Dalit Women Leaders Fight Back to Become Agents of Change


Ever since Dargi Devi was elected as sarpanch (village head) of Bhatund in Pali district, Rajasthan, her deputy, Suresh Kumar, would try to humiliate her at every given opportunity. But Dargi never retaliated even when he abused her publicly at panchayat meetings. Encouraged by her silence, at one such meeting he told the assembled audience that Dargi was mistaken if she thought she could sit alongside them just because she had become a sarpanch. Then, much to her dismay, he pushed her off the stage.

Shocking as this behaviour may seem, the people of Bhatund did not see anything wrong in this. After all, Dargi belonged to a lower caste, while Kumar was from an upper caste. He was, therefore, justified in behaving in the way he did. The sarpanch, meanwhile, was humiliated time and again even though she was well within her rights to be presiding over panchayat meetings.

Unfortunately, Dargi’s is not an isolated case. Although they have long had the right to participate in public life, they have had to face tremendous challenges in doing so. Asserts Asha Kotwal, general secretary of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM), a Delhi-based forum that empowers Dalit women to challenge caste and patriarchal norms, “There are major weaknesses in the implementation of reservations, which reduces the ability of panchayats to ensure equitable development and social justice. But given the right information and training, Dalit women are willing to break the traditional shackles and grasp the reins of power. They have the potential to become agents of change.”

Understanding this need to build capacity, the AIDMAM, had initiated a special programme in 2009 to train Dalit women panchayat representatives in the five states of Bihar, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Odisha. The idea was to make them aware of their rights and responsibilities so that they could ably discharge their duties as elected representatives.

In Dargi Devi’s case, the outcome of this ongoing engagement had a positive effect. It helped boost her confidence and she was finally able to file an FIR (WHEN) against Kumar, under four sections of the Indian Penal Code and two sections of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 relating to intentionally insulting or intimidating a SC/ST in any place within public view, and assault on an SC/ST woman with an intent to dishonour her. Yet, it was not until the local groups and AIDMAM intervened that the police took action against the accused.

This kind of poor response to complaints is normal, as issues raised by Dalit women sarpanchs are generally not taken seriously. According to a 2010 AIDMAM study, only a third of the 200 elected Dalit women sarpanchs surveyed in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat were able to discharge their official responsibilities independently, without any outside pressure or interference. Twenty three per cent were found to have been stopped from active participation in panchayat meetings, 37 per cent reported direct obstruction while discharging their duties, and 90 per cent said they were treated differently by being given separate plates, glasses and cups.

The other issue that AIDMAM has tried to address by empowering women ‘sarpanchs’ is violence against women and their access to justice. A 2004 study conducted by them had revealed that Dalit women in general were faced with verbal abuse, physical assault, sexual harassment and/ sexual assault, (rape or gang rape), mostly perpetrated by members of the upper castes. The other alarming finding was that cases of violence were rarely spoken about in public or registered. Everything was well hidden for fear of a backlash by upper caste families.

The study found that 71 per cent of the 500 Dalit women willing to speak in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Uttar Pradesh were helpless in stopping violence against them and 60 per cent were depressed or felt ashamed despite being the victims of violence. The impact of violence led to some even attempting suicide. In certain cases, the victims were either unable to get married (if they were single) or were ostracised from their families and community, deserted by their husbands or forced to leave home.

AIDMAM has therefore been focused on empowering elected Dalit women to engage and advocate for better policy implementation in order to address this indiscriminate brutality. Change has come slowly. Although many Dalit women still quietly accept violence as their fate, there are also trailblazers like Kiran Devi.

This mukhiya (head of the gram panchayat) from Neema Ajan village of Madanpur block, Aurangabad district, Bihar, belongs to the marginalised Dusabh caste. Despite the numerous hurdles she faced, Kiran managed to study till class 10 and become an anganwadi worker. Her good work endeared her to the community, which encouraged her to contest the panchayat elections in 2006 from a reserved seat.

Troubles began once Kiran was elected. She earned the ire of the dominant Rajputs who were unable to accept her transparent style of working. Whenever a contract was not awarded to a member of their caste, she was threatened with dire consequences like rape and murder if the decision was not reversed. However, Kiran remained unfazed. Then, in 2009, they had her elder son kidnapped. A huge ransom was demanded and rumours were spread that she had misappropriated large sums of public money.

Kiran ran from pillar to post approaching everyone from the block development officer to the district magistrate for help. Her son was eventually released with the help of the local AIDMAM team, the media and the larger community. Despite this personal trauma, Kiran did not bow down to the dictates of the Rajputs. For instance, when she learnt of a couple working as bonded labourers in a Rajput family – they had not been paid for five years – she took stringent action. With the support of AIDMAM, a complaint letter was sent to the labour inspector and eventually the duo was freed.

Today, Kiran is no longer the ‘mukhiya’ – her term ended last year – but as a member of the local Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Vigilance Committee, a mandatory body under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act set up at the district, state and national level to monitor and ensure justice is meted in letter and spirit, she has helped many women gain access to various government schemes. Last year, she created quite a stir when she tried to draw the district magistrate’s attention to the plight of the Dalit women by standing in front of his car. “I have decided that I will do whatever it takes to ensure women get their rights,” says Kiran confidently.

There are 80 million Dalit women in India of which every day three become victims of rape, says the Crime Statistics of India. The conviction rate under SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is about 16 per cent, while the great majority of cases stretch on for years. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report on the Prevention and Atrocities against Scheduled Castes has pointed out that a large number of cases that deserve to be registered under the Protection of Civil Rights Act or the SCs & STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act are not actually registered so, either due to ignorance of the law or under pressure from vested interests.

In this difficult scenario, the positive and empowering role that Dalit women elected representatives can play becomes critical. What they need is better security and capacity building interventions.

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