Shreya Roychowdhury,Rural sisterhood forms rings of steel for victims of rape, Times of India, 29 Mar 2009
No institution assures them justice, no organization fights for their rights and no counsellor helps them pick up the pieces of their lives. But the initial findings of a nationwide study reveal that rural victims of sexual abuse are beginning to fight back in their own way.
Call it the sisterhood of India Invisible. Mobilizing village communities, picketing police stations and ridiculing attackers are some of the ways rural women are using to take on their assailants, says an 11-state study conducted from October 2007 to December 2008 by a Delhi-based NGO Swanchetan. It used data collected by state police forces and NGOs working with rural victims of sexual violence.
The researchers note that 85% urban women betray sadness, remorse and guilt when describing their experience of sexual violence but most rural women express rage. Unsurprisingly then, village women use inventive modes of protest.
In West Bengal’s Murshidabad, three upper caste men raped 23-year-old Ranu in front of her children. In retaliation, the women of Ranu’s fishing community spread a stale catch outside the house of her alleged attacker. The stench spread as quickly as word of the protest got around. Thereafter, on a daily basis, women and children dumped stale fish outside the house. Soon, men joined the protest. Stale fish was also dumped near the police station because the cops refused to lodge a case.
Ranu said in an interview for the survey that the protest was fun and everyone got involved. They called it the “Go throw a stale fish” campaign. The mound of rotting fish only grew. The police were finally forced to lodge a case. Clinical psychologist Rajat Mitra, who headed the Swanchetan study, recalls Ranu’s staunch belief. She had said that the smell of something revered by her village as the source of money and food would bring justice. Women bonding to fight sexual violence is an emerging phenomenon, say village workers. There is a very real reason, says Motilal Bahetu, a social worker in Jaunpur in eastern UP. “In the last few years, more than 80% of the men from these villagers have moved to towns and cities to work. Women stay back to manage the family. As a result, there is more bonding and sisterhood”.
Some say the change is a reflection of the growing awareness of rural women, especially Dalits. “In Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharshtra, women say that they will not tolerate (injustice). They have their constitutional rights and will protest,” says Ruth Manorama, who campaigns for Dalit women in Bangalore.
Mitra says that women are empowered when they form a collective. Sometimes, there are individual acts of fierce resistance, not least 30-year-old Sushma (name changed) in Sahilganj about 150 km from Jaunpur. When she was attacked by two “upper caste” men last year, the mother of two fought back so hard she injured her assailants to the extent they required surgery, says Mitra.
The police initially refused to register her complaint and did so when Sahilganj’s woman gheraoed the local police station for hours. The women also prepared a skit incorporating the attack and performed it in neighbouring villages. It gave them an opportunity to laugh at the incident as well as focusing attention on it, says Mitra.
It was very different a few years ago. Then, raped women were more cowed and could rely upon being ostracized. But attitudes are changing and there is growing awareness that sexual abuse is often used as a tool in rural India to stamp caste superiority.
With reports from Nandita Sengupta.