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Women in India rally together to fight injustice

Dec 16, 2009

A 40-year old woman in India’s northern state fought valiantly to seek justice for her 10-year old raped child. She has now become an epitome of courage and is now proactively involved in fighting the cases of violence against women.

Rewari: When Rajbala’s 10-year-old daughter was raped by a boy belonging to an influential family, no one in the village came forward to help her get justice. Even the local police refused to register her complaint.

Undeterred, the distraught, illiterate woman from Mundi village in the district of Rewari in Haryana state, northern India, went to the district police chief who got the case registered against the accused.

But by then it was too late for a medical examination of her daughter – the standard protocol in such incidents – and the accused was let off for lack of evidence based on police investigation.

Despite persistent threats and harassment from the boy’s family, who had been publicly denying the accusations, Rajbala, who goes by a single name, sought the advice of a local non-governmental organisation, which told her to approach the courts for justice. She did.

This had a sobering effect on the accused and his family. In an act of compromise, he admitted to his guilt and was punished by the ‘panchayat’ (village council) while Rajbala withdrew the case from the court.

In keeping with Indian tradition, he was ordered beaten by the local council with slippers. Such a punishment is considered a source of extreme humiliation and dishonour for any member of the community. The panchayat also warned the parents that if their son ever indulged in such behaviour again, the entire family would be ostracised by the village.

For Rajbala the traumatic episode exacted a huge toll on her, physically and mentally, but it also made her realise that the tools for social justice were in the hands of women themselves.

“I realised the importance of information for empowering women and started taking a proactive role in cases of violence against women in my village and nearby ones,” she explains.

To increase the number of women seeking justice and equal participation in the social and political areas, she also organised two women’s groups in her village. “We formed a women’s network in 2001. The first group has 23 members and the second 11 members,” Rajbala says.

The efforts of the women have ensured transparency and accountability in the panchayat. “Earlier the panchayat, with mostly male members, would hold their meetings at the home of the ‘sarpanch’ (panchayat leader), but after we made door-to-door visits informing villagers, especially the women, of the scheduled panchayat meetings, these were held at a public venue,” she says proudly.

The women have also checked untoward dealings of the panchayat by their active involvement in the proceedings. They discovered, for instance, that a government scheme to provide sewing machines to families living below the poverty line was being misused as the machines were being diverted to others who were not qualified.

“We immediately confronted the sarpanch. He told us not to make a big noise about it, promising us some of the machines, but we refused and went to the District Rural Development Agency and got the delivery stopped pending an inquiry,” Rajbala recounts.

Maya Yadav, 50, of Teent village, incurred the extreme displeasure of her community when she pursued the perpetrators of a child marriage, which culminated in the police descending on the village for a showdown with the accused.

“People at one point refused to talk to me, saying I had brought shame on the village by calling in the police, but I refused to relent,” she says grimly.

It started when 15-year-old Bunty was promised in marriage by her parents to a man in his 40s for 50,000 rupees (around 1,000 U.S. dollars). “Her uncle told me of the outrageous proposition and I immediately contacted the parents and threatened to call the police. Scared, they assured me the marriage would not take place. But after a few days, they left the village and returned two weeks later – without their daughter,” recalls Yadav.

To queries from Yadav and others, the parents were defiant, saying the whereabouts of their daughter was no one else’s business. Again, with the help of the girl’s uncle, Yadav discovered that Bunty had been forcibly married off.

“We found where she was living and persuaded the groom and his parents to return the girl to her maternal home and wait until she turned 18, the legal age for marriage. The alternative, we said, was to inform against them to police,” she says.

Though coerced into agreeing to Yadav’s demands, the groom’s family had no intention of leaving Bunty behind. Finally, Yadav called the police who ascertained from the frightened girl that the marriage was not of her choosing. Steps were then taken to annul the marriage.

Today, Yadav has strengthened her position in the village by becoming the sarpanch. Under her guidance, gender awareness programmes have been initiated at regular intervals in the village so that every single girl in her community now attends school. “We are the only village in the district where the sex ratio is even,” she says proudly.

This is no mean achievement. Based on the latest census data (2001), Haryana has one of the lowest gender ratios in the country, with 861 women per 1,000 men.

“Our success stems from the fact that the community helps parents of girls financially at the time of marriage and we have stopped the practice of dowry. This has discouraged the heinous practice of female foeticide,” adds Yadav.

“It is not easy to be an agent of change, particularly when one is at the bottom of the social heap,” observes local activist Senoo Rawat.

“Facing hardships ranging from abduction, brutal beatings and social ostracising, these women have made their voices heard in an extremely conventional society and a limiting system of governance,” says Rawat, who has been working for women’s rights in Haryana for years.

The women have also received support for their endeavours from the Social Centre for Rural Initiative and Advancement (SCRIA), a Rewari-based NGO, which has encouraged women’s groups to act as awareness-generating bodies instead of the more popular micro-credit groups.

“We did not want to dilute the primary purpose of women’s empowerment. We wanted them to come together on a common platform and discuss ways to obtain social, economic and political justice rather than limit themselves to micro-credit,” states Sunder Lal, secretary of SCRIA.

The challenges to women remain, though, says 38-year-old Munesh, a Panch (short for Panchayat member) in Munda village. “Four women, including myself, are Panch members and yet we are often not informed when meetings are held.”

Yet, she is not giving up. “We have to be very vigilant,” she says.

Source : IPS
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