Gender and Security in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

"Security forces" continue to violate the security of indigenous women

By Kirsty Pazek

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in southeastern Bangladesh are a hilly, forested region, home to a dozen or so indigenous groups, collectively known as the Jummas. As a minority group, they include only one percent of the Bangladeshi population. They are Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians in a predominantly Muslim country. Traditionally they practiced shifting, slash-and-burn agriculture, but because of population pressure and land disputes, few families can sustain this practice anymore.

In December 1997 a 25-year period of strife ended with a peace agreement. The guerrillas immediately deposited their arms, but the government is slow to enact their terms of the agreement and continues to settle non-Jummas in the region, which remains heavily militarized. (In 2002, only 31 of the 520 paramilitary camps were dismantled.)

When the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) assumed office in October 2001, hopes for faster implementation diminished. The peace agreement had been formulated by the previous National Awami League government -- a party founded by a colleague of Gandhi's, Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Though the agreement calls for a Jumma minister to have independent authority, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia actually kept the portfolio for herself.The constitution of the land commission has been delayed and land ownersh continues to be violated.

One Jumma woman, Kabita Chakma, visited Ottawa this winter, meeting academics and government representatives and talking about the continued security situation in the CHT. Kabita calls for constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples, the return home of government-sponsored Bengali immigrants to CHT, and its demilitarization. This last matter is important for the security of the women for, between 1991-93, some 94 percent of alleged rape cases of Jumma women were by "security forces." Forced marriage is one of the techniques the military encourages to integrate Jumma into Bengali society.

An Abduction

Kabita described the abduction of activist Kalpana Chakma (no relation), a landless refugee who had managed to attend college and work for the Hill Women's Federation, a NGO group working for human rights and security. In 1997 security forces abducted Kalpana and her two brothers. Five years later there is still no word on her whereabouts. The government was pressured to conduct an enquiry, but its report was never made public. However, parts of it were leaked to a newspaper, which charged that the government could easily discover Kalpana's whereabouts if they wanted to know.

To strengthen women in CHT, Kabita encourages capacity building through education. She believes that through education, women can take up positions in the police force, civil and military administration, justice, and politics (a key component of UN Resolution 1325). Yet she cautions that in the context of CHT, capacity building in itself is insufficient. So she returns to the demands of the Jumma for constitutional recognition, demilitarization and resolution of land disputes.

For Kabita, going home now means Australia. In 1995 she became an Australian citizen. But leaving the hills does not mean she has forgotten her homeland or its peoples. She continues to advocate through the Jumma Peoples Network of the Asia Pacific, an organization she founded.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003, page 9. Some rights reserved.

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