India`s women Maoists face grim life on front line
A shiver runs down her spine each time Anjali Hembrom recalls the abuse she endured during six months spent with heavily armed Maoist guerrillas in their "liberated zone" deep inside India`s remote forests.
New Delhi: A shiver runs down her spine each time Anjali Hembrom recalls the abuse she endured during six months spent with heavily armed Maoist guerrillas in their "liberated zone" deep inside India`s remote forests.
Hembrom, 20, was kidnapped four years ago after the rebels swooped on a tribal village in the state of Jharkhand, looking for new recruits.
Taken to their self-declared "liberated zone" inside the jungles where the Maoists reign supreme, Hembrom endured repeated rapes as a punishment for refusing to join their ranks before staging a daring escape.
"I still wake up with cold sweats in the middle of the night," Hembrom told AFP in an on-camera interview in Giridih town, her face silhouetted for fear of being identified.
Before fleeing her captors, Hembrom witnessed women combatants being subdued into "cooking, cleaning and pleasuring their seniors" in a cult-like setup.
While Hembrom says she was press-ganged into joining the Maoists, hundreds of women have willingly joined up to fight, desperate to escape grinding poverty in their deeply patriarchal communities.
But as well as the risk of sexual abuse if captured by security forces, the women fighters are frequently raped by their "brothers in arms".
"They must have joined the cadres with lofty revolutionary ideas," said Hembrom. "It`s not a life they would have imagined ever." The Maoists, who dominate thousands of square miles of the `Red Corridor` stretching across central and eastern India, claim to be fighting for the land rights of marginalised tribal communities.
Their insurgency has claimed around 10,000 lives, and is considered India`s most serious internal security threat.
Hembrom`s account of life inside Maoist camps resonates with a former cadre who has talked about rampant sexual violence in her autobiography.
In "Diary of a Maoist", Shobha Mandi, who surrendered in 2010, says she was repeatedly raped by her commanders over seven years.
"Every woman is seen as an object for satisfying the lust of the male cadres. What I experienced over there was horrifying, worse than the oppression that the women of rural India face," she wrote.
The women fighters, believed to number around 4,000, are mainly used for cultural or support activities although many have had weapons training.
A video recently seized by police from a rebel camp and shared with AFP showed young women fighters in olive green fatigues with machine guns slung on their hips joining their male counterparts on assault courses.Dayamani Barla, a 49-year-old woman tribal activist and political leader who was briefly jailed for aligning with the Maoist cause, said women are often driven to join the rebels for money and food.
"Also, the Maoists have a certain Robin Hood kind of allure. The whole idea of taking on the rich and mighty appeals to women who have experienced some kind of exploitation at the hands of either the police or the landlords," she told AFP.
"So it`s a case of the devil and the deep sea for these women."
Barla said tribal women had also been subjected to the most extreme forms of violence by the Salwa Judum, a civil militia created and funded by the state to counter the Maoists in 2005 but disbanded later.
Allegations about police brutality and custodial rape abound but very few cases are reported for fear of retribution and a culture of impunity for among the armed forces.
The murder in 2006 of a tribal man for being a Maoist and the subsequent gang-rape of his wife over several days inside a police station in Chhattisgarh state is one of the few documented cases.
Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy who has recounted the time she spent with the insurgents in her book "Walking with the Comrades", says women wronged by the state have no choice but to take up arms.
"When you have 800 CRPF (a paramilitary force)... marching three days into the forest, surrounding a forest village and burning it and raping women, what are the poor supposed to do?," she said in an interview to India`s CNN-IBN news network in 2010.