The fate of women in our hill tracts

The reality remains that indigenous women are widely under-represented and are too frequently the victims of multiple expressions of discrimination and violence

August 9 was the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples but for some reasons, the authorities concerned in Bangladesh do not like to refer to these people as indigenous. 

It is worth re-reading what the United Nations has published for this day as this year, indigenous women are being celebrated. 

My housekeeper/home helper is from one of the indigenous communities, the Garo. She lost her mother at a young age but her grandmother was a fountain of knowledge, a possessor of indigenous wisdom, and a “keeper of the seeds.” Over the last 25 years, whenever I was sick with one thing or another, I would often be cured by “Grandmother’s Indigenous Medicine.” 

This is what the United Nations said this year:

“Indigenous women are the backbone of indigenous peoples’ communities and play a crucial role in the preservation and transmission of traditional ancestral knowledge. They have an integral collective and community role as carers of natural resources and keepers of scientific knowledge. Many indigenous women are also taking the lead in the defense of indigenous peoples’ lands and territories and advocating for indigenous peoples’ collective rights worldwide.

“However, despite the crucial role indigenous women play in their communities as breadwinners, caretakers, knowledge keepers, leaders, and human rights defenders, they often suffer from intersecting levels of discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

“Indigenous women particularly suffer high levels of poverty; low levels of education and illiteracy; limitations in the access to health, basic sanitation, credit, and employment; limited participation in political life; and domestic and sexual violence. Besides, their right to self-determination, self-governance, and control of resources and ancestral lands have been violated over centuries.

“Small but significant progress has been made by indigenous women in decision-making processes in some communities, achieving leadership in communal and national roles, and standing on the protest frontlines to defend their lands and the planet’s decreasing biodiversity. 

“The reality, however, remains that indigenous women are widely under-represented, disproportionately negatively affected by decisions made on their behalf, and are too frequently the victims of multiple expressions of discrimination and violence.”

Ten years ago, when, among many others, I was honoured with the “Friends of Liberation War Honour,” in my batch of honorees were the legendary Catholic priests, Father Timm and Father Homerich, both of whom have passed away in recent years. Father Homerich, who had spent a lifetime with the Garos of Tangail, Madhupur, and Jalchatra, refused to accept the award in person; he asked a Dhaka-based colleague to accept it on his behalf. He refused to come in person as he said: “Successive governments have stolen the ancestral lands of my people.”

Everyone knows that land is being stolen away from the indigenous people, be they in Mymensingh or the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Wherever land is involved, corruption is rampant. It should never have been like this. 

In 1998, I was working with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCS) and had oversight of the relief supplies being given by the government and the Red Cross to the refugees from the Hill Tracts who had returned from India following the signing of the 1997 Peace Treaty. Travelling from upazila to upazila it was obvious to me that restoring land to the rightful owners was going to be one of the major problems. 

It was also made clear to me that it was unlikely that the military were going to reduce their presence very much. After all, they were entrenched and were making a lot of money out of the hill tracts. It seems that nobody has the courage to fulfill the promises made in the words of the Peace Treaty. 

In 2008, the present government recognized that a separate land commission should be formed for solving the problems of the indigenous peoples, but until now nothing has happened.

How indigenous people feel reminds me of what one of the Native American leaders said to the President of the United States in 1854 when the President had offered to buy the land from the indigenous people. 

This is what Chief Seattle is supposed to have said:

“If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred and you must teach your children that it is sacred.

The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. 

The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children.

If we sell you our land, you must remember that rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must give the rivers the kindness

you would give any brother.”

The government authorities should deal with all the problems in a fair way and ensure that all government officers that are involved in the rampant corruption be given exemplary punishment.

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.