Indigenous women and girls in Bangladesh are increasingly being raped in land-related conflicts, especially in militarized areas. An alarming trend worth reflecting upon on the International Women’s Day 2018.
Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is home to more than 54 indigenous peoples speaking at least 35 languages, along with the majority Bengali population. Bangladesh has not adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the economic and political rights of the country's indigenous peoples remain ignored.
The Government of Bangladesh does not recognise indigenous peoples as indigenous. However, since the 2011 amendment of the Constitution, peoples with distinct ethnic identities other than the mainstream Bengali population are mentioned. Nevertheless, only cultural aspects are mentioned, whereas issues related to indigenous peoples' economic and political rights, not least their land rights, remain ignored.
Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh
According to the 2011 census made by the Government of Bangladesh, the country’s indigenous population comprises approximately 1,586,141, or 1.8%of the country’s total population. However, indigenous peoples in Bangladesh claim that their population is about 5 million.
Approximately 80 percent of the indigenous population live in the plain land districts of the north and south-east of the country, whereas the rest reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the indigenous peoples are commonly known as Jummas for their crop rotation agriculture, locally known as Jum.
Alongside the official language of Bengali, indigenous peoples in Bangladesh speak at least 35 languages. Measures have been taken to include teachers from indigenous groups and texts in indigenous languages in the pre-primary school, and the government has distributed books for pre-primary school in five indigenous languages, namely Chakma, Garo, Kokborok, Marma and Sadri. However, the government has yet to take any measures to train an adequate number of qualified teachers with the necessary language skills in these languages and has not yet presented a plan for native education on the subsequent stages for pre-primary level, nor for other indigenous languages.
Main challenges for Bangladesh’s indigenous peoples
The land rights of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh continue to be one of the alarming issues and a key factor of gross human rights violations in the country. Indigenous peoples’ organisations have been protesting against the increasing number of human rights violations, and are demanding protection, promotion and respect for their human rights.
Although the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997 was a constructive agreement between indigenous peoples and the Government of Bangladesh, after 19 years, major issues in the Accord remain unaddressed. The indigenous peoples are still challenged on areas such as devolution of power and functions to the Chittagong Hill Tracts institutions, preservation of the tribal area characteristics of the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, demilitarisation, and rehabilitation of internally displaced peoples.
The situation of indigenous women remains alarming.Sexual and physical assaults have become common means to be used against indigenous women and girls while none of the alleged perpetrators of such cases have been brought to justice. In 2016, Bangladesh was under review by the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The concluding observations highlight that the government should: “effectively investigate all reports of gender-based violence against indigenous women connected with land grabbing and take measures to bring those responsible to justice.” In 2017, at least 56 indigenous women and girls were sexually and physically assaulted.
Progress in land disputes and education for Bangladesh’s indigenous groups
The Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act 2001 was amended in August 2016. It is hoped that the amendment will help pave the way for proper resolution of land disputes and restitution of dispossessed lands belonging to the indigenous peoples.
The Government of Bangladesh undertook initiatives towards fulfilling its responsibility of ensuring primary education for indigenous children, including a move in 2017 to nationalize 210 primary schools in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Ministry of Primary and Mass Education produced pre-primary textbooks on 5 indigenous languages and distributed around 25,000 books. On the flipside, indigenous activists identified lack of adequate competent and qualified teachers in indigenous languages. Also, children belonging to many remote indigenous communities still cannot realize their right to education due to lack of educational institutions in those areas.
The International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC) released a press statement on Monday condemning the recent attack on its chairman and the violence in Babuchara, Dighinala, which allegedly left six indigenous people and four army personnel injured.
The convoy of CHTC Chairman, Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, who is also president of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), was attacked on 11 March 2015. In anticipation of Larma’s visit, a 72-hour strike was called by various anti-CHT Accord groups, uniting under the banner of ‘Jago Parbattyabasi’ (Rise Hill Dwellers) in Bandarban. The attack allegedly took place in the presence of police and other law enforcement authorities, and the Jago Parbattyabasi may have been involved.
Dhaka, 27 August, 2014. The International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC) strongly condemns the brutal and cowardly attack upon Hana Shams Ahmed, Coordinator of the Commission, and her friend, a woman academic, during a private visit by them to Shoilopropat in Bandarban in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, by 8-10 members of the so-called Somo Odhikar Andolon.