We all are living in an age where it is very unsafe for women, including new borns to our grandmothers, to stay alone. We don’t know when the evil hands will capture us. Neither are we safe outside nor are we safe in our own home.
We are reading a number of rape cases through newspapers and also in television channels. We have heard of taking cases on rapists as per India’s Sexual Harassment Law. But have you ever wondered what led to the formation of such a law? Of course a rape case would have led to it’s formation, but we seldom know the woman behind it who fought for justice for more than two decades.
Meet Mrs Bhanwari Devi, who is the iron lady behind the formation of India’s Sexual Harassment Law. Her story will bring tears to your eyes for sure, but will inspire you at the same time…
Bhanwari Devi belongs to a remote village of Rajastan. Just like every other village girl child, she wasn’t educated and was married off when she was just 5 years old !! She was married to an 8 year old boy named Mohan Lal Prajapat.
But unlike other village girls, Bhanwari Devi was brave and wanted to go beyond the limits imposed by the society. From her teenage itself, she used to fight against racism, sexual discrimination and child marriage.
Because of these, people of the village, especially the elders weren’t pleased with Bhanwari Devi. She even has tried to stop the child marriage of a 9-month-old girl, which added to the hatred the people had towards her.
The fateful day….
It was like any other regular day for other but not for Bhanwari Devi and her husband. Bhanwari Devi was working in the fields with her husband around dusk when the couple was attacked. While the husband was beaten up and held down, Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped in front of him by a group of ‘high-class’ men. Her pleas and cries were silenced by barbaric brutality.
Due to Bhanwari devi’s progressive thinking, social activism and the incident where she halted the child marriage of 9-month-old girl, the villagers shut their eyes towards the brutal crime against her.
A battered Bhanwari Devi had to face more. Her case was reluctantly lodged at the local police station and she was asked to deposit her ‘lehenga’ for evidence. She did it unwillingly. Then she walked back to the nearest saathin’s village at 1 AM, covered in her husband’s bloody turban. She had to undergo medical tests to confirm rape, which was delayed.
When questioned the men who raped Bhanwari, they denied their doing and called it just “a quarrel”. When the matter finally went to court, the judgment further demonstrated the injustice women faces in our country. The judge cleared the men of the rape charge.
The reasons he gave for his judgement were:
• The village head cannot rape
• Men of different castes cannot participate in gang rape
• Elder men of 60-70 years cannot rape
• A man cannot rape in front of a relative – this was with reference to two of the accused men, an uncle and nephew
• A member of the higher caste cannot rape a lower caste woman because of reasons of purity
• Bhanwari Devi’s husband couldn’t have just watched his wife being gang-raped
Even though the judgement was a setback to Bhanwari Devi, the controversial verdict grabbed national attention and stirred social outrage. Jaipur witnessed a sea of Women marching for Bhanwari Devi’s justice.
The head of National Commission for Women wrote to the Chief Justice requesting further investigation. She received many ‘compensations’ and ‘official honors’ by the government. Then Prime Minster Narasimha Rao gave her with Rs 25,000. She was presented with the Neerja Bhanot Memorial Award. A residential plot with Rs 40,000 to construct it was also granted.
But these rewards cannot make up for what she had lost. The rapists alleged that the whole story was a cooked-up one.
Only one high court hearing has been held so far. In the meantime, two of the accused have died. She has forgotten some details but flashbacks of the incident remain fresh and painful in her memory.
Bhanwari Devi’s case became the catalyst for the formation of the Vishakha Guidelines by the Supreme Court in 1997.
It later became the crux for passing a law in the parliament protecting women against sexual harassment of any kind at work.
It’s been 22 years now, and Bhanwari Devi and her husband is still fighting a one-man army war for justice. They still have their hopes high. But do we have ?!