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How Women Survive in Assam’s Detention Centres

Most women in the detention centres are middle-aged and mothers. However, the gender-insensitive environment at detention centres do not take into account the needs of the mothers and their children who might accompany them.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

‘I’d Cut My Saree Into Pieces to Cover My Child’: How Women Survive in Assam’s Detention Centres

By Deepanshu Mohan, Samragnee Chakraborty, Yashovardhan Chaturvedi, Hima Trisha M., Nitya Arora, Rieshav Chakraborty and Aman Chain

22 December, 2023

The case of Rashminara Begum, a three-month pregnant woman who was placed in a detention camp in Assam for failing to prove her citizenship, has garnered significant national and international attention. This situation has raised questions about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the state, with several other pregnant women, like Begum, being sent to detention camps.

Despite the fact that a maximum number of detainees are women, the differential gendered experiences have not been well captured, thus calling for scholarly attention.

The Centre for New Economics Studies’ Azaad Awaaz team conducted primary field interviews to explore the ways how the social roles and subjectivities of women contribute to varied experiences during detention. This article emphasises how the state utilises the bodies of female detainees as sites of torture.

Women in the limbo of citizenship and refugee crisis

Women engaging in sports for peacebuilding at Basugaon village, Chirang district, Assam.

Women are often caught in the web of statelessness, more so than men, because authorities often reject the documents they need to prove Indian citizenship. This issue essentially arises from the fact that poor women have fewer documents to establish their long-term ancestral residence in Assam. Consequently, an overwhelming majority of non-citizens are women, and they are subsequently detained in detention centres.

Most women in the detention centres are middle-aged and mothers. Given that motherhood is given prime importance in most societies, many women take their children to detention centres with them to be able to take care of them closely.

However, the gender-insensitive environment at detention centres do not take into account the needs of the mothers and their children who might accompany them, thus making the experience of female detainees more difficult to navigate. The case of Fatima Begum* can best substantiate this argument.

Fatima Begum, from Cachar district, experienced 10 years of detention in three different centres with her daughter. She was sent a notice from the Foreigners’ Tribunal when she was two months pregnant. About eight months later, she was declared a foreigner as a result of not being able to produce the necessary documents.

A woman grabs the Frisbee disc during the parents’ session at Basugaon village, Chirang district, Assam.

By then, she had given birth to a daughter, who was less than two months old. Reflecting back on the day she was taken to the detention centre, she said, “When the police officers came to take me, I told them clearly that I would not go without my daughter. She was only 45 days old at that time, how could I go without her?”

While recalling her time at the detention centre, along with her infant, she said, “I would cut my saree into pieces to cover my child.” She further said, “Initially, I would feel uncomfortable while breastfeeding in the presence of 10 other people. But slowly I got accustomed.”

Bodies of the female detainees chosen as sites of abuse

The partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan is merely an example reflecting the way in which the gender question manifests itself during sensitive border relations, conflicts or wars.

The operation of detention centres in Assam, where women have reportedly been subject to physical violence of several forms, reflects how violence on the bodies of women during sensitive border relations continues to manifest even today. Given that all detainees are inherently perceived as foreigners, the authorities often perpetrate violence on the detainees to demarcate the boundaries between ‘us Indians’ and the ‘Bangladeshi other’.

Shaheen Nessa*, who also lived in detention for 10 years, was three months pregnant when she was detained. She claimed that she could feel the movements of her baby before moving to the detention centre, and hence realised that the baby was healthy.

However, when she turned six months pregnant, one day, the authorities forcefully pushed a tetanus injection, which she claims was the reason behind the death of her child. She said, “Even though I told them I do not want the injection to be pushed, they did not listen to me, and I gave birth to a dead boy. They have killed my child.”

Nessa also recalled how her co-inmates were subject to physical violence. She said, “I have witnessed other people being tortured as well. One day, a woman did not know that rice was being served. She went late and was denied food. When she asked for food, she was beaten up.”

The bodies of women become receptacles of violence at Assam’s detention centres. In a space that is unequipped to facilitate even the basic requirements of humans, the consideration of the needs and requirements of women, mothers and children only remains a distant dream.

*Names of interviewees have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

This is the second part of an explainer by the Centre for New Economics Studies’ Azaad Awaaz team. Read the first part here.

These explainers explore the detention centres in Assam as spaces violating human rights and disproportionately affecting migrants. These are penned down from the documented findings of a recent Azaad Awaaz edition. Click here to access the work of Azaad Awaaz, an initiative of the Centre for New Economics Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University, working on issues of social exclusion, marginalisation, and discrimination experienced by vulnerable, precarious communities across India.

All photographs have been taken by CNES researchers during field work in Assam.

Deepanshu Mohan is a Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P Jindal Global University. Samragnee Chakraborty and Hima Trisha M. are Senior Research Analysts (CNES). Yashovardhan Chaturvedi, Nitya Arora, Rieshav Chakraborty and Aman Chain are Research Assistants with CNES. The authors would like to thank Dr. Salah Punathil, Assistant Professor at the University of Hyderabad for his guidance and support.

© The Wire 2023

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