Violence against women in urban India has become commonplace but, apart from episodic bouts of outrage, it receives little public attention. Imagine then how much less visible the issue is in rural India. To spot a banner, as one did, bearing the words, ‘Hinsa nahi, samaan chahiye/ Jaan ka adhikar chahiye (Not violence but dignity/we want the right to life)’ in a small village would appear implausible. It was situated deep in Madhya Pradesh’s hinterland, just off the banks of the Tawa river, with a largely tribal population in which Gonds dominated.
But it is precisely in such an unlikely setting that the Narmada Mahila Sangh has taken root. At its general body meeting – or ‘mahaadhiveshan’ as it is termed locally – held in the village of Padar, Betul district, in early March, many feminist concerns were raised, including violence against women. The slogan doing the rounds spoke volumes: ‘Har ek aurat ki yehi maang/suraksh, suvidha, aur sammaan (the demand of every woman/security, support and respect)’.
It all began with a sprinkling of self-help groups (SHGs) in 1998 organised by Pradan, a non-profit working with India’s rural poor. In 2002, women in these groups came together as a federation, the Narmada Mahila Sangh (NMS), named after the mighty river flowing in the region. Over the next decade, it expanded in the two districts of Betul and Hoshangabad, spreading over 217 villages. Today, the NMS has five branches, a membership of 9,106 women and a working capital of Rs 2.1 crore.
Nothing reflects how far the NMS has travelled from being an agency involved in borrowing and lending, to one articulating gender concerns, than the fact that it has set up a ‘Suraksha Samiti’ (Security Committee) – a paralegal group responding to violence issues, composed of around 90 representatives, or ‘kanooni sakhis’ (legal volunteers). Kulsoom Rashid, Programme Associate with the Delhi-based women’s resource centre, Jagori, which is partnering Pradan in a special project to empower women, supported by the UN Women’s Fund For Gender Equality, believes things are moving forward. “These women started off as members of SHGs. Today, they are community representatives with a strong sense of justice,” Rashid says.
At Betul, we met Asha Atulkar of Sikhar village, a ‘kanooni sakhi’. She explained the first step ‘kanooni sakhis’ take is to undergo training on women’s rights. This included a training camp conducted by Jagori last year. Each ‘kanooni sakhi’ looks after around 25 villages, or about 700 women. Meetings are regularly held and women are encouraged to speak. “We talk about how we bring up our daughters to bear injustice silently; we tell women what should be done if they become widows; we urge them to register property in the names of both husband and wife,” says Atulkar.
The NMS members are instructed to report incidents of violence. Once a case emerges, the ‘kanooni sakhis’ approach the affected woman. If she wants their help, they are there for her. According to Nita Vike, herself a ‘kanooni sakhi’, it’s always a learning experience. “There was a time I was too ignorant to say anything. Not anymore. Sometimes lawyers from the offending party try to browbeat us. They say, ‘Let the couple reconcile, otherwise the girl’s reputation will be spoilt.’ We tell them the girl has to decide. Earlier, we wouldn’t have known how to respond,” she says.
There are many cases of women eventually compromising, going back to violent husbands or withdrawing FIRs. Recalls Atulkar, “Once a woman who was assaulted during the Ganesh Chaturthi festivities filed an FIR with our help. Later, she dropped all charges. This is a common problem. The fact is that these women come under great pressure, face even death threats, and give up in fear.”
Seeking justice has made leaders out of many ordinary women. Take Gita Chauhan, of Padar village, who got a chance to go to Saharanpur, in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, and study how women’s courts functioned there. Today, she exudes a sense of confidence, “We are 90 ‘kanooni sakhis’ but we want to build a team of at least 200. We have some idea of the domestic violence act and how 498A can be used when a newly married woman is assaulted.”
Chauhan has learnt to take reversals in her stride. She refers to a case where a CRPF jawan tried to immolate his wife. The woman went back to her mother’s home and wanted to pursue the case against her husband but, unfortunately, didn’t know where he was posted. Chauhan now intends to go to Bhopal, MP’s state capital, and try to identify his whereabouts.
Vishal Jamkar, Pradan’s team leader for this region, hopes the Security Committee will give direction to what were earlier chaotic responses to individual cases. “There are many aspects of justice delivery that need reform, including the way FIRs are framed in these villages. Rapes, for instance, are routinely passed off as ‘eve teasing’,” he says.
Jamkar believes the NMS’s ‘kanooni sakhis’ are already challenging entrenched interests, “Take the centuries-old institution of the ‘gram kotwar’ – the third most important functionary in a panchayat, who traditionally addresses law and justice issues. They are invariably upper caste and function in a very feudal manner. So when women set up their own justice delivery institutions across caste lines, the nature of justice gets transformed.”
Alchoholism and violence are concerns even the collector of Betul district, B. Chandrashekhar, acknowledges as being ubiquitous. Remarks Chandrashekhar, “In many ways development work is relatively easy. It is sociological change that’s difficult to achieve because it involves changing mindsets; and if mindsets are to change, women have to be involved.”
But this is easier said than done. Taking on violence in regions like these is fraught with difficulties. Recently, the media reported the case of Imartibai from Betul town, who was shot dead for protesting her daughter’s rape by a local goon. The NMS women realise the dangers and try to involve the larger community in their interventions. The approach seems to work. Recalls Chauhan, “Once when we went to stop liquor sales in a ‘theka’ (pub), we were told we were destroying many livelihoods by our action. We replied, ‘Yes, but remember that you are destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of families, so it’s better you look for other ways to earn’. Slowly our views are being heard.” She wishes though, that ‘kanooni sakhis’ are taken more seriously by the police.
A typical case is that of Batlibai Podar, from the far-flung Sohagpur village lying within the Satpura tiger reserve of Hoshangabad district. Her husband accused her of having another relationship and would beat her when he was drunk. That’s when the ‘kanooni sakhis’ stepped in. Reveals Batlibai, “They talked to people in my village and with them confronted my husband. There is some difference in him now. He still drinks, but within limits.”
Nilanju Dutta, manager of Jagori’s violence intervention unit, who has been involved in providing gender training to NMS women, maintains that although there’s no denying the progress, the women here still see violence in terms of “maar-peet” (hitting-slapping). “Emotional or psychological violence is just not recognised. Also domestic violence is perceived in the context of the marital family – not the natal family,” says Dutta.
She also points out that the norms of feminist counselling are sometimes absent in these interventions, “Principles of confidentiality and choice must always be kept in mind. Survivors must understand the root causes and nature of the violence they face and decide the course of action for themselves.”
Ultimately, victims of violence must become survivors of violence and then catalysts for change. The ripples from Padar village now need to turn into waves.