Widows born out of insurgency in the State rebuild their lives through the Manipur Gun Survivors Network
On December 26, 2004, when many parts of Asia were wrecked by a killer tsunami, young researcher Binalakshmi Nepram was up in a village deep inside Manipur. Though far away from the theatre of death and destruction caused by the swelling seawaters that day, Bina too faced no less a life-changing situation.
“I was in the women’s market in Wap Kai village, talking to them for my research at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. My subject was on proliferation of small arms in Manipur, the tools of violence, who supplies them and how it impacts lives, particularly that of women as many poor women were being used to supply them for little money,” says Binalakshmi. That mid morning, she heard three gun shots. “They were pumped into a 27-year-old surrendered insurgent, Budhi Moirang Them, who started life afresh with a car battery repair shop in the village.”
What shook her most was, “the local Meira Paibi (a powerful women’s organisation active across Manipur) organised a public meeting just two hours after the killing and the slain youth’s wife — a 24-year-old, was asked to recount what happened.” Bina recalls, “She was not given any time to mourn her husband’s death. To make matters worse, her mother, wailing in the meeting, said to her, ‘How will I feed you now? Why didn’t they kill you too?’” After the crowd receded, Bina walked up to her. “I found Rs.200 in my bag, gave it to her along with my phone number. I told her, you have to live.”
After returning to her home town Imphal, Bina shared it with her writer friends at a gathering only to find that there are so many such cases. “It set me thinking,” she says. With the help of the youth group she had created to help document her research work, she reached out to Budhi’s widow, Rebika Akham, two weeks later. “I spent Rs. 4500 to buy a sewing machine for her. People look at a sewing machine as a cliché, but I want to tell them that it can save a life. Rebika only knew sewing, it helped her to start life afresh,” says Bina.
On digging for information on such widows, she found, in just three months, 500 cases in eight districts of Manipur.
“The rate of killings per year in Manipur during that time was 290 people approximately. It was more than Kashmir. So imagine the number of widows born out of it in the State over the years,” says Bina.
She also found out that “the victims of violence belong to the poorest strata of Manipuri society. The rich and the famous are out of it.”
These factors helped her resolve to form Manipur Gun Survivors Network (MGSN). “We took 20 worst cases first. I used the money I earned by giving English language tuitions to Thai students at JNU that time to fund little businesses for them.” In order to get “an identity card”, she went about opening their bank accounts. Today, Bina proudly says, “Till date, we have helped over 1000 such widows. I can say that I have a house in every village of Manipur today.”
With scant resources of her own, she continuously raises donations from Manipuris living abroad to include more and more such widows. “I have realised that it doesn’t need too much money. I learnt from these widows that they can be empowered by investing just Rs. 120,” says Bina. All the women that Bina’s Network has helped have made use of seed money between Rs.120 and Rs. 3000.
“There are now 120 more widows on the line. Members of Manipuri Diaspora are pitching in for them,” she says. She is also “actively chasing both the State and Central Governments’ schemes to help them financially.”
What’s in future is a book that would document their lives. “Also, these widows have come together to form a brand, Lei Hao, to sell their wares. So work is on to give them a platform with training from experts in the field,” signs off Bina.
(To reach out to Manipur Gun Survivors Network, you can log on to www.womensurvivorsnetwork.org)