The women who dared to bring a change

by March 8, 2019 0 comments

International Women’s Day is a good occasion to celebrate the spunk, grit and bravery of marginalised women, who spoke up for their rights passing all hurdles

Courage comes in different forms. A few weeks ago, it came in the form of 5,000 women, young and old, who marched 10,000 kilometres across the country over 65 days with one common aim. These survivors of sexual violence wanted to show that they were no longer willing to be shamed into silence. It was also to show that the fear of muscle and money power would no longer break their determination to fight for justice and dignity.

During this journey, the ‘Dignity March’ — the first of its kind in India — passed through 200 districts in 24 States. In each of these districts, public meetings, big and small, were held to reach out to other survivors of rape and their families, lawyers, law enforcement officers, medical practitioners and civil society groups working for women’s empowerment. Here, as deeply poignant stories were shared, survivors drew courage from each other and pledged to continue their struggle against injustice.

It didn’t matter whether the dialects they spoke were different. Neither did age differences between them create any impediments. So whether they belonged to Rajasthan, West Bengal, Goa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh or Kerala, the women overcame barriers of language, region and religion to speak up against the culture of victim-shaming and support each other.

This was what the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (RGA) wanted. Organised by RGA, a coalition of civil society organisations working against gender violence, the march gave the survivors a platform to make their voices heard. “Despite facing sexual violence, most women did not report it”, according to Ashif Shaikh, convenor, RGA. One of the main reasons for this under-reporting was that women were made to feel guilty for the violence perpetrated against them. “The ‘Dignity March’ gave the women a chance to break this culture of silence,” said Shaikh.

The women are not only speaking out but are also daring to take on their perpetrators, something that takes immense courage. They do realise that by coming out, the risk of reprisal has increased, considering they belong to marginalised communities and lack economic and social power to combat their influential perpetrators. Yet, they have not shied away from being seen and heard. This makes their march against sexual violence even more admirable and inspirational.

Their stories have re-focussed attention on impunity in which perpetrators of crimes against women roam free. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data revealed that while 106 rapes were reported every day in 2016, conviction rate was just 18.9 per cent. In fact, there has been a steady rise in crimes against women. Cases of rape increased from 34,651 in 2015 to 38,947 in 2016.

With nearly 11.4 per cent of total crimes against women in India being committed in Uttar Pradesh, the State ranks a dubious first in the national list of crimes against women (2014 NCRB). In fact, in 2013-14, Uttar Pradesh, which has 16.8 per cent share of the country’s women population, saw an increase of 73 per cent over the previous year in cases of assault with intent to outrage her modesty.

But here, too, courage has come in the form of rural women collectives which are standing up against violence. In villages of Deoria district in Gorakhpur division, women collectives have developed their own helpline to protect themselves and others from sexual violence. Used by the members of the collectives in times of distress, this innovative helpline has become lifeline for the 240 self-help groups (SHGs) in the district. Since each SHG has a membership of 10-15 marginalised women, more than 2,400 women are connected in times of need. It is one of those groups that set up a chain of support the moment a woman dials the helpline.

The idea of the helpline came only after women formed SHDs with help from the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP), a not-for-profit organisation working for women’s empowerment in Uttar Pradesh. After women understood the importance of collective strength, they gained the confidence to tackle sensitive cases of sexual harassment and domestic violence. The decision to create a helpline came up during one such meeting when they discussed how members could access help in an organised manner.

Now, they all know that instead of becoming distressed or frightened, they can get the support of the collective with just one phone call. “Just this knowledge gives them the confidence to fight for their rights”, said Rita Devi, block president of 240 SHGs.

This self-belief has led them to take on the police when they refuse to register their complaints in their bid for justice. They have also come together to bring perpetrators to book even if they belonged to the upper castes. Just how such a helpline has given courage to the women was seen when an attempt to assault a SHG member was made recently. Over 100 members rushed to the village after hearing about the incident through the helpline and tracked down the culprit. They sat in front of the house of the perpetrator (who belonged to an upper caste) and refused to move even though they were threatened. After several hours, when the police realised they would not be able to move the women unless they took action, the perpetrator was nabbed.

Courage has also come in the way of women changing traditional customs like gudiya peetna or doll beating. This age-old custom has been an integral part of Nag Panchami, a popular festival in Uttar Pradesh. It is popular in eastern Uttar Pradesh, particularly in Sitapur district. Here, young men between 18 and 25 years of age pound the dolls with decorated sticks, unmindful of the culture of violence it was perpetuating among young boys and men.

The first to oppose this custom was Mahila Samakhya, an autonomous unit of the Government’s Ministry of Women and Child. It demanded an end to this tradition that devalued girls. By allowing them to be beaten, the tradition gave boys and men sanction to use violence against women under the garb of religion and custom, contended Mahila Samakhya. It asked for gudiya jhulana or placing the dolls on decorated swings and rocked with respect at such ceremonies. Some years ago, Mahila Samakhya organised a special programme to condemn this tradition at the Naimisharanya pilgrimage site in Sitapur where this tradition was celebrated with great fanfare.

Expectedly, this met with opposition. So, public meetings were held to raise awareness and discussions, questioning this custom, began at meetings organised by SHGs. Why are only female dolls beaten? Why are guddas or male dolls not beaten? When no logical explanation could be found, a collective decision was taken by the SHGs to stop following the doll-beating tradition. Instead they started placing the doll on a swing and rocking it. Initially, many of them had to face taunts and even abuses. But when the women did not change their decision, many others followed their example.

Today, on International Day for Women, the courage of these marginalised women needs to be celebrated more than ever. They don’t have the backing of the community and in many cases, even their families abandon them. These women from the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) have had to deal with the double-whammy of caste oppression and gender discrimination. Data shows that the percentage of women (age 15-49), who have experienced physical violence since age 15, is greater among SC and ST women (35.7 per cent for SC women and 31 per cent for ST women) as compared to that faced by other women. Justice is often delayed with their cases hanging in court. NCRB data shows that almost 90 per cent of the cases filed under the SC/ST Act remain pending at the end of every year. It takes an average of five years for a trial to be completed with a majority of them ending in acquittals.

Even then, women are no longer willing to go quietly into the night. They have shown spunk, grit and courage to speak up. They deserve respect, dignity and most of all, justice.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

Writer:  Swapna Majumdar

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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