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Brigade of tough women overturn powerplay in Bihar

Dec 15, 2010

For scores of women in the Indian state of Bihar who silently bear atrocities like domestic violence and sexual harassment, the Mahila Brigade is a boon. It is a self-mobilised group that empowers women to fight for their rights.

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Patna:  For more than seven years of her married life, Manju Devi, 26, of village Takiyapar in Danapur, Bihar, faced domestic abuse at the hands of her husband and mother-in-law until one day a group of women came to her rescue. 

Nitu Singh, 30, of Patna City, was deserted by her husband for not being able to fulfill his family's dowry demands. Nitu had no idea how she was going to take care of her five-year-old daughter and herself until she met these women. 

Who are these women that come to the aid of those who are unable to stand up for themselves? They are the 'Mahila Brigade', an unregistered organisation, which has been able to mobilise tens of thousands of women across Bihar. "The idea is to reach out to all women in the state and empower them to fight for their rights," says Dilip Sinha, who along with his wife, Anita, has set up the organisation.

For scores of women in Bihar, who silently bear atrocities like domestic violence and sexual harassment every day of their lives, the Mahila Brigade is a boon. But there is a catch here. The group believes in fighting for their rights, and quite literally so. In fact, the group has become infamous for its radical approach to activism.

Just last month Anita was released on bail for breaking the code of conduct during the Bihar elections. Some 500 women under her leadership had barged into the local Patna City Chowk police station to hand over a memorandum against then sitting Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA). The police's indifferent attitude irked them to such an extent that a few days later they gheraoed (surrounded) the police station and stopped policemen from entering the 'thana' (police station). In return the police resorted to a lathi (stave) charge and arrested many of them. Describing the incident Anita says, "Our words of peace were falling on deaf ears. We had no other option but to force the police to take action. It is another matter that the police took action against us and arrested us, tortured us and slapped many legal cases on us. We are now fighting the matter in the court."

In a state that has for years faced lawlessness and caste wars, and where common people have often resorted to taking up arms in order to safeguard their rights, such a daredevil ideology emanating from women cause disquiet in many quarters. But ask the likes of Manju and Nitu and they say that this approach has given them "a life of dignity and self respect". 

Recalls Manju, "My husband and mother-in-law tried to burn me for dowry. It is in one of these attempts that my face got burned. But the Mahila Brigade came to my rescue." The group ransacked her husband's home in August this year. Scared, he and his mother ran away and have not returned since. Now Manju lives in her husband's house fearlessly and sustains herself by renting out a portion of the home. She has, in fact, become an active member of the brigade. 

The brigade also came to the aid of Pinki Devi, 34. Fed up of being abused and harassed by her cheating husband, Pinki resorted to sitting on a hunger strike at the Kargil Chowk in Patna in September this year. Aided by his family, her husband, Dhananjay Kumar, a lawyer at the Patna Civil Court, had allegedly tortured her in a bid to get rid of her for another woman. Pinki was spotted by the brigade members, who decided to take matters into their own hands. They stormed Dhananjay's house the same day, ransacked the place and handed them over to the police. Today, Pinki is "glad" that she has avenged the insults she bore for years. 

They may be fighting for the cause of women but is taking the law into their hands a justifiable means? Says Sushma Sinha, the state president of the outfit, "If we take the law in our hands to enforce the law of the land how does it matter? After all it is for the good of society." 

Though the Mahila Brigade has been around for the last 10 years, they have gained a larger presence of late thanks to the active participation of women across the urban and rural divide. This, in turn, has helped to deter dreaded criminals, perpetrators of crimes against women and even the police, from trying to browbeat members. Women from all walks of life - housewives, professionals and even youngsters - have signed up. There are 10,000 active workers, with over a lakh of supporters.

"It is the lack of faith in the system that has led many to join hands," quips young Neelam Kumari, an active member of Durga Dasta, the youth wing of the Mahila Brigade, which is mostly run by young, single women. Adds Gazala, 32, another active member, "Women need to safeguard their rights first. Nobody listens to a weak person. So you have to be strong, aggressive and belligerent if you want others to take a note of you."

This aggressive attitude has gradually become more pronounced over the last few years. The Mahila Brigade had initially come into existence with the idea of increasing the participation of the women in Bihar's politics. In a state where the female literacy rate is only half of that of men, and where dowry deaths are so common that no one thinks twice about them anymore, initiating a fight for women's rights is indeed a step in the right direction. 

But mobilising women and creating awareness has not been easy. Mahila Brigade members began by conducting seminars and workshops to educate women. Now their intervention is more direct. "We are a self mobilised force. We are not a non governmental body, or a political outfit or a registered organisation with a mission. We are just women who want to participate in decision making regarding the policies that are being framed for us," explains Anita Sinha, who is also the deputy chairman of Bihar's Child Labour Commission.

To do their work effectively, the Mahila Brigade has many sub-groups - including two youth groups, the Durga Dasta and Mahila Yuva. The organisation has often been criticised for acting impulsively and being biased. If a woman complains then it only her version that is considered; no efforts are made to hear the other side. For 'dharnas' (sit-ins), strikes and political awareness activities, the entire group comes together. "Together we are extremely powerful. If an FIR is not lodged because someone is high and mighty, which is a common practice in our country, we force the police to take action," says Sushma. 

The Mahila Brigade has also been openly supporting the Nitish Kumar government, that has been elected to power for a second term. But there is also a serious political agenda on which there can be no compromise. Says Anita, "We want to ensure that women are actively involved in political affairs. They should not be treated as mere vote banks for men. We want our women to have their own minds and their own leaders, and we are working towards achieving that." Adds Gazala, "Everyone wants peace but not at the cost of subjugation."

The tactics of the Mahila Brigade can certainly be questioned, but there can be no denying that the issues it takes up are crucially important. Says Kahkashan Parween, the chairperson of the former State Women Commission, "Though we all work for the same cause - that is protecting rights of the women - their way of functioning is different. The Mahila Brigade indeed has brought many cases to light in the Commission also. They have fought for the infringed rights of the women in our society."

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