The Unstoppable Mahila Brigade Rescue Women in Distress in India

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By Saadia Azim,Womens Feature Service

For more than seven years of her married life, Manju Devi, 26, of village Takiyapar in Danapur, Bihar, faced domestic abuse at the hands of her husband and mother-in-law until one day a group of women came to her rescue.

Nitu Singh, 30, of Patna City, was deserted by her husband for not being able to fulfill his family’s dowry demands. Nitu had no idea how she was going to take care of her five-year-old daughter and herself until she met these women.

Who are these women that come to the aid of those who are unable to stand up for themselves? They are the “Mahila Brigade.” It is not a registered organization but has able to mobilize tens of thousands of women across Bihar.

“The idea is to reach out to all women in the state and empower them to fight for their rights,” says Dilip Sinha, who along with his wife, Anita, has set up the organization.

For scores of women in Bihar, who silently bear astrocities like domestic violence and sexual harassment every day of their lives, the Mahila Brigade is a boon. But there is a catch here. The group believes in fighting for their rights. In fact, the group has become infamous for its radical approach to activism.

Just last month Anita was released on bail for breaking the code of conduct during the Bihar elections. Some 500 women under her leadership had barged into the local Patna City Chowk police station to hand over a memorandum against then sitting Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA).

The police’s indifferent attitude irritated them to such an extent that a few days later they surrounded the police station and stopped policemen from entering the ‘thana’ (police station).

In return the police resorted to a lathi (stave) charge and arrested many of them.

In a state that has for years faced lawlessness and caste wars, and where common people have often resorted to taking up arms in order to safeguard their rights, such a daredevil ideology emanating from women cause clamor in many quarters. But ask the likes of Manju and Nitu , they will say that this approach has given them “a life of dignity and self respect”.

Recalls Manju, “My husband and mother-in-law tried to burn me for dowry. It is in one of these attempts that my face got burned. But the Mahila Brigade came to my rescue.”

The group ransacked her husband’s home in August this year. Manju’s husband and his mother ran away and have not returned since. Now Manju lives in her husband’s house fearlessly and sustains herself by renting out a portion of the home. She has become an active member of the brigade.

They may be fighting for the cause of women but is taking the law into their hands a justifiable means?

Says Sushma Sinha, the state president of the outfit, “If we take the law in our hands to enforce the law of the land how does it matter? After all it is for the good of society.”

Though the Mahila Brigade has been around for the last 10 years, members are joining the brigade. The brigade help to deter dreaded criminals, perpetrators of crimes against women and even the police. Women from all walks of life,housewives, professionals and even youngsters have signed up. There are 10,000 active workers, with over a lakh of supporters.

This aggressive attitude has gradually become more pronounced over the last few years. The Mahila Brigade had initially come into existence with the idea of increasing the participation of the women in Bihar’s politics.

But mobilizing women and creating awareness has not been easy. Mahila Brigade members began by conducting seminars and workshops to educate women. Now their intervention is more direct.

The Mahila Brigade has also been openly supporting the Nitish Kumar government, that has been elected to power for a second term. But there is also a serious political agenda on which there can be no compromise.

Says Kahkashan Parween, the chairperson of the former State Women Commission, “Though we all work for the same cause that is protecting rights of the women – their way of functioning is different. The Mahila Brigade indeed has brought many cases to light in the Commission also. They have fought for the infringed rights of the women in our society.”