Whatever progress is made in the livelihoods and economic spheres of life, women in villages will only experience significant empowerment when violence—physical, emotional, psychological and other areas-against them is totally eradicated
V iolence against Women (VAW) is a burning issue currently, and there are many organizations and institutions working to address the matter. There are legal provisions as well to fight VAW, many of which have evolved in recent times after several heinous acts of violence. This article is based on the experience of working with women’s collectives in the Poraiyahat block in Jharkhand. Women in these collectives consider VAW to be an agenda of development and have taken initiatives to address it, challenging the existing discriminatory social norms and the power of patriarchy. The article questions the lack of focus of the state in addressing these issues and points to the importance of addressing gender-based discrimination and the patriarchal mindset, which are structural in nature.
All her sarees, new and old, were burning behind the house and she was crying in a room, surrounded by her fellow SHG members and her children. Her husband was drunk, shouting abusive words at her, and warning her not to leave the house in the future. If she didn’t obey him the next time, “The burning clothes would be replaced by you,” he threatened.
She is a Santhal woman working as a Community Resource Person (CRP), imparting training to women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in the villages of Poraiyahat block. Her husband is a para- teacher in the primary school. She was regularly abused—physically, sexually and psychologically-by her husband, who cited many reasons for doing so. The reason he burned her clothes this time was that she had come home late from work that day. When I talked with her about why she suffered the violence and why she didn’t speak up for herself, she said it was because she was worried for her three children and their future.
She is not the only woman to suffer in Poraiyahat. I visit many villages of Poraiyahat several times a week for my work and I hear at least one such story on every visit. Some women face violence is because they didn’t cook tasty food, and one because they didn’t complete household chores, and one because they answered back to the people shouting at her, some because she asked her partner to go to work to earn enough to return the credit taken from the SHG.
Most of this violence is described as domestic violence. When a woman is beaten and abused openly outside her house and on the roads, and the perpetrator is someone from her family, what kind of violence should we call it?
The women of Poraiyahat are now defining this in their own words and are articulating how the violence against them is obstructing their empowerment.
“Kisiko lathi se pitna aur kutna hi sirf hinsa nahin hai; kisi mahila ko koi sarkari karmchari dwara uske haq adhikar ke baare me jaankari na dena bhi hinsa hai (Violence is not only physical torture like beating or hitting; it is also the refusal by a government official to provide someone the information about her rights and entitlements),” says Ramdulari Devi, President of the women’s block-level Federation in Poraiyahat.
L ike Ramdulari, there are many other women belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) of Poraiyahat block, who today are together putting VAW on the agenda of development.
Poraiyahat block is in the Santhal Pargana region of Jharkhand, approximately 312 km away from the state capital, Ranchi. The population of the block is 32 percent Santhal, 62 per cent OBC and 6 percent SC. For the last three years, I have been working in this block, with these women on various aspects such as community institution building, improving livelihood opportunities for better cash income, leading to the economic empowerment of women, creating awareness around gender-patriarchy and violence, governance, etc.
Development is generally understood as change from low GDP to high GDP, from unemployment to having more employment opportunities, from low literacy rate to high, and from poverty to higher incomes. Yet, the experience of the Jharkhand women suggests that development must mean more than that. Specifically, VAW is the root cause of women and girls being left behind in all aspects of development. For instance, how can a woman’s access to her rights and entitlements be ensured if she faces violence in the form of being ignored, spoken to rudely or asked to leave when she goes to meet a government servant to seek information?
How can a woman’s participation in the public space be ensured if she faces verbal violence and name-calling when she raises her voice against injustice in the gram sabha or the jati panchayat (traditional village meetings for conflict resolution)? When other women witness this, how will they come forward to raise their voices against injustice?
How can a woman’s political participation be ensured if she faces violence in the form of planned accidents, mental abuse, insults and even threats to her life when she wants to contest panchayat elections and become elected the Mukhiya (Village Head)? If such things continue, will any women’s collective support a woman to contest panchayat elections?
How can a woman’s education be ensured if she faces violence in the form of eve-teasing and sexual violence when she goes to a school in/or away from her village?
How can a woman’s equal human rights be ensured if she faces verbal abuse and even physical violence when she does not perform her household chores well in her house before marriage and in her in-law’s house after marriage? And when, if she raises her voice, especially in her in-law’s house, she is told by them or by her husband to leave the house?
How can a woman’s right to life be ensured if she is killed while still in the womb; if she commits suicide after being tortured physically and mentally by her family; if she is burned to death or brutally beaten up either for not bringing enough dowry or for not giving birth to a boy or for any other reason?
How can a woman’s good health be ensured if she faces violence in the form of no rest and no proper food after giving birth to a girl child? How can the good health of a lactating mother and the new-born baby be ensured?
How can a woman’s equal right to parental property be ensured if she faces threats to her life from her relatives when she asks for her parental property?
T he mainstream development discourse, no doubt, talks about eliminating gender-based discrimination. The third item of the Millennium Development Goals—MDGs— (2000 to 2015) was to promote gender equality and empower women. A 2015 report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on MDGs noted that much progress had been made in women’s and girl’s equality in education, employment and political participation.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which succeeded the MDGs, also list gender equality as a goal. These explain that ensuring that women and girls live in a discrimination-free environment is not only a basic human right but also crucial to accelerating sustainable development.
Empowering women and girls has a multiplier effect and helps drive up economic growth and development across the board.
One of the targets for the goal of gender equality is to eliminate all forms of VAW in public as well as private spheres, including trafficking, sexual and other types of exploitation.
NITI Aayog, in its first Voluntary National Review report on the progress of the SDGs, in 2017, noted the initiatives taken for achieving the goal of gender equality. These include: the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana for girls studying in the IX and X Standards, to reduce the number of girls dropping out from school; the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign for rectifying the declining child sex ratio in 100 gender critical districts across the country; the Pradhan Mantri Ujwala Yojna for providing clean cooking fuel in the form of liquefied petroleum gas connections; the ‘Selfie with Daughter’ campaign initiated in a small village in Haryana and later promoted by the Prime Minister as an innovative approach to changing attitudes to women; and the Maternity Benefit Bill providing 26 weeks of paid leave for working women, who are pregnant; initiatives for improving Female Labour Force Participation such as Mahila E-HAAT; Stand Up India launched in 2016 for providing bank loans to woman borrowers for setting up a greenfield enterprise; Mahila Shakti Kendra to support the establishment of Women Empowerment Centres at the village level; Women Transforming India, an online contest launched by NITI Aayog, with awards for the best story of a woman making a difference in her field.
Some of these schemes have been implemented in Poraiyahat block as well. However, are these schemes really making any difference in the instances of VAW? One woman shared that she was very happy to receive a cooking gas cylinder under the government scheme; her husband, however, refused to assist her in bringing that cylinder home because it was issued in her name and not in his. Yes, many girls are riding bicycles to go to school. Is it, however, creating opportunities for girls to continue their studies after the X Standard also? Is it bringing a change in the mindset of the people to prioritize a girl’s education over her marriage?
Recently, two daughters from one family were married on the same day in a village in Poraiyahat block. One of the girls was below 18 years of age. When the women from the SHGs asked the father about the daughter being under the legal age for marriage, he said it was because the groom was demanding very little dowry at that time, and he did not want to miss the opportunity in case the amount demanded was increased later.
“Sabse pehle to hamaare saath ho rahe mahila hinsa ko khatam karna hoga, mahila ke sath hinsa khatam hoga tabhi baki bikaas ho payega (We have to fight VAW first, and only then will any other work of development be possible),” says Moibiti Murmu, one of the women participants, at the end of a workshop on ‘Building understanding around gender, patriarchy and its manifestation’.
A lthough women have become part of many forums such as the jati panchayat (where family disputes are resolved) and the gram sabha (where village development-related decisions are taken), or have become the Mukhiya with the help of the 73rd Amendment (which created reservation for women in the local government institutions), they are still not active participants in decision-making processes. For instance, a woman candidate contesting for the position of a Mukhiya is identified by either her husband’s or her father-in-law’s name. When she becomes the Mukhiya, she is invited only to sign documents.
Such practices in no manner lead to gender equality and the elimination of all forms of VAW, as aspired to in the fifth SDG. What is needed is to understand the root cause of VAW and the challenges that lead to the root cause.
To understand the root cause, the women of the Poraiyahat block-level Federation have been attending various trainings and workshops on gender-based discriminations and patriarchal manifestations, organized by Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) with the help of Jagori, a Delhi-based organization engaged in gender equality programmes for many years.
In these workshops, the women discuss the sex-gender distinction; how socially constructed norms have created discrimination, based upon the biological sex of a human being; how it is inculcated in men and women from birth through the socialization process in their family; the distribution of work among men and women and its recognition by the self, the family and society, with less recognition for the reproductive work done by women and more recognition of the productive work done by men; access to and control over resources of women; the barriers surrounding women’s freedom of mobility, education, expression, etc.; understanding VAW, its forms, reasons, oppressors, time, place and age of women who face violence. The women have also received training on legal provisions for women facing violence with the help of MARG (Multiple Action Research Group), a Delhi-based organization.
After going through all these workshops and trainings, the women in Poraiyahat have started raising their voice in cases where the decisions were gender-biased.
When fighting for women facing violence, they realize that they need to do other work as well. So, for supporting women in distress, they have formed a separate forum called the ‘Ekta Mahila Adhikar Manch’, which exclusively provides moral and informational support to those women and also builds linkages with the police and the judiciary, that is, DLSA (District Legal Service Authority) and the women’s court. They have been running this forum voluntarily, meeting every month for the last six months. They have already built links with DLSA and are seeking legal support in dealing with the cases coming to them.
Although they were dealing with VAW cases for many years, the Ekta Manch was unable to continue its support to women in distress because of the difficulties in time allotment, lack of support system, etc. Now they have come up with a system of meeting every month in one fixed place, keeping the cases in written format, providing notices to the people needed for discussing each case, visiting the village, if required, to address the case, visiting DLSA for legal assistance, etc.
The steps taken by the women of Poraiyahat may be small, given the growing cases of VAW, the patriarchal social structures and the mindset underlying them; they are important, however, in clarifying women’s understanding that development is not possible without addressing VAW. This understanding and these actions need to be taken up and amplified on a large scale by our development organizations and, most importantly, by the state, if we wish to achieve development for all.