Women prisoners recount custodial torture, rape and health crisis at public hearing

Written by sabrangindia | Published on: January 21, 2019

Over the past 15 years, India’s jails have seen a rise in women inmates by 61 per cent. Their treatment is worse than the poor normal. From custodial torture, rape, denial of health services, lack of clean food and water and sheer ignorance on behalf of the state, the Indian prison has failed to respect the rights of the inmates, especially women. Over the past 15 years, India’s jails have seen a rise in women inmates by 61%. This, when they are only 48.18% of the national population (according to the World Bank, 2017) From the report of women in prisons published on June 2018, by the Ministry of Women and Child Development 'A majority of female inmates are in  the age group of 30-50 years (50.5%), followed by 18-30 years (31.3%). Of  the total 1,401 prisons in India, only 18 are exclusive  for women, housing 2,985 female prisoners.Thus, a  majority  of women inmates are housed in the women’s enclosures of general prisons.'

 
Women prisioner
 
New Delhi: “The young 14-year-old girl in a remote prison in Raipur, cried for days at a stretch after facing severe harassment at the hands of the prison authorities. She wanted to die than be in prison,” said activist and teacher Soni Sori, who is now a symbol of resistance and inspiration for women across the country, sharing her experience after having been in five prisons across India.

Sukalo spent 45 days in jail sleeping on the bathroom floor but, she says, that was not the worst pain she endured in prison. A member of the Gond tribe, largely found in central India, she had to eat food infested with insects, drink contaminated water and share space with other women she did not know.Sukalo had to suffer the trauma — daily — for one and a half months because she was against an irrigation project in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh.The Kanhar irrigation project was conceived more than 30 years ago, and was taken up in 2014. It, however, soon landed in trouble. In April 2015, there were violent protests by villagers who feared displacement and contamination of their source of water.
 
"We were targeted because we spoke against powerful people. I knew I was in jail because of this movement (against the project)," said Sukalo, now 51.Recalling her days in prison, she said, "The food was infested with insects. Our drinking water was dirty; I survived by eating an apple every day." She said the inhuman treatment meted out to her in Mirzapur jail changed her as a person. On Friday, she was among several women who gathered in the national capital to demand better living condition in prisons for women.

Women in Indian jails are not and have not been a major policy concern for the State. For decades, they have suffered the lack of basic infrastructure, health care, vocational training and humane treatment. A larger cultural understanding of criminality dictates that crime is masculine in nature. Thus, any women who dare to fall within this perverse idea of masculinity are further dehumanised and made invisible.
 
Soni Sori, a teacher, who became the symbol of resistance against brutal custodial torture, also attended the gathering in Delhi. Sori, who was arrested in 2011 and charged with acting as a Maoist conduit, accused police of often subjecting her to electric shocks to extract a confession.
 "I wonder what gave me the endurance to bear it all," she said. "Most inmates were ill and received little medical care. The food in the jail was infested with worms and insects. We resolved to go on hunger strike and threatened to produce the food in court. Only then were many of us made to oversee the kitchen," Sori said. She said the situation in women prison was worse."We were made to clean the common toilets daily. Under-trials going through such things in jail is illegal. Adivasi prisoners are almost always the most vulnerable," she said. Sharing an emotional and thought-provoking testimony, Soni Sori described her experience of being falsely accused. She said, “Women live in crammed prisons, with a shortage of food, clothes and even sanitary napkins. Women face sexual violence and harassment at the hands of the policemen in forests. Young girls aged 14 are impregnated as a consequence and spend their time in jail in denial and depression.” "Most inmates were ill and received little medical care. The food in the jail was infested with worms and insects. We resolved to go on a hunger strike and threatened to produce the food in court. Only then were many of us made to oversee the kitchen," Sori said. Shedding light on her own personal struggle, Sori said, “They tried very hard to shut me up so that the world does not know as to what happens behind those closed doors. I was physically and sexually tortured. When they failed to shut me up with this, they even tried to pit my own husband against me. My daughter was thrown out of her school only because of my struggle. However, we led a movement, and now we want to focus on solutions.”

Anjum Zamarud Habib, an activist from Kashmir, was jailed and booked under POTA in 2003. Habib said she was verbally stripped by police and had to face very hostile attitude."Getting a paper and pen was a struggle. Jail culture has rules and regulations of its own. There are customs one needs to follow and if you resist you are brutally abused," she said.
  
Overcrowding of prisons is another issue flagged by these women survivors. Sori said over 600 women reside in a prison with a capacity for 250. "Due to a lack of space, many of us would just have space to sit and not even to lie down," she said.
 
Roma Malik, the general secretary of the All Indian Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) an activist fighting for the rights of women living in prisons, said there is a kind of hierarchy one has to follow in jail. "These women are fighting on many fronts. The irony is: they are invisible to most people, and that is why not enough attention is paid to their suffering," she said. "Over-crowding is another very big issue. It can lead to rioting and fights among prisoners. And that is what commonly seen too," she said.
  
Prominent lawyer Vrinda Grover said there is a need for a movement to improve jail conditions and focus should be given to political prisoners. "Special attention needs to be given to those women who are targeted because of their human rights activism."
Academic and human rights activist Uma Chakravorty echoed Grover, saying the movement would need participation from all sectors and not just the civil society. "About 74 per cent respondents in India feel that torture can sometimes be justified to gain information that may protect the public," it said. Despite being a signatory to the United Nations' Convention Against Torture, 1997, India has not ratified the convention so far, since ratification required an enabling legislation to reflect the definition and punishment for 'torture'.
 
Activists, young leaders and journalists spanning six states in India, shared their emotional and eye-opening testimonies from prisons, in a public hearing in Delhi termed Women in resistance, Women in Prison Bandini. Over the past 15 years, India’s jails have seen a rise in women inmates by 61 per cent. From custodial torture, rape, denial of health services, lack of clean food and water and sheer ignorance on behalf of the state, the Indian prison has failed to respect the rights of the inmates.
 
Various studies done within Indian prisons have always concluded that majority of prisoners are Adivasis, Dalits or from other marginalised communities that are being criminalised. Their social and economic backwardness makes them vulnerable, being unable to defend themselves legally and financially. The hearing saw many activists, who had been falsely implicated in multiple cases, sharing the emotional testimonies of their experiences in prisons and the solutions they envisioned to shed the political apathy of the Indian state.
 
Anjum Zamrooda Habib, hailing from Kashmir, spent five years in Tihar Jail, after being implicated in multiple cases. Shedding light on her experiences, she said, “Young Kashmiris including women are locked up in multiple prisons across the country. They are attacked, their voices silenced, as they are reduced to their immediate identity of being Kashmiri and Muslim.”
 
Recalling an instance, she said, “A pregnant woman inmate was made to suffer in pain for over six months. Some high-risk prisoners were to be taken to court, therefore they could not provide security to her if she had to go to the hospital. This is the level of injustice against women in prisons.” Women’s physical health and their mental health take a huge hit during their time in prison, reducing them to mere tools to be used by the government and the authorities.
 
In the public hearing, it was noted that women who were involved in the struggles to protect the land, water and forests and those resisting the anti-people policies unleashed by the governments were the worst affected in the prisons. While actively resisting these inhuman models of development, the women are implicated in fabricated cases forged by the 'protectors' of law and order. Today, thousands of women are wasting away in jails, not being treated like humans, held over false cases, being raped and tortured by police officials, and most of them belong to underprivileged sections of the society, alleged the speakers.
 
Another activist, Xavier Amma, who is fighting against the Kudankulam nuclear atomic plant questioned, “How would you feel if there was a power plant in your backyard which could potentially damage generations? I have been agitating for our land and safety, I was attacked with tear gases which had several repercussions for me.”
 
The jury in the public hearing consisted of activist Uma Chakravarty, lawyer Vrinda Grover, and activist Prafulla Samantara. The jury and the activists collectively asserted that focus should now be on building alliances of activists, with access to healthcare, speedy redressal of cases and access to hearings being a top priority.

Inputs from Business Standardand PTI.