In a collective fight against outdated patriarchal laws, Mizo women fight for legal reforms

In a historic victory for the women’s movement in Mizoram, the State Law Commission is now in the final process of reviewing The Mizo Marriage Bill, 2013, The Mizo Inheritance Bill, 2013, and The Mizo Divorce Bill, 2013, which will be introduced in the State Assembly after public consultations across the State. This is the result of a struggle that has gone on for over a decade, a key party to which is the Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl (MHIP), an apex body representing several local women’s groups.

After years of advocacy and repeated attempts at sending memorandums and draft bills to the Assembly and other executive bodies, the MHIP finally managed to push the system into considering judicial and legislative changes in the marriage, divorce, inheritance and succession laws in order to safeguard the interests of ordinary women.

Pi Sangkhumi, 60, former president of MHIP, is a happy woman. It’s been her dream to ensure reforms related to marriage and inheritance as she has seen generations of Mizo women suffer because of the legal biases in the system.

“A Mizo woman has never had any rights over property whether moveable, immoveable or even gifts, known as ‘bungrua’ in the local language, that are given to her at the time of marriage. Her husband can divorce her at any time and throw her out of the house without providing any financial support,” she explains.

Traditionally, Mizo women have made a mark outside their homes as entrepreneurs, teachers and officers in the State administration. However, just as the State’s history has been strife-torn, so has the life of its women, who have borne the worst consequences of the instability and violence that had marked the region.

The years when the Mizo National Front (MNF), an underground movement, was actively agitating against the government were particularly difficult. Earlier known as the Mizo National Famine Front, formed to help ease the immense suffering of the local people during the severe Mautam Famine of 1959, the organisation renamed itself the MNF in 1961. The State’s inaction during famine led to a wave of secessionist uprisings during the 1960s.

Sangkhumi’s father, one of the key leaders of the MNF, was killed during the peak of the movement. A year later, in 1965, she went for higher studies to Shillong on a scholarship. All the while that Pi Sangkhumi was coping with her personal struggles she was acutely aware of the difficulties being faced by other women.

An incident involving the brutal gang rape of two young women by army jawans in 1966 is a case in point. On a fateful November night, the MNF attacked a convoy of Army personnel advancing towards the Champhai village in east Mizoram. In retaliation the Army herded the villagers together and set fire to their homes. The two women, the daughters of prominent community leaders, were held separately in a small hut where soldiers allegedly took turns in raping them. After 47 years, a compensation of Rs five lakh each has recently been announced. It was such crimes that prompted various women’s groups to come together and fight for their collective rights. The MHIP was created in 1974 when Mizoram was still a Union Territory and it literally means binding women together. One of their main challenges has been to convince people to change traditional systems and customs that suppress women.

Pi Sangkhumi is of the opinion that while “Mizo women are definitely a part of the work force now, they are still not the decision-makers.”

The practice of quoting a “bride price” irks Pi Sangkhumi no end. According to her, the “bride price” custom started around half a century ago and was meant to be “a phuahchop”, or a practice introduced temporarily. But over the years, it has become a ‘tradition’ that is faithfully being followed. “A regressive practice should be prohibited by the legal system,” she argues.

(Women’s Feature Service)