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Young tribal girl fights harassment, wins National Bravery Award

Feb 24, 2011

Teenaged Sunita was living a life of trauma and seclusion after the ‘moral panchayat’ in her village punished her for falling in love by publicly stripping her and making her parade in the village. But she faught back. The culprits were behind the bars and Sunita won the National Bravery Award for her exemplary grit.


Birbhum: Sixteen-year-old Sunita Murmu is quite the celeb in her locality these days. This teenager had the courage to approach the remote Mohammadbazar police station in Birbhum, one of West Bengal's most backward districts, and lodge a complaint against the powerful criminal elements from within her community. Of course, she did not stop there - young Sunita also ensured that these men were arrested for sexually harassing, torturing and ostracising her.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Sunita was just another tribal girl, with little education, living quietly in a male-dominated society. She had no idea of her rights and spent her days working as a daily wage labourer to support her parents. And like most girls her age, she too fell in love. Her life, however, turned into a nightmare the day her involvement with a non tribal boy from the nearby village was discovered by the local tribal panchayat in June last year.

The self-proclaimed panchayat met and decided on what they thought could be the only punishment for her romantic attachment: She was stripped publicly and made to walk around the village, even while being jeered at and sexually harassed by random villagers. Those who were party to this heinous crime even went a step further - they took photographs and videos of her in that situation, which were later made into multi-media messages (MMSes) and sent to everyone in the village to ensure that no other village girl would dare to repeat Sunita's 'crime'.

Not one person came forward to help the traumatised young girl while she was being treated in this heinous manner. The authorities at the nearby Mohammadbazaar police station did not bother to come to her rescue. As for her shocked parents, they too could be of little assistance. The incident lasted for about two hours - she was made to walk for around eight kilometres after which she was literally dumped. Plucking up whatever courage she had left, Sunita made her way back home only to be taunted by her neighbours and others. No case was registered against her attackers and no one dared to defy the tribal panchayat's diktat, even though there is an elected panchayat body in the area.

Since the leaders of the community had been party to the crime, all evidence was tampered with. For two months Sunita lived in a corner of her hut, left in isolation and generally neglected. It was during those dark days that she made up her mind to raise her voice for justice. When she told her parents that she wanted to see action being taken against her culprits, they tried hard to dissuade her, even keeping her secluded and trying to divert her attention to other matters.

"I shall fight against all crimes against women in the name of old traditional values," vowed Sunita.

Meanwhile, the MMSes were still being circulated within the community. All those close to her family suggested that she forget what happened and move ahead. Says Sunita, looking back, "I wondered how people can ever think that I can forget what happened with me. I am living with that pain which will be there all the time. But I shall now fight against all crimes against women in the name of old traditional values."

When the police came knocking at her door to conduct an inquiry two months later, she was dissuaded by her family to cooperate with the investigation. But Sunita decided to go it alone and fight all the way. She told the police everything that happened and lodged a formal complaint. But there was no evidence except for the MMSes that were doing the rounds. No one was ready to testify - some stayed away fearing the criminals, others because they thought they were standing up for their traditional tribal values.

But there was no stopping Sunita. Recalls Bidhan Ray, the SDO of Rampurhat, who followed up and investigated the case, "It was amazing to see a victim so confident. We thought she may really be in a deep depression and would not cooperate. Also in such cases the chances of victims turning hostile are very high. But Sunita could identify the criminals since they were from her locality and she knew them well. Her confidence could win everyone's support."

Just two days after filing the complaint, the six main accused were arrested. These culprits, barely out of their teens, had incited the crowd and later influenced people to keep quiet.

Fearing a backlash from the community, Sunita was sent to a government welfare home - 'Pushparag' in Rampurhat. She continues to be there, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She has also now learnt weaving and embroidery, and the district administration has opened a savings account for her.

"It was an unusual case because despite being a victim, Sunita fought for herself."

When the district administration decided to propose her name for the National Bravery awards, it was a proud moment for Sunita. "It is an unusual case because despite being a victim, Sunita fought for herself. We decided to propose her name as she has not just taken on criminals but has also stood up against organised crime, regressive and outdated values and self-proclaimed, unauthorised panchayat-like bodies," says Saumitra Mohan, the district magistrate of Birbhum.

Today Sunita is one among the 26 children who has been honoured by President Pratibha Patil with the National Bravery Award for her exemplary act of courage. The award is conferred annually by the Indian Council of Child Welfare to children for their acts of courage in everyday life.

"Sunita has been able to take back control of her life. She is a fast learner and mixes well with other teenagers. Yet she is still living a life of seclusion and ostracism," confesses Satyabrata Banerjee, the superintendent of the 'Pushparag' welfare home.

Banerjee bases this observation on the fact that Sunita has not been able to go back home. Many of her family members still refuse to talk to her. The culprits are out on bail and the local people say that her life could be in danger in her Santhal village of Burtola, where most people are daily wagers or are dependent on government schemes for their livelihood. However Sunita remains unfazed, "I have not gone back but it does not mean I have done anything wrong. I want to finish my studies and fight for the rights of others who have been abandoned like me."

"We are proud of her. But what is alarming is that the culprits are roaming free while the one who fought for what is right is living away from home." 

Fortunately, even though her own village is shying away from taking back its courageous daughter, her story is bringing smiles to the faces many girls in the region. Remarks Kuntalshree Bhatacharya, a headmistress of a local girls' school, "I keep telling my girls that enduring crime is equal to being a party to it. Learn from Sunita, who could win accolades for defying the wrong in the society." Adds Sunita's friend from the village, who is too intimidated to give her name, "We are proud of her. But what is alarming is that the culprits are roaming free while the one who fought for what is right is living away from home." 

But things are slowly changing. Voices are now being raised in her support. Women organisations are demanding that Sunita be rehabilitated within the community. Says District Magistrate Saumitra Mohan, "We are trying our best but for now she has to concentrate on her studies and better the skills that she is learning at the welfare home. It is a three-year course and Sunita is enjoying interacting with her new friends. Meanwhile, her accomplishments are being recognised even within her community. Our assessment is that her medal, the cash prize and the national recognition that has come her way, will gradually change public opinion in her village."

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