care for orphaned baby monkeys by suckling them.

The future of Little Butterfly is, at best, precarious (Photo: Survival International)

Little Butterfly, an Awá girl, lives in a village 30 minutes’ walk from the frontier, where settlers are burning the Awá’s forest night and day.

The future of Little Butterfly is, at best, precarious, unless her lands are protected and her rights respected.

Even in the 21st century, the myth exists that tribal women and their communities are doomed archaic peoples that are destined to die out naturally. It is the concept that is antiquated – not them. Tribal peoples have complex, evolving societies that flourish when they are allowed to remain on their lands and live as they choose. - Women's Feature Service

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