Empowering stories of rural women

By Sr. Cynthia CJ

I had been working in Bihar which is in the eastern part of India with Dalit women, youth and children.

Dalits, also known as “Untouchables,” are members of the lowest social status group in the Hindu caste system. The word “Dalit” means “the oppressed”/the Broken.

The state of Bihar is the third most populous state in India. Dalits constitute nearly 15 percent of Bihar’s population of 83 million. Nearly 70 per cent of Dalits live in below the poverty line.

The level of violence against women and girls in Bihar is the highest in India: 56% of women have experienced violence, and 57% of men and women believe that intimate partner violence is acceptable. Only 21% of women in Bihar who have suffered violence have sought help. So, you can imagine how the rest of the women endure the violence due to various reasons.

So, it was very challenging for me to take up various issues affecting women and girls with the existing legal system. The women and girls living in extreme poverty are not aware of their fundamental rights, not able to assert the rights and claim the rights.

Various laws, policies and schemes made for them do not reach them and that is where we as faith-based organizations become the bridge between the government bodies and the people on the ground. As we accompany them we can see the changes they make in their own life, family and the society at large. They in turn become the change makers.

“I will not kill this innocent child and take the burden of sin on me and my family. I will see that this little baby and her mother who is my daughter just 14-year-old and is mentally challenged get justice” this is what Meena Devi (name changed) belonging to a Dalit family living in extreme poverty told me when I met her sitting in front of the district court seeking for legal help.

Although, violence against women is rampant in the country, it is hidden inside the four walls of the home. Most of the violence goes unreported and unrecorded in informal or formal institutions.

Meena Devi (name changed) an illiterate woman had the courage to go to a police station constituted exclusively to take the grievances from women and to lodge a first information report against the rapist who was a relative of her husband. The accused was booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012.

She did not give up her fight for justice. She was offered money from the family members of the rapist. Many elders in the village including the head of the village told her not to go ahead with the case. They forced her to compromise.

The primary health care center where she took her daughter for the medical checkup encouraged her to abort the baby. She did not give in but decided to allow her mentally challenged daughter to give birth to the child. With the legal mechanism she was able to obtain a court order to access the free medical treatment for her daughter and the baby.

There is a state law called Bihar State Victim Compensation Act under which she was able get two and half lakh rupees (3,847.50 US Dollar) from the government of Bihar.

Of course, it was not easy to go through the procedure to access it as there was lot of paper work involved and the signatures of different officers were to be obtained which made it more difficult as corruption exists everywhere.

But she continued her battle to get justice and this was the first time in the history of Buxar District Court a victim was granted such an amount for her maintenance. The rapist is behind the bars now.

Most encouraging for me was that after hearing about the success story of this courageous woman, many women came forward with their problem and got the legal assistance though was not so easy, especially women who suffered domestic violence wanted to address the issue using the legal mechanism.

Domestic violence is another gigantic problem the women have to face every day. Nearly 60 per cent of married women in Bihar are victims of domestic violence, the highest in India, according to a survey by the Union Health and Family Affairs Ministry.

There are instances of violence the women have been unable to obtain legal or community remedies for the violence. Because a culture of silence exists when it comes to especially sexual violence, due to the dominant discourse emphasizing women’s “honor” and the stigma attaching to sex outside of marriage, whether forced or by consent.

Other reasons for not attempting to obtain justice include fear of the perpetrators, arising from the perpetrator’s threats of further violence to the women or their family members should they file police complaints, or to deny them work; fear of dishonor or further shame by publicizing the violence; ignorance that the violence was an illegal act for which there are legal remedies; lack of money to approach the police, or pay the often requisite bribe in order for the police to take action, or to follow a police case through to the courts; lack of family or community support for the justice-seeking attempt.

The police also pressurize the woman victim-survivor to drop the case or to accept a “compromise”; police foist false cases against the victim-survivor or her supporters in order to force them to drop their legitimate case; police file victim-survivor’s complaints but neglect to take action, for example in one of the cases I had, the court ordered for the DNA test of the victim and the accused.

Now, it is the duty of the police to do the needful and send the blood sample to the laboratory. They are supposed to pack it in a wooden box, seal it and send it but the police were taking their own time and in order to speed up the case we had to step in and get the wooden box ready and do the needful So unless we monitor every minute things in the legal procedure the justice will be delayed and the justice delayed is justice denied.

Sometime the police refuse to file First Information Report itself. So, though there are laws to address the violence against women, it is a constant struggle to use these legal mechanisms and get justice. Yet we do not give up. We keep the battle for justice alive and hope for the best.

(The author is an NGO representative at United Nations, New York)

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